Every year, thousands of people flock to southeast Thailand to witness the Ubon Ratchathani candle festival. In addition to the spectacle, the festival is an important ritual in Buddhism. Continue reading to learn more about the festival, including when it takes place in 2021.
What is the Ubon Ratchathani candle festival?
It’s a Buddhist candle ceremony in Ubon Ratchathani that usually takes place in between Asalha Puja and Khao Phansa. Ubon Ratchathani, which means “royal lotus city”, is located by the Mun River in the Isan region of the country. While Asalha Puja commemorates Buddha’s enlightenment, Khao Phansa signals the start of Vassa, a three-month festival when monks typically retreat for meditation.
This is where candles come in. Candles have always played a symbolic part in Buddhism.
Firstly, they help brighten up notoriously dark temples. And secondly, monks often study in the evening by candlelight. As monks retreat during Vassa, they’re often given a healthy supply of candles.
Although this tradition continues to this day, the candles have somewhat changed in shape. Nowadays, elaborate wax sculptures are more popular than regular candles.
Skilled carvers create incredible waxwork structures depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology. Before the candles arrive at temples, they’re showcased in processions around Thailand.
In addition to Ubon Ratchathani, there are popular candles festivals in cities such as:
- Suphan Buri.
- Nakhon Ratchasima.
- Nakhon Phanom.
When is the Ubon Ratchathani candle festival?
In 2021, the festival runs from July 23rd until July 25th. If you’re in Thailand, the local advice is to arrive a day in advance. Firstly, temples are normally quieter in the lead up to Vassa, which makes visiting them easier. Another reason is to see the artists creating their pieces.
If you’re fortunate enough, witnessing these waxworks take shape is an unforgettable experience.
What happens during the candle festival?
On the morning of each day, the candles are put on floats and taken to Thung Si Mueang Park in the city centre. Later on, they are decorated with accessories such as beads and jewellery ahead of the main procession.
During the festival, the floats are paraded through the city by representatives of each temple in the city. Each float is accompanied by a troupe of musicians and dancers. The highlight of the procession features the Royal Candle sent by H.M. the King. Representing the Thai Royal family, the candle is usually the festival’s biggest and most extravagant.
Although religious in nature, the festival comes with a splash of sanuk. Meaning ‘to add a sense of fun’ to everything, sanuk is a uniquely Thai outlook. And fun at the festival comes in the shape of entertainment tailored to kids. That’s everything from feasts to games, theatre and Thai boxing contests. There is also an International Wax Sculpture Competition in which overseas artists display their work.
What to eat during the Ubon Ratchathani candle festival
Isan cuisine is the birthplace of some of Thailand’s most famous dishes. Perhaps the most popular is som tam, a papaya-based salad with several variations. But Isan cuisine features flavours for all kinds of tastes. And why not sample some in Ubon Ratchathani?
Below are some of the most popular dishes to try during Asalha Puja and Khao Phansa:
A curry made with seasonal vegetables and a choice of either chicken, frog, pork, catfish and snail. The dish’s signature taste comes from the added blend of grounded shallots, lemongrass, basil, cilantro and chillies.
- Khao gee
Locals prepare this dish mostly in winter to keep the body warm. Khao gee is made by double grilling balls of sticky rice in a salty egg coating. This technique gives Khao gee its unique crunchy and soft texture.
The Isan answer to a steak tartare. In this region of Thailand, it’s typically made with beef, buffalo, venison or shrimp.
- Pla som
Translated as “sour fish”, pla som gets its signature taste from the fermented carp or barb used to prepare it. Pla som is usually prepared by wrapping the fish with seasoned rice and storing it for a few days. After which, the fish is then deep-fried or grilled.
- Sai krog Isan
It’s a pork sausage dish, Isan-style. Before the sausages are cooked, however, cooked rice is added to the mixture. As they’re already seasoned with garlic and salt, sai krog isan is best served with a cabbage, chilli and ginger salad.