The Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival, an annual event held in Thailand, involves the traditional parade of colourful floats, each representing a local temple and carrying giant candle sculptures of various shapes, throughout the city, accompanied by traditional dance and musical performances by various local community groups.
It celebrates two important Buddhist events and is held on Wan Asanha Bucha, a Buddhist holiday commemorating the day on which Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon at Benares in India and on Wan Kao Pansa, the next day, which marks the start of the three-month ‘Phansa’ rains retreat period, known as the Buddhist Lent.
The word Khao phansa literally means rain retreat. Often called as the Buddhist Lent, it refers to a period of three months in the rainy season, the period of abstinence for Thai Buddhists with no alcohol and no eating to excess. During that period the Buddhist monks were prohibited to travel away from their temple and use candlelight to study and carry on their daily routines during the days of the gloomy rainy season, covered under dark clouds.
Lord Buddha ordained that monks should stop their pilgrimages for a period of three months during that particular season, as the period is related to the rice-planting season and the travelling monks may inadvertently step on the rice sprouts, resulting in the loss of crops.
Initially, it was a tradition for Thai Buddhists to donate items for the personal use of the monks in preparation of the rainy season and candles were considered as one of the most important and necessary items for donation, as they were the only means to dispel the gloom and darkness in the temples and their quarters. The tradition of donating candles stems from a time long before electricity had been invented. However, with the advent of electricity, candles gradually lost its magnitude as a necessary item and became decorative offerings. Soon it gave birth to friendly competition among different local communities in some provinces of Thailand, aiming to outclass and outshine each other by creating bigger and more elaborate candle sculptures to mark the arrival of Khao Phansa and with the passing of time. With time, it transformed into the grand Candle and Wax Festival in Ubon Ratchathani.
Although street parades are held in various areas of Thailand, it is in Ubon Ratchathani where the biggest and best known Candle Festival is held. The main event of the annual Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival is an elaborate parading of the intricately carved wax sculptures, usually depicting mythological characters from the Thai and Hindu folklore, throughout the city. The sculptures are all showcased in an exhibition cum competition, with prizes for the most beautiful wax carvings and best-decorated floats.
During the late afternoon on Asahna Bucha Day, the floats are pulled to the perimeter roads outside Thung Si Mueang, a park in the central area of the city, where they are exhibited. As the giant wax candles, reaching 15-feet high and spanning 60 feet, sat on truck beds lining the sides of the roads leading to the park, the entire area in and around the park, is transformed into a big street fair with an open-air market, musical performances, along with food stalls.
Next day, on the morning of Wan Khao Phansa, a huge street parade commences from outside Wat Sri Ubon Rattanaram with more than 50 decorated floats, accompanied by musical performances and displays of traditional dancing with various local community groups from all over Ubon Ratchathani province taking part. The colourful procession continues north along Upparat Road and up past the junction with Suriyat Road.
However, all the magnificent wax sculptures are eventually melted down after the festive days, as the Buddhists believe that nothing in life is permanent. Nevertheless, every year, the splendid parade is witnessed by thousands of spectators. The Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival, which was once only a local event and was confined to the locals, has now become an extremely popular event for the tourists from all over Thailand.