Friday, November 2, 2012

Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival

Completed Wax Castle at Wat Suwaneen Gindalam, Sakon Nakhon, Thailand
As I have written before, October this year has been a very busy month for us.  One of our planned activities for October was to attend the Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival here in Isaan.

The festival was held from October 26 to October 30 in Sakon Nakhon, an agricultural center of approximately 60,000 people 160 Km east of our home in Udonthani.  The Wax Festival is held to commemorate and celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent also referred to as Buddhist Retreat.

Buddhist Lent commences the day after the full moon of the eighth lunar month (July) and ends 90 days later on the full moon of the eleventh lunar month (October).  I will be writing more about the end of the Buddhist Retreat in my next blog.  For now the important point is that during the period from Khao Phansa to Ok Phansa, the Monks are restricted to their home Wat to focus on meditation and scripture.

We had attended the Ubonratchathani Candle Festival in July 2010.  That festival which commemorated the start of Buddhist Lent included both a day and night procession of large wax sculptures of scenes from the Ramakian.  After viewing and inspecting the sculptures, I wanted to return the next year but at an earlier time to witness how the large sculptures were made.  As often happens in life, events prevented us from returning in either 2011 or 2012.  There is a saying that goes something along the lines of "When one door closes, another door opens".  We returned to Thailand in July of this year, too late to go to Ubonratchathani but, thanks to the Internet I learned of the Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival in October.

Due to a commitment to attend and requests to photograph Ok Phansa celebration in Tahsang Village, we were not able to attend the procession in Sakon Nakhon.  However, we could attend the early days of the festival - specifically to witness the castles being constructed.  I figured that the first day, the 26th, was too early.  After researching and finding a hotel for $21.64 a night in downtown Sakon Nakhon, we decided to drive the 2 hours on Saturday, 27 October, spend the night and return home on Sunday the 28th.  We could have planned on doing it all in one day, but I like to have flexibility built into our travel arrangements.  For $21.64, including taxes, a night, there was not much additional cost to have a possible second day at the festival.

The drive out to Sakon Nakhon was great - Highway 22 all the way.  Not much traffic, very few slow vehicles, very few traffic lights, wide and smooth paved highway, hardly any motorbikes, and no police - such a great way to start a holiday.

Our hotel, The Dusit, was a pleasant surprise.  The staff was great - very friendly and extremely willing to help.  The hotel is located downtown very close to the central market.  The exterior is rather nondescript but I knew that from my research.  Inside the hotel was very clean and the lobby was pretty as well as comfortable. Since I had no idea where the castles were being constructed, or where the long boat races were being held, I decided to hire a car and driver for the day.  We spoke with the staff at the hotel, and shortly a man with a nice car arrived.  We agreed to pay him 2,000 Baht ($65 USD) to take care of us from 11:00 AM until 5:00 PM.  With a car, I was able to bring some equipment such as a light stand, small octagon light modifier, and tripod to use in photographing the castles.

We have been fortunate in our travels relying upon local people to take us to the photographic opportunities.  Our trip to Sakon Nakhon was no exception.  Through my wife I explained what I was interested in. The driver understood and wrote down 6 places that we could go to.  Our first stop was Wat Suwaneen Gindalam on the outskirts of the city.

Wat Suwaneen Gindalam is located on a dirt road in a forested area.  The two wax castles were being constructed under an open sided shed.  The shed resembled a boat shed back in Connecticut with a corrugated metal roof and myriad plastic tarps to shelter the sculptures from the sun.  It has gotten cooler here in Isaan, but it is all relative.  The hot days of April when it can go up to 100 to 105F have cooled down to days of 85-90F - in the shade.  Care must be taken to protect the sculptures from melting in the sun.

The Wat grounds were filled with activity.  Besides people working in the shed, there were women outside of an auxiliary building preparing and cooking food.  Next to them some men setting up tables and chairs for a celebration the next day. Between the groups at the auxiliary building and the shed, a small group of teen aged boys were busy cutting banana stalks into fancy designs, making flower buds out of flower petals and decorating a small woven bamboo house to be used in conjunction with towing the wax castles.  As we entered the shed, we saw four young novice Monks busy cutting Styrofoam disks and  covering the disks with banana leaves.

Using A Speaker As A Table, Young Man Works on A Castle Component
Inside of the shed, beneath the metal roof and tarps, there were several workstations - tables to cast wax elements for the castle, equipment to melt wax, and tables to assemble wax components.  I guess they were short a table because a large speaker was being used as a table to assemble a house type component for the castle.

Worker Pours Wax to Create An Ornamental Casting

Wax Strips Are Prepared to be Melted
A combination of young men and young Monks were occupied in the shed constructing the wax castles.  The only female that we saw, a teen aged girl, was busy attaching a fabric skirt around the base of the smaller wax castle.  She was surrounded by two long unfurled rolls of fabric, pink and white, that she was creating a bunting over the yellow pleated fabric skirt of the float.

Bunting Being Applied to Base of Wax Castle

The people were very friendly and also very informative.  Our driver, who did not speak any English, kept telling Duang that all the people there were his friends,  Later we found out that he lived near the Wat.  I joked with him through Duang that I didn't care if they were his friends or not, I was getting some good pictures!  The Lao Loum people have great senses of humor and enjoy joking with each other or with a foreigner.  Duang and he went off to bring back some cold drinks for me - and the shed workers.

We spent two hours at this location.  It satisfied all my needs and exceeded my expectations.  In that first stop, our driver had earned his fee and I was happy.

Worker Uses Soldering Iron to Install Decorative Wax Casting
We learned a great deal talking with the workers and observing them.  First of all, the wax castles are not sculpted or carved from wax. The castles are first constructed of wood and 1/8" plywood - as in cabinet making.  Melted wax is poured into molds to create the decorative panels, statues, decorative elements that are attached to the wood base.  Soldering irons are used to fuse the various wax components together.  In some places, nail guns are employed to attach elements.

Cast Wax Panel Along Base of Float
Secondly, these exquisite works are not built during the three days leading up to the procession.  The construction of these castles actually starts with the beginning of Buddhist Lent/Buddhist  Retreat.  Hmmm ... that makes quite a bit of sense.  For the 90 day period of Lent, the Monks are supposed to stay at their home Wat.  Although they are supposed to concentrate on meditation and the scriptures, I suspect that working on the wax castles helps pass the time.

The castles at Wat Suwaneen Gindalam had been under construction for 2-1/2 months. The castles cost between 200,000 Baht to 250,000 Baht ( $6,666 to $8,333 USD) to build.  HRH The King provides funding to build the wax castles.  Some of the people are paid to work on the wax castles.  The man in the photograph above has worked on wax castles for 9 years.  Each year a new wax castle is built.  The Abbott of the Wat designs the wax castle.  The castles are mounted on a trailer which is towed by a tractor trailer truck that is completely decorated.  Florescent light tubes line the edge of the float to illuminate the castle at night during the procession through the downtown area.

Melting A Decoration Into Place

Young Man Works On Details Of Wax Statue

The wax castles are very detailed.  The architecture of the wax castles reminds me greatly of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.  Just as in the Grand Palace, mythological creatures such as the Garuda, and Yakshas from the Thai epic Ramakien (Ramakian) are used as structural and decorative elements.
When we left Wat Suwaneen Gindalam, the workers gave us a wax Garuda and a wax Lion statue as mementos of our visit.  The statues are now kept in our bedroom.

Novice Monk Making Flower Buds from Petals Spread Before Him
Binding Petals to Create A Flower Bud
The Smaller Wax Castle At Wat Suwaneen Gindalam
Our next stop was at Wat Sapansee which was even further outside of the city.  I was now in complete relaxed mode - the first stop had satisfied my needs so from then on it was "icing on the cake" for me.  I may have been more relaxed but I had not lost my focus.  There were the championship long boat races in town at 2:00 PM but we had seen them before in Kumphawapi and were planning on seeing them once gain on 3 and 4 November so we decided to forgo the races for more wax castle building.  Foreigners in Thailand often make light of a popular Thai expression "Same Same but different!"  Well our stop at Wat Sapansee was just like that expression - It was the same but it was different.
Tractor Trailer Truck Being Decorated At Wat Sapansee
Wat Sapansee was even busier than Wat Suwaneen Gindalam.  People were busy decorating the tractor that would pull the wax castle some 20 Km into Sakon Nakhon for the parade. Three boys were spraying the wax castle with water to keep it cooler as we arrived.  Many people were installing bumper pads made from rice stalks along the trailer frame where the wax castle would be mounted while others were attaching blocks of water soaked florist's arrangement media and chicken wire to the trailer frame. Monks were braiding strips of banana leaves into Nagas (mythological snakes) for decorations.  Some Monks and laymen were working on a special bamboo and wood castle off to the side.  Three women were working on making a long garland from string and plastic jasmine buds.  One of the old ladies with red stained lips from betelnut chewing started to flirt with me.  I told in Thai "Excuse me, I am sorry.  I have a Lao wife"  Without missing a heartbeat she replied "That's OK, I don't mind.  I can be your mistress"  We all had a big laugh.  I do appreciate and cherish the Lao Loum sense of humor.
Monk Braiding Banana Leaf Strips to Create "Nagas"
Off to the side there was another large group of women working on banana leaves and cutting Styrofoam for some kind of decoration.  Beyond them was yet another group of women preparing food - the ubiquitous "pauk pauk" - spicy papaya salad.
Making Wax Lotus Flower Decorations
The biggest group of people, a mixed group of all ages, was occupied making lotus flower decorations out of wax.  They dipped molds into orange melted wax to create an open flower cup.  A woman was slicing turmeric root which resembled a carrot to place in the center of the flower cup.  The slice of turmeric root was held in place with a simulated stem by using a splayed sliver of bamboo which another woman was creating by shaving bamboo with a knife.
Wax Lotus Flowers
We spent 1-1/4 hours at this location.  We bought ice-cream for everyone and I am still trying to figure out how 100 Baht ($3.33 USD) ended up feeding everyone, including me, a cup of ice cream from the motorbike ice-cream man.  There had to be more, much more than 20 people.  I guess it was just one of those mysteries of the universe or ... perhaps a modern day miracle?

It was very impressive to observe the sense of community and purpose exhibited by the people as they worked.  Monks, old women, young women, old men, young men, and children were all cooperating and having a great time as they worked on the wax castle. It was also reassuring to see the culturally unique arts and crafts being retained as well as passed along.  The fabric of Lao Loum life here in Isaan is a very rich tapestry.
A Hard Working Yai (Grandmother)
Making White Lotus Flowers
As we were preparing to leave the production of lotus flowers entered the final stages.  A young man arrived by motorbike and broke three good sized white candles into a pot over a charcoal fire (charcoal as in "homemade kind" and not a commercial hydrocarbon briquette product).  When the wax melted, some of the women dipped actual scored lotus bulbs into the wax and then into water to create a small diameter white lotus flower.  The previously assembled orange lotus flowers were then disassembled and reassembled to create the final lotus flower - orange outside, white inside, with a yellow turmeric slice in the center - gorgeous.
Four Completed Wax Lotus Flowers
Wat Sapansee Wax Castle
It was getting late in the afternoon and had become obvious that we would not get to all six Wats on our driver's list - not that it really mattered.  We had been to two excellent places and had become wet, thirsty and tired.
Our driver took us into town to Wat Phra That Choeng Chum which is a listed tourist attraction for Sakon Nakhon.  It is located at the edge of the lake where long boat racing was still going on at 4:00 PM.  It was noisy and very crowded so we did not take in the races.  Instead we went in another shed type structure to observe their wax castle.
Wat Phra That Choeng Chum Wax Castle
Wax Panel Detail - Scene from Ramakien
The Wat grounds were so inviting that decided to explore them first before returning to the car.  As so often is the case, a pause to relax was well rewarded.  The Wat structures, Chedi and Bot were beautiful.

Lao Style Chedi at Wat Phra That Choeng Chum
Lan Xang Era Bot at Wat Phra That Choeng Chum
Exterior Column Detail of Bot
Duang Prays At Wat Phra That Choeng Chum
We returned to our hotel at 5:00 PM; both of us exhausted and happy.  After a little rest and very nice dinner for less than $20 total, we were off to bed. It was a very quiet night's sleep.  We would definitely return to the Dusit Hotel.
The next morning on our way back to Udonthani we went back to Wat Suwaneen.  At the Wat we found out that the people had worked until 3:00 AM to complete the wax castles.  The castles were beautiful with fresh flowers and plastic jasmine blossom fringe arranged along the edges of the trailer.
Completed Wax Castle Float
Completed Portion That Was Under Construction The Day Before
An added bonus to our stop at the Wat was the people had completed installing the lights on the float and were checking them out.
Illuminated Wax Castle

Our return home was just as pleasant as our drive to Sakon Nakhon. We hope to return next year to witness the procession.  This short trip had been just as educational and enlightening as any of the other travels that we have made here in Southeast Asia and specifically in Isaan.

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