Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival - Part 2

Having learned a lesson the previous day, we immediately took a Tuk-Tuk when we left our hotel at 7:30 A.M. to got to the Ubon Ratchathani Candle festival sites.

Our goal for the morning was to look at the large floats up close prior to the start of the morning procession which was scheduled to commence at 8:30 A.M.  We, or rather Duang, explained to the Tik-Tuk driver what we wanted to do.  He brought us to the area near Wat Sriubonrattanaram where the side streets were filled with the wax work floats awaiting the start of the morning's procession.

We were not disappointed at all with the access to closely inspect the wax sculptures.  There were no barriers or security to prevent you from getting as close as you wanted to each of the floats.  The biggest difficulty was attempting to take a meaningful photograph of the float without some one in the picture.  Thais like to be photographed and especially love to have their picture taken in front of something unique such as a large wax float as they give the "V" gesture or pose with Momma and Grand Momma.  I patiently waited for the opportunities to take my shots as the smell of the sculptures heating up in the morning sun transported me back in space and time to my young days back in Groton, Connecticut, to the days of melted Crayola crayons on hot summer afternoons.  Duang even more patiently waited for me to take my shots before moving on to the next attraction.

In response to posting some photos on my Facebook account, a friend asked about the wax sculptures.  The wax sculptures are not solid wax.  The sculptures and panoramas would be way to heavy and expensive if they were solid beeswax.  The heads are hollow.  The large figures are wax placed upon either Styrofoam substrates or on  chicken wire/plaster frames.  Wax is applied to the substrate and the details carved into the wax layer(s).  It is our intention to visit the area once again next year but earlier in July to witness the sculptures and panoramas being created.

In addition to the staging of the floats for the upcoming procession, the side streets were also filling up with performers who were also going to participate in the morning procession.  While the streets were filling with performers and people like us wandering around to get close up views, the sidewalks were filled with a combination of static stalls and wandering vendors selling soft drinks, water, food, balloons, and small toys.  Because of the religious context of the day, the start of Buddhist Lent, there were no sales of beer or the local version of moonshine whiskey along the procession route.  Unlike most events that we attend here in Isaan we did not see anyone consuming alcohol or any one under the influence of alcohol.  Also unlike so many of the events that we attend here in Isaan, we did not witness any fights.  I suspect (tongue in cheek along with a wink of an eye) that the lack of alcohol and the absence of fist fights are related. It made for a very enjoyable festival and from what I observed it didn't seem to impair anyone from enjoying the events.

The entrepreneurship of the Lao Loum people never seems to cease to amaze me.  There were all kinds of places - stalls, booths, or just umbrellas over an ice chest where you could buy water, soda, or juices.  It appeared to me that any one who had a cooler and the seed money to buy drinks and ice could set up to make some money.  I did not see any of the business licenses, health permits, tax ID numbers, or other bureaucratic requirements that would be required to do the same back in the USA.  I was very surprised to see that the prices for the beverages were not inflated because of the festival.  The cost of a drink was the same as the everyday price for the same drink at the 7-11 during the remainder of the year.  I could not help but reflect upon the outrageous cost of a soda or other soft drink at an American sports or music concert venue.

Intersections were popular locations for food vendors.  Food was grilled over charcoal fires contained in barbecues constructed out or steel barrels split in two and set up horizontally on metal legs.  Other foods were boiled or fried over small charcoal fires contained in two gallon sized refractory lined metal cans.  The odors of the fires and various foods that were being cooked added to the overall ambiance of the event.  Some large corporations were passing out free bottles of ice water and cold fruit juices.  With this being Thailand, no one was keeping track of how many a person was given.  Since it was getting later in the morning and despite the heavy clouded sky, it was hot and humid, I was perspiring heavily.  Fortunately the free drink people took good care of me and Duang ensured that I had plenty of soda to drink - soda in a plastic bag filled with ice along with a  straw ($0.35 USD each).  Often when you buy a soft drink from a vendor here in Isaan, the vendor will pour the drink into a small plastic bag filled with crushed ice along with a straw thus retaining the original container or more importantly being able to receive the fee for recycling the container for themselves.

Just as the previous night's procession, there were many dance groups.  The dance groups were from local and regional elementary and high schools along with universities.  They perform traditional dances to traditional music played by musicians riding along with them in a truck or to recorded music played (blared?) over large speakers mounted on a vehicle as part of their entourage.  The music is high energy and it is difficult to refrain from dancing to it.  Mahlam Lao music is played throughout Isaan all the time.  I have seen and heard it blasting from portable radios as people worked in the fields planting sugar cane and harvesting rice.  The previous night I was unable to get close up photographs of the beautiful dancers so one of my objectives for the day was to get some close up photos of the performers.  I was not disappointed with the opportunities that presented themselves throughout the day and evening.  I seriously believe that students are taught modeling and posing as part of their curriculum - they all seem to be so photogenic.

After the morning procession, we retired to the Wat.  According to the schedule of events there was to be "give King candle to Monk" and "give King loin cloth" from 11:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M.  at the Wat.  It seemed like it would be interesting if for no other reason to see what the event actually was.  We arrived at the Wat and it was curiously not crowded whats so ever.  A Monk arrived and blessed us along with the 5 other people who were there.  We waited a while - being entertained by a young toddler's antics while her mother was worshiping.  After a while a group of people arrived, obviously not involved in any kind of ceremony but a falang, his girl friend, and extended family.  As so often happens here in Isaan, Duang and the girl friend got involved in an extensive conversation - leaving the falang from Sweden and I to have our own extended conversation.  We never saw any "give King loin cloth" or "give King candle to Monk" but spent an enjoyable afternoon and received a blessing - not bad.

During the two days of the Festival I was often asked by people to answer some questions.  The questions were related to homework assignments for students learning English.  Because the students were often shy, the contact was typically made by either their teacher or their mother.  This allowed us to meet many people and learn more about the region as well as the festival.  It helped to pass the time quickly.

We spent some time talking to an older woman at a booth sponsored by a knife company.  The booth was actually a school where the company taught people to do fancy culinary carving using their products.  She was working on carving a lotus flower out of a piece of pumpkin.  The instructor had given her one of his flowers as a model.  His flower was absolutely gorgeous.  The were also samples of carved carrots and leaves carved from pumpkin.  Duang and I watched the woman, a boy who came along, and ate some lunch in the relative cool of the covered booth.  After awhile the woman finished her flower and did a leaf.  I praised her leaf and jokingly suggested that she specialize in carving leaves.  At this point, I tried my hand at carving a leaf much to every one's amusement.  There always seems to be something to do to either amuse yourself or others here in Isaan.

5:00 P.M. quickly rolled around and it was time to prepare for the evening procession but that is for another blog entry ...

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