By Dave Stamboulis
The lotus flower is found extensively throughout Thailand: in ponds, canals, on lakes, and especially in and around temples, as the flower is related to heavenly beings in Thai literature and accorded a special place in religion, thus making the lotus perhaps the most important flower in Thai life and worship. With this in mind, at the end of the rainy season the lotus is honored at the wild “Rab Bua” or Lotus Receiving Festival, which is celebrated in Bang Phli township in Samut Prakan, adjacent to Bangkok.
While the English translation calls it the “Lotus Receiving Festival,” it is probably better known by its Thai name “yon bua,” which means the “Lotus Throwing Festival,” a far better moniker for this typically zany Thai celebration. Every year during the full-moon night of Awk Pansaa or the End of the Buddhist Rains Retreat (or Buddhist Lent) religious holiday (in which the monks return to the outer world from their temple retreats), thousands of revelers line the banks of the Samrong Canal to throw lotus flowers at a boat which carries a figure of the famous Buddha image Luang Poh To.
Lotus flowers grow in abundance in Bang Phli, whose local market is renowned for its buds, and people come to the temple here throughout the year to buy lotuses and offer them to monks in order to make spiritual merit. During the festival, the image of Luang Poh To is carried on a boat, which leaves the Wat Bang Phli Yai and travels down the canal through Bang Phli town, bombarded all the way by thousands of people throwing flowers. Eventually, the boat returns to the temple, smothered in flowers and laden down with thousands and thousands of lotus buds.
Rab Bua begins early, with pilgrims lining the canal banks as early as 4 or 5 a.m. Usually, by 6 a.m. it is close to impossible to move as there are so many people all jostling for the best position. In addition to the main boat carrying the Luang Poh To image, there are also many other boats packing the canal. Some carry colorful floats, others are traditional longtail boats being rowed by oarsmen and women in traditional Thai costumes. There are boats with beauty queens, the ubiquitous token ladyboy boat, and many boats carrying the press and VIP guests, as the festival has become very popular being situated so close to Bangkok
While local people throw the flowers to pay homage to the Buddha, the locals also throw flowers at the visitors as a way of welcoming them to join in this local merit making event. While on its face the festival seems like a religious rite, at its heart it is a true sanuk fun loving Thai festival, with the masses all laughing and joking as they heave the bundles of flowers. At one point during the mass throwing, I got the sense that this was more of a flower equivalent of Songkran, with the purpose being to hit as many targets with as many flowers as possible.
In the main section of the canal, just past the temple where the boats set sail, people were lined up five to six rows deep, all armed with dozens of flowers and trying to outdo one another for distance and direct hits. The Luang Poh To image was already buried in lotuses and the flower management committee on the main boat couldn’t do much more than smile and get pelted along with the Buddha figure himself. Despite the 6 a.m. start, there were also a good number of people already inebriated, and more than one poor lad actually fell into the canal while trying to bombard a media boat with his buds!
According to legend, there were once three brothers carrying Buddha images who floated down the Bangpakong River. One of them eventually reached the Chao Phraya and drifted toward the Bang Phli Temple. The locals offered him a sacred string and invited him to stay with them, and thus the history of Rab Bua was born. Perhaps if the Buddha image knew just was in store in the future years, he might have kept on drifting! It’s all in good fun though, and truly worth attending to see a combination of Thai tradition, respect, ritual, and sheer fun at its best.
This year, the “Rab Bua Lotus Throwing Festival” will take place on Oct. 19.
To get there, take the Bang-Na Trat Road east of Bangkok, past the Highway 9 intersection for Pathum Thani. Shortly after this, you enter Thepparak, and then comes the turnoff for Bang Phli. Head for the Wat Bang Phli Yai and city hall for parking.