Since my very first visit to the big temple there has always been this rickety, wooden float beneath a shelter next to the front temple hall. It’s always been an eye-sore to be honest and the craftsmanship looks to be no better than rubbish. At least this is how I thought until recently when I realised the real purpose of the float, for the big candle festival. From the beginning of rainy season, the float has become a work-in-progress, where day-in, day-out, the temple monks would be layering the wooden frame with thick coats of candle wax. A seemingly never-ending project where, at 4am during the 100 day ceremony, there were monks and temple helpers working under bright spotlights, and behind the cover of tarpaulins. I guess it gives them something to keep busy as so little happens in the temple for most of the year. So, day in, day out, the monks and temple helpers will be melting vats of used candles donated from surrounding villagers of Broken Road. The wax is then set on the frame and, using hairdryers to keep the wax soft, they mold the shapes and characters for the float. Once the model has taken shape they will have sculptors come in to create the intricate carvings on the exterior. So I have been calling in at intervals during the later weeks and to me the hardest job actually looks like the colouring. Next to the float there has always been a table set with mixing trays where light and dark waxes are used to create the perfect tone. It is important for the colour to be consistent throughout the float so, if one tray looks to be in the slightest bit off, a Gordon Ramsay-like monk will lob it back into the VAT to start again. So, by the end of the project, the ramshackle old float has been transformed into an unbelievably majestic, giant candle. Now it will be put against candles from rival temples as it is paraded through the town centre of Nang Rong. These candle festivals take place throughout Isaan on the same day and, given the crazy amount of time and effort which goes into it, the celebration is seen as one of the biggest festivals of the year.
The big candle festival marks two significant Buddhist days; of Asanha Bucha, a full moon celebration, and Wan Khao Phansa, which is a bit like a Buddhist Lent. For the coming three months monks will not be allowed to leave temple grounds, and many local followers will also give up meat or alcohol for the same period. Fanfan joins along as she gives up alcohol for the three months, and in return she should get lots of good karma. I was of course invited to do similar, but I have to decline. Having often been given preferential treatment since arriving to Broken Road, I have no doubt accumulated bags full of good karma in this time. It just felt greedy for me to go after more, so I leave the good karma to the less fortunate locals. But I do make up for it by going out and buying a couple of 3 kilo candles to donate to the temple which is common for this festival. This at least tops up my good karma for the time being. So the first day of the big candle festival begins at 5am, with a killer hangover. Before starting three months of sobriety, Fanfan asks me to empty the house of temptation and I am of course the perfect man for the job. On the night before, I empty the drinks cabinet, yet still wake early to support the family as Meh and Ta join the temple. For the first two nights of the festival they would live with the monks on temple grounds, and then on each Holy Days that follow in the coming months, they would do the same. So in the morning they join the front of the temple congregation, wearing white robes, and take part in the usual ceremony of prayers and alms giving. The ceremony was longer than usual today with an extra hour for community representatives to drum up support for the candle parade, which takes place the following day. Typically with Asanha Bucha day, and the full moon, there would also have been a candle ceremony that night at the temple, similar to that of big Buddha day, but with everyone’s focus now on winning the candle parade, it is instead put on hold. That night the giant candle float is attached to the back of tractor and towed into town, and made ready for the parade the following day.
With Wan Khao Phansa the monks are now unable to leave the boundaries of the temple so they don’t actually get to join the candle parade in town or see their hard work on display. Cruel, I know, but this maybe for the better. After close to an hour of waiting around in town, the parade begins and the event turns a bit bitchy, as rival temples trash talk one another over loud speaker. “Our Buddha is bigger than yours”, “our candles were hand-carved, but they used moulds”. It’s more competitive than I had expected, although I wouldn’t have realized if Fanfan hadn’t translated. So each year there would be three prizes up for grabs; one for best candle, one for best parade and one for the most beautiful girl who leads the procession. Of course we are there to support our own temple, which I only find out today is called “Wat Mai Re Rai Thong”. Until now I had just called it “big temple”. So the parade starts at around 10am, and it’s all over in roughly 2 hours after it follows one full circle the town. It does seem rather short lived given the months of preparation involved, but we only stick around for 30 minutes before escaping the crowds. In total 10 temple’s candle floats will pass along with other floats from local community groups and supporters. Much of the family has roles as well where niece Mai fronts our parade wearing traditional dress. Shortly after is Meh and Ta, still wearing their white robes, sat on a stage float. Then it’s Yai Thip who struts by with her granny brigade. I do feel a little left out. But I then find that I could have been involved where Fanfan was asked if I could be a drummer at the lead of the parade. And she had turned it down because she didn’t want to watch the parade alone. I could have been the first ever foreigner to be part of this parade but I was actually quite thankful knowing I’d look like a deer in headlights. I always prefer watching from the sidelines. So today’s parade turned out to be the biggest event ever in Nang Rong, as it gets bigger each year. This is why we make an early exit knowing it would be an easy win anyway. Yai Thip is first to arrive back after us all giddy as the temple wins both Best Candle and Best Parade category for the second year running. Owned.
In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief.