Thursday, October 24, 2013

Wax Castles of Sakon Nakhon

Wax Castle Float At Ming Muang Ground

The Nakon Sakhon Wax Castle Festival celebrates the end of Vassa, the 90 day long Buddhist Rain Retreat.  The end of Vassa is determined by the lunar cycle.  Vassa ends on the Full Moon of the 11th Lunar Month.  This year it was October 19.

Last year when we attended the Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival we were able to witness the construction of three large wax castle floats at their Wats.  Unfortunately we were not able to witness any of the other events associated with the festival.

This year I was determined to see a little more of the festival.  I was unable to find a schedule of events for the festival but Duang called our hotel and learned that the evening procession for the wax castle floats was to occur on 18th October.  I surmised that there wold be some kind of show the night before the procession so we traveled to Sakon Nakhon on Thursday the 17th.

Upon arrival at the hotel we learned that there was no big show that night but many of the floats were going to be arriving to the staging area at Ming Muang Grounds.  The floats were scheduled to start arriving at the grounds at 6:00 P.M. and offered to take us there and to pick us up to return to the hotel when we were ready.  The grounds are not that far from the hotel but do to the congestion it took a while to arrive at the grounds.  The narrow streets were made even more so by double parked vehicles, 3 to 4 lanes of motorbikes in addition to the theoretical two lanes of traffic, as well as many vendor carts alongside the road. I enjoyed being able to relax in a nice cool vehicle with no worries about hitting someone or something.

Workers Re-Installing Spires On Wax Castle Float
We arrived at the field while there was still some light in the sky. Many of the floats had fluorescent lights incorporated into them powered by portable generators.  Once they floats were placed into their assigned location and position, the lights were turned on.  The combination of natural lighting and artificial lighting presented some interesting photography opportunities; interesting and quickly evolving opportunities. As the natural lighting diminished, more and more artificial lights came on.  High lighting towers surrounded the grounds and as time moved on were joined by more and more portable lights set up by the float builders.

Many of the floats had traveled along public roads to get from where they had been under construction for the past two to three months to the staging grounds. The stresses of the journey had caused some minor damage to the floats.  The float builders would spend the night and the next day repairing as well as refreshing their floats. The wax castles also have tall delicate wax spires that had been removed to protect them from damage and to provide clearance underneath utility wires along the route.

Detail of Large Float

Besides the confusion of large floats arriving and being backed into position, the grounds were filled with vendors selling foods, drinks, balloons, and souvenirs as well as thousands of people like Duang and me, all enjoying the sights.  Many of the people would pose and have their photograph taken in front, in back, and along the sides of the floats.  Sharks are known to have feeding frenzies.  That night, there was a photography frenzy!  Yes, I took photos of Duang in front, in back, and even on the side of the floats - the things a man will do to please his wife, not that she doesn't deserve it - besides it was her birthday!

Duang Celebrating Her 50th Birthday
I typically do not indulge in photographs of people posing in front of vistas, landmarks, or some other object.  I prefer to take "environmental portraits" - photographs of people in their natural environment usually doing some typical task that reflects their life or culture.  I have already admitted to making some exceptions to please my wife.  I also sometimes make an exception - to please myself.  I made an exception at the grounds to photograph some young girls who were posing for their family.  The little girls, especially the one in the middle, were just to adorable to not photograph - even with with their cheesy posing.

I am also amazed as to how photogenic the people are.  The children have a confidence, determination, and independence that I find most interesting.

I was taking photos of some of the women dressed in ethnic clothing when THEY decided that I should photograph all of them followed by their idea for me to photograph all of them with Duang.  It often is that way here in Isaan - interacting with the people, learning something about them, sharing a little bit of your story with them and getting better photographs.

This festival is a big deal and gets some patronage from the Royal Family.  Each year the King makes funds available for a float.

Float Sponsored by HRH Rama XI
This visit to the festival gave us an opportunity to view some other types of floats that we had not seen last year.  One section of the grounds was reserved for small cart type floats. The two wheeled ox carts or carts pulled by people are not related to the end of Vassa or any religious connotation.  The carts have a very strong cultural connection and symbolism.  The people of Northeast Thailand are descendants of immigrants. Their forefathers and foremothers, for the most part, originated in China.  From southern China starting in the eight century, the peoples immigrated to Laos and eventually to Northeast Thailand.

This migration story is a strong theme even today.  Every festival that we have attended these small carts have participated in the processions.  The show that we attended for the World Cultural Festival in Ban Chiang also dedicated a part of its pageant to the migrants coming to Isaan with their carts.

Ornate Carts for Wax Castle Festival

The carts for the Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival were topped with ornate structures constructed of wax, banana stalks, fresh flowers, and natural fibers.

Close Up Detail of Cart

Although the sky was overcast, by being patient - very patient I was able to take some photographing the nearly full moon in the composition.

After we had become too tired and sweaty to continue any longer, we called the hotel to come get us.  The traffic and confusion in the street was even worse than earlier.  I was even more appreciative to be able to sit, relax, and enjoy a soft drink in the maddening traffic all the confusing way back to the hotel.  Our tip to the driver reflected our appreciation and gratitude.

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