September 26, 2014
Land Of Smiles
The eleventh Lunar month (October 2014) is possibly Thailand’s most festive of time and through-out the Kingdom it is a time of celebration, joy and for giving thanks, The main celebrations are due to the end of Buddhist Lent, ‘Ok Phansa’ In this year the month co-insides with the end of the rainy season and it is therefore the month when farmers reap their biggest food harvests. In this and future posts I will provide details of some of the celebrations and festivals occurring across the country in what can be termed as Thailand’s Festive Month.
North East Thailand (Isan)
Wax Castle Procession and Long Boat Race Festival
Sakon Nakhon has five ancient Buddhist Stupas, these are a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of Buddhist monks, they are used by Buddhists as a place of meditation. The Cities history can be dated back three thousand years and was originally a major city in the Khmer Empire of Khotraboon. It is a 100 baht bus ride (153 km) from our hostel in Udon Thani and is situated in the northeast corner of Isan. The local population is a diverse mix of Thais, Thai- Lao, Thai-Vietnamese, and Thai-Chinese. The main languages spoken are Thai, Isaan, and Vietnamese, Isaan being the most popular. The primary culture is Lao, as Isaan was part of Laos until the late 19th century.
There are many varied activities during the 6 day celebration,include merit-making and charitable activities in temples, a mini marathon, a vast variety of stalls selling north-eastern cuisine and OTOP products, displays of old-style Muay Thai boxing, traditional dances some of which are simply set to the music of gongs. There are many musical performances and many other fun-filled, displays and contests featuring the ethnic culture of the region.
The biggest two events in this mass of activities are the:
Wax Castle Procession
Local Thai sculptors mould and carve beeswax into miniature Buddhist temples and shrines (wax castles) in order to gain merit, which is believed will determine their future rebirth. Isan people also believe that the wax will welcome Lord Buddha who comes back from the heaven to help all creatures on earth.
Originally, beeswax was given to the monks so as they could make their own candles and light the temples from this gift the monks moulded and carved the wax into different kinds of flowers and attached them to banana tree trunks and offered the carvings to the temples. Gradually over time the offerings became more sophisticated and moulded sculptures were developed into many different shapes, such as castles, temples and shrines. These magnificent and at times massive wax sculptures are paraded around the city to illustrate the skill of their creators. If you visit the temples at this time you may be lucky to see the sculptors actually work on these intricate and beautiful works of art.
Long Boat Races
While the Wax Castle procession is a more refined spectacle the same cannot be said about the Long Boat Races, where the skill goes hand in hand with brute muscle power. These races take place all over Thailand and through-out the year, as they have done for some 600 years. The event here is a melting pot of deafening noise and glorious colours, it is held at the Nong Han Reservoir with the winning team receiving the Royal Cup (Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Cup).
The Long Boats are not too dissimilar to the Dragon Boats of Hong Kong and China and they can carry 30-50 rowers at any one time and their speed over the water is something to be held. While roaring on your favoured team you can almost feel the effort the rowers put into every stroke to move these sleek long projectiles through the water and if you get to see their faces when they eventually stop, and before they slump over in the boats, you can see just how much the physical effort takes its toll on each and every rower.
If you close your eyes you can just imagine yourself sitting watching the same race taking place long before Christopher Columbus discovered America, Australia were colonised or the Inca Empire was founded
Fire Boat Procession & Long Boat Races
Where & When: Nakhon Phanom. From 1st to 8th October 2014
Nakhon Phanom is approx. 92 km (1 hour 15 mins) on route 22 from Sakon Nakhon. Its population is a diverse mix of Thais, Thai-Vietnamese, and Thai-Chinese. Like its neighbour Sakon Nakhon the main language spoken is Isaan and the primary culture is Lao. Ho Chi Minh the former Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) resided in a small village near the town centre during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. A new museum has been constructed next to his home which is also preserved and is open to the public. The city is famous for its centuries-old temples and beautiful landscape. The city has a reserved and traditional Isaan culture and you will always find a warm Isaan welcome when you arrive.
From here it is easy to travel into Laos and then to Vietnam with a total journey time of approx. 5 hours.
During the 8 days of the festivities there are the same varied assortment of activities as detailed previously regarding Sakon Nakhon including; Isaan food and goods to savour, Isaan culture displayed in both the music and dance presentations etc.
Fire Boat procession
The Fire Boat procession (Lai Ruea Fai), is on only one evening that of the 8th October 2014. This same procession has been practised for centuries. Legend tells that the Lord Buddha spent the entire period of Buddhist Lent in Heaven and only returned to Earth at the end of this period.
To pay respect and welcome the Lord Buddha, around fifty Ruea Fai or fire boats of up to 10m in length, are launched into the Mekong River. Each is decorated with flowers, incense sticks, candles and lanterns, (the latter are arranged on a bamboo structure fixed to the boats) to form illuminated images of temples, the king and dragons. Originally, these boats were made of bamboo or from banana tree trunks and were far less decorated, through the generations they have become more impressive and the decorations and lighting on each of the Fire Boats is now far more spectacular
Long Boat Races
During the day there are Long Boat Races and as described earlier in this article the scene is one of startling colour and noise. The difference here is that the racing takes on an international flavour as a number of the races will pit Thai and Lao teams against each other. Be prepared to lose both your hearing and potentially your voice cheering on your favourite team.
All in all picking the right days to attend these festivals means you could leave both Sakon Nakhon & Nakhon Phanom with so many great memories, so many fantastic pictures and possibly a sore throat.