In remote Ubon, Thailand’s eastern most province, tourists are usually rarer than a vote for the Democrat Party and the laid back locals seems to like it this way. The wilderness province even boasts Thailand’s most spectacular natural site yet is happy not to tell anyone about it. However once a year this changes as the rains comes down.
Ubon’s main claim to fame is its traditional Candle Festival. Called Ubon Ratchatani Candle Festival the Tourist Authority of Thailand seems to be trying to rename it the Thai Candle Festival, as at first other cities in Isaan, Korat, Roi Et so on started to have one, and now they can be found from Supanburi to Chiang Mai. A Thai language forum has a post entitled, The Origin of the Thai Candle Festival, to which commenter’s quickly identify as “tourist money”.
Ubon’s tradition then may have been raped and pillaged for filthy luger, but at the moment the Ubon festival still is by far an utterly unmatched month long spectacle compared to the paltry one day phoney traditions in other cities.
The origin of the festival comes from the Buddhist Retreat, held for 90 days during the Wet Season. Traditionally rice planting was done in the wet season and the flooded paddy fields seeded. The crops were highly vulnerable and villagers asked Buddhist monks not to leave their temples each morning collecting alms, walking through the fields destroying the young crops. The monks duly agreed to stay in their temples for the period studying and meditating and in appreciation of this local farmers presented the monks with a sufficient supply of candles to light their monasteries for the 3 months.
Last year I covered the festival in Roi Et and it left me wondering how the amazing candles were made, so this year I ventured to Ubon, not just to see the festival but investigated the whole manufacture process.
The candles are made at workshops in several temples, which have been selected to be candle manifacturing centres, these are located all over Ubon province. There are two methods of making candles, by imprinting or by carving, each temple specialises in one method or the other. I visited one temple workshop specialising in each
Carving a candle
Candles usually represent a scene from Buddhist mythology, often with fanciful monsters and demons, and usually telling a story. The theme of a candle for the year is agreed upon by the village/temple/association ect and an initial plan drawn up. The manufacture process usually begins about a month before the main parade.
Initially the plan of the candle is sawn into shape out of plywood, onto this coconut husks are used to fill out the 2 dimensional shapes to 3 dimensions and this is covered in plaster of paris forming the rough shape. The secret ingredient is then added, a thin coating of a zinc based mixture, to make the wax grip the plaster of paris. Next the wax is added, it is formed into plates up to 6cm thick plates of varying size, the still warm and pliable wax plates are folded and shaped around the plaster. It is then ready for carving.
The carving is is done by a mixture of artisans and apprentices, it takes a decade or more to become a master candle carver. In lei of this some temples field two candles not one at the festival, the second smaller candle being an apprentice’s candle.
The Imprint Method.
One of the drawbacks of carving a candle is it’s an expert job, some villages, or organisations such as universities that participate either lack the money or expertise to commission a carved candle or wish people to participate in the manufacture itself, so it feels a local group effort.
The imprint method mirrors the carving method up to the point where the wax is added to the candle then it becomes a very different method. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of thin paper like pieces of about 5mm thick wax are made and each is imprinted with a patterned shape with a hot stamp. The pattern is carefully cut out and using drops of wax it is stuck to the zinc surface. These thin patterned leaves are built up in layers of scales to create the shape. This job requires dozens of people to work for weeks, making the wax sheeting, imprinting, cutting out and sticking the individual leaves
The finished candles methods then compete in separate categories in the festival. Competition is hot between the rival makers to outdo each other each year and novelties are common, such as fielding a uniquely coloured candles or spectacular monsters. The candles are paraded in Ubon several times over the 2 parade days, both day and light show night parades, and then left in the streets around Tong See Muang Park for week for public viewing. For the last few years the National Wax Sculpture Exibition has been held there too by top modern scultures from around the world, so the best of the ancient art and the modern art it spawned can be viewed side by side.