Ubon Ratchathani is a sleepy provincial capital perched along the banks of the beautiful Mun River that is famed for its forest temples, spicy Isaan larb phet duck salad, and its Wat Nong Bua chedi, modeled on the famed stupa in Bodh Gaya, India. While the town is worth a visit at any time of year, July is the prime time to come calling, as Ubon literally lights up by hosting one of Thailand’s biggest festivals, the Giant Candle Festival, which celebrates Khao Pansaa, or the Buddhist Rains Retreat holiday period.
The Candle Festival celebration has been around since the start of the century, and its origin lies in the monks retreating to their temples for a meditative period during the rainy season. The local Buddhists in the surrounding community would donate items that the monks could put to use during this time, perhaps the most useful being candles which the monks needed for burning in the temples during meditation in this dark and dreary period. This practice evolved into small processions with lighted candles celebrating the Buddhist Lent and, eventually turned into today’s mammoth event.
Each temple in Ubon Ratchathani is represented during the festival by several giant wax candles that are carved and sculpted into figures from Buddhism, the Ramayana legend, or Hindu mythology. The candles are beautiful, labor-intensive works of art, and helping to create them is seen as an opportunity to acquire merit for the sculptors, for whom Lenten candles are a way of furthering Buddhist tradition. In recent years, due to the popularity of the festival, artists from around the world have come to contribute their talents by working on wax candles for the event. The candle-making process is incredibly elaborate and painstakingly slow, with floats taking over six months to make, and everything being done by hand.
The evening before the festival, the giant candles are brought out on floats from their respective temples and drawn through the streets of town to the main square of Thung Si Meuang, in downtown Ubon, where a giant votive candle stands in homage to the city’s main claim to fame. The decorated floats are brought out for the first time and set up for everyone to admire and photograph. Marchers with lit candles accompany the floats, looking to gain merit and good fortune by participating in the event. Meanwhile, a giant outdoor market and amusement park are set up in the City Park, complete with food vendors, rides, and entertainment, while a massive numbers of visitors from the rest of the country pour in, readying for the big parade to come.
The next morning the festival gets underway with traditional dancers, mor lam musicians from Isaan, tattoo artists, and marching bands, all leading the way through the center of town. The huge candle floats soon follow, now decked out with beauty queens riding on them, surrounded by Girl Scouts, school groups, and just about every other local organization, all taking civic pride and looking for luck in the coming year.
Despite this being a solemn religious festival, an abundance of imbibing of spirits takes place, with plenty of beer and rice wine being drunk from early in the morning; just like any other Thai festival, the main focus here seems to be on having fun, letting one’s hair down, and just having a highly sanuk (fun) good time. The mor lam folk music musicians from Isaan are renowned for their rural love songs punctuated by bawdy humor as well as their musical talents, and the floats that they are playing on are thronged by masses of festival-goers who dance in abandon as they follow alongside them.
The one drawback of the Candle Festival is that it is one of the biggest events of the year in Thailand, and all accommodations in Ubon tend to get booked well in advance. The city’s tourism office is fantastic at helping out stranded travellers and will go out of its way to find rooms, but it is better to be safe and arrive early, or else make bookings beforehand.
This year’s Candle Festival in Ubon Ratchathani will take place July 22–23.
Go: Ubon Ratchathani is accessible from Bangkok by train (11 hours), bus (9 hours), and plane (Thai Airways and Air Asia).
Stay:For comfortable boutique lodgings near the center of town, stay at the relaxing Tohsang City, located in a quiet residential area. Rooms start at THB 2,200. Alternatively, head out to the Tohsang’s luxury properties, an hour out of town in Khongjiam, along the Mekong River, where private villas with plunge pools and grand views of Laos and the mighty river await. You can check hotels like Tohsang Hotel (251 Palachai Road, Ubon Ratchathani; 045 245 531–9) and Tohsang Sedhapura (68 Mu 7, Ban Huay Mak Tay, Khongjiam; 045 351 174–6; www.tohsang.com).