Neither of us had the job of measuring the distance from Pattaya to Ubon, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when, around lunchtime, we’re not there yet. In fact, the journey is 650km and, really, we should have started it before breakfast to stand any chance of reaching our destination before the calendar ticks over. It’s easy to forget just how big Thailand is. It is truly the land of miles.
We decide to spend the night in Surin, a charming Isaan town which our guidebook describes as possessing a surprisingly sophisticated nightlife. Amongst the few premises that are still open when we roll into town are a motorbike repair shop and a TV retailer. I suppose that’s what passes for sophisticated these days. Having failed to find the classy cabarets we were promised, we return to our hotel to eat in its large restaurant. We are the only diners and are entertained by two ladies in ball gowns, who take it in turns to croon. Correction. This must be the sophisticated nightlife.
The next day we drive the last bit of our journey into Ubon and take two hours to find our hotel. This is clearly my fault as hotels are my area of responsibility. In my defence, I cite the hotel voucher which clearly states ‘location Ubon City Center’. I don’t think I can be blamed for the fact that the place is really in jungle, 16km out of town.
Anyway, we’re still OK for time so we drive into town. Mrs Pobaan suggests we get a cup of coffee while we wait for the 10am start for the rockets.
‘The what?’ I ask in that way that parents talk to errant kids.
‘They start letting off the rockets at 10am.’
‘They have rockets?’
‘Of course, it’s a rocket festival. How can they not have rockets?’
‘Actually, it’s a candle festival. If they have rockets as well, that’s great, but I think candles are the main thing. What time does the parade of candles start?’
‘I didn’t look up candles.’
‘What did you look up?’
‘I looked up festivals in Isaan. In Yasothon they let off big rockets. It could be fun, if you don’t mind a bit of danger.’
‘But we’re in Ubon for the candle festival. Yasothon is 200 kilometres away.’
‘Yes, I see that now,’ says Mrs Pobaan quite meekly.
Requiring a reliable source of information, we seek out a suitable authority figure. We find a man with epaulettes sitting behind a table with a microphone. Considering epaulettes, tables and microphones to be signs of authority when it comes to festivals, we ask him what’s going on. He says everything’s happening according to plan and the floats will begin to parade around the town at about 4pm.
We smile at the man through clenched teeth. Out of his earshot, Mrs Pobaan and I continue our conversation.
‘There’s nothing happening until 4pm. That’s in five hours.’
‘Shall we go back to the hotel?’
‘It’s in the jungle. There’s nothing to do there.’
‘We could have lunch.’
So we go to the Central Plaza, which is a shopping mall exactly like the Central Festival in Pattaya, only more packed with shoppers, and have lunch until 4pm.
Then we return to downtown Ubon to view the candles.
You may think of a candle as a stick of white wax with a bit of string in the end. In Ubon their take on this simple lighting device is a little more elaborate. Here, they make their candles on 15-metre trailers and it takes a tractor just to get them moving. Wee Willie Winkie wouldn’t have coped. In Ubon, the candles are about two metres high and are surrounded by tableaus of Buddhist symbols and mythical figures, all made of yellow wax. You have Buddhas, mermaids, spirits, lions, elephants, garudas, warriors—basically the full menagerie of Thai Buddhist folklore all rendered in beeswax. If I was a bee I’d be proud of my tiny contribution to so ambitious an undertaking.
The floats move slowly around the town, accompanied by young men with water back-packs who spray the wax to stop it cracking and others with long forked poles who hold up the electric cables that loop across the street to stop them bringing the whole procession to a standstill in an embarrassing, wax-fuelled fireball.
Everybody is having a great time. Being a religious festival, there’s no alcohol, so the festivities aren’t marred by the unpleasantness that can so easily accompany the high spirits of New Year. Instead, it’s a great opportunity to stuff yourself at the street food stalls, watch some frenzied musicians getting down with the festival vibe and marvel at what must surely be the least practical night-lights on the planet.
After viewing a great number of candles, we begin to think about going home, which for us means our hotel in the jungle. Since they have no food at the hotel, we stop on one of Ubon’s mighty arterial roads for takeaway pizza and I develop an unnatural hankering for some beer to accompany this.
‘We can’t buy beer today; it’s a monk day,’ advises my wife.
‘Isn’t there anywhere that would sell me a few cans?’
‘Not 7-Eleven. They have a computer system, so it would be recorded. We need to go somewhere that takes cash.’
We find a bustling restaurant on the way out of town and I ask to buy a few cans of Chang from a young man. As I am completing the purchase, he says in English, ‘I’ve just remembered, it’s illegal to sell you beer today.’
‘I know that,’ I reply cheerfully. ‘Otherwise I would have gone to 7-Eleven.
‘Good point,’ he says. ‘I’ll just wrap them in newspaper for you. After all, it is the candle festival.’