Category Archives: Ubon Ratchathani

Sam Pan Bok

Billed as Thailand’s Grand Canyon by those honest people at the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT), if you go with this in mind you most likely will be disappointed, however you just want to go to a dried river bed to visit an unusual rock set in some spectacular scenery this could be a highlight of your visit.

Literally meaning 3000 holes, Sam Pan Bok is a lunar landscape covered by the a river for three quarters of the year, but in the sweltering heat of the hot season the H20 will retreat to cooler climbs leaving the river bed exposed. When exactly that is the local TAT office in Ubon gets regular water level reports and are happy to inform.

I’d been meaning to visit this place for a long time and after a few cancellations due to this year’s flooding keeping the water levels unusually high found time to go in February. I arrived at the place around one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and felt I was not exactly in a tourist Mecca, stalls selling cold drinks, Mama and Som Tum fought for custom with ones selling Sam Pan Bok T-shirts and sun hats. Apart from traders there were less than 40 tourists there, all Thai and mostly locals, though most likely it would get busier later, Thais won’t usually venture out to places like this till after 4pm for fear of darkening their skin. I guess if I’d come midweek I’d have had the place to myself.

The entrance gives a stunning panorama of the riverbed and the sign written in Thai only tells of the height the water reached during the recent flooding, an absolutely jaw dropping difference in water level. The rock itself, Sam Pan Bok, lays a few hundred metres walk along the riverbed to the right and lives up to its reputation as it gives you the feel you’re walking on an alien planet. The thousands of holes range from centimetres to metres in size, many filled with water and even having fish. The largest hole is a popular smimming spot if you carry a costume with you. There are also several boats tied up along what remains of the river who will do everything from ferrying you to the other bank to giving you a guided river trip.

Sam Pan Bok is located in the far east of Thailand in a small tributary to the Mekong River on the Lao border. Getting there is easy with your own transport, but a little more difficult without.

By Car or Bike from Ubon: Sam Pan Bok is 130km from Muang Ubon and a relatively easy ride along major highways. From the Ubon ring road follow route 2050 almost to Kemmerat then hang a right down route 2337 to the village of Song Kon and finally turn right at the T junction along route 2112 to Sam Pan Bok.

By Bus from Ubon: I went to the TAT in Ubon before I left to ask about buses and was told to get a bus from Ubon bus station to Song Khon village and walk the last 2km. Fortunately I decided to drive and when I got there discovered it was 7km from Song Khon not 2km. I went back to the TAT after I returned to double check the information I was given first time and was told there was no bus to Song Khon from Ubon only to Pho Sai about 30km away, but there was a bus to San Pan Bok from Kemmerat, which would mean to get there you need to take a bus from Ubon bus station to Kemmerat then change at Kemmerat to San Pan Bok. Check if the bus goes to San Pan Bok itself or drops you off outside the entrance on the highway, it’s a 4km walk from the entrance to the attraction.

Overnight: There are several paces between Ubon and Sam Pan Bok but all too small to likely have accommodation, so Kemmerat around 50-60k away is the only real option.

Making an Ubon Ratchatani Candle

Imprinted Candles at Candle Parade

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

Candle being Carved

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.

Carved candles at the festival

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.

Imprint candle being made
top left: sheets of wax added to candle, top right: wax stuck to zinc exterior, mid left: imprinted wax cut out, mid right: plywood, coconut shell and plaster stages, bottom left: imprinted leaves ready to attach, bottom right: anyone can help

Candle Procession Festival in Ubon Ratchathani

One of the biggest and most beautiful festivals in Thailand is the Candle Procession which marks the start of the Buddhist Lent. In Thai this is called Khao Phansa which is the day after the full moon in July.  Traditionally during this period, Thai Buddhists take part in parades to their local temples where they offer basic essentials and candles to the monks. This year, I attended the Candle Procession in Ubon Ratchathani, which is in the Northeast of Thailand.

For the three months of the Buddhist Lent the monks are not allowed to leave their temples and must spend their time studying the scriptures. This is also the height of the rainy season and so in the past it wasn’t easy for them to travel around anyway. The idea for the large candle is to give light to the monks during this period. Some Thai people believe that by donating candles, they will have wisdom, be resourceful and be bright like the candle.

In the beginning, they probably gave the monks plain candles, but over time, the more devout Buddhists would decorate the candle or carve it into intricate designs. We have now gone from normal candles to these 15 meter long floats that depict scenes from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The normal Candle Processions still take place all over Thailand at this time, but the big floats first started to appear in Ubon Ratchathani about 34 years ago. Ubon is still the most famous though a few other cities now copy them.

The Candle Festival takes place in Ubon for the entire month of July but the main activities only take place around the full moon. If you are planning on going next year, make sure that you book your accommodation in advance. This year there was an estimated 200,000 domestic and international tourists at the festival. Ubon’s 3,100 hotel rooms were fully booked for these three days. Flights were also fully booked.

This was my first time at the festival and I had a really enjoyable time taking pictures of the dancers and floats. Though it was very exhausting as it went on for about three hours. I am not sure how many floats there were in the end but it was certainly a lot. In the evening, the winning floats were displayed at Thung Si Mueang Park. I already posted pictures over at Thai Travel Blogs of the winners. I’m not sure how long they will stay there as they were suffering a bit in the heat. But the entrants in the International Wax Sculpture competition will be on display in the grounds of the National Museum until 31st July.

I don’t have the dates yet for the Candle Festival Procession in 2012, but it will be around the full moon in July 2012. I will post the dates and schedule as soon as they are confirmed on my Twitter account @RichardBarrow, Facebook Fanpage, Thai Festival Blogs and also Thai Travel Blogs. In addition to the Candle Procession in Ubon Ratchathani, there are also big ones in Nakhon Ratchasima and Suphan Buri at the same time. There are smaller candle processions elsewhere in Thailand including some on a boat. But, Ubon has the biggest.