Ubon Ratchathani: Motorbikes, wax, candles, and more!

Ubon Ratchathani: Motorbikes, wax, candles, and more!

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger in the long run is no safer than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” -Helen Keller

So much to write, such a long weekend. Earlier this week I traveled to Ubon Ratchathani, with fellow teacher traveler Laura, and we had an absolute blast! Ubon is the easternmost province in Thailand. It borders both Laos and Cambodia. Not only was this trip a chance to travel east, but the true purpose of our visit to Ubon was it’s world-famous candle festival that celebrates the beginning of Buddhist Lent, on 19 and 20 July.

The Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival is the country’s most elaborate traditional parade of life-size wax sculptures to wats (Thai temples) at the start of the Lenten period. This tradition is rooted in preparation for rainy season, when devout Buddhists donate items for the personal use by monks. During Buddhist lent, monks retreat to their temples and live off only donations provided to them and the light of candles. Also called Vassa, it is the annual three-month period taking place during the rainy season, that dates back to the era of Gautama Buddha. Rooted in Indian traditions, it was common to not travel during the rainy season so as to not harm crops, animals, or even themselves at times. The celebration of this period has evolved into a national two-day holiday all across Thailand, though Ubon is home to the original and most elaborate candle festival to date.

Our trip started on Saturday, last weekend, though we didn’t leave Bangkok until 6pm. I had a lazy morning at home, before getting packed, showered and ready to go. I met up with Laura at 1:15 to head to Bangkok for our flight to Ubon. We settled on flying after I overheard another co-worker last Wednesday mention how he was unable to buy his train ticket as early as last Monday, 11 July. This came as quite a shock to me, because I have been under the impression that you don’t pre-book tickets for Thai train travel. Instead, you just show up to the counter prior to the time of train you’d like to take and ask for your ticket. Although true for most every other time of year, being that Ubon is home to the original candle festival, apparently people from all over Thailand flood the small city for the holiday weekend, making train, van and bus travel virtually impossible for last-minute travelers.

Prior to making it to the airport, Laura and I had a bit of a trip ahead of us. First, we took a van to Victory Monument, then we transferred to the Sky Train (BTS) for one stop, and finally we switched to the city line that took us directly into the airport. It was really nice for once though, because Laura already knew how to get to Suvarnbhumi (BKK) because she had just done the trip three separate times when her family was in Thailand visiting two weeks ago. This meant that I got to simply tag along, follow her where she went, and didn’t have to meticulously plan how to get to the airport from Ayutthaya, aside from taking a taxi. It ended up taking quite a while for us to get where we needed to be, we rode the Sky Train the wrong direction at first, mai pen rai, but we finally arrived to get in line to check-in for our flight by 4:15.

This turned out to be perfect timing actually. We found our gate and then decided to grab a drink while we were waiting to board. We stumbled upon a small Irish pub where I enjoyed a delicious Guinness on draught. One of the many things I miss in Thailand is access to good beer. About half way through our drinks though, while Laura and I were deep into a great conversation getting to know each other a little bit better, we were interrupted by a guy sitting next to us at the bar. He interjected, started saying some really odd, and honestly very confusing things about Americans and how we talk, and namely what we talk about. Laura and I were both utterly confused and just wanted to finish our drinks and leave. I’ve met such a wide range of people over here, and most of the time other ex-pats are a delight to talk to, but this guy certainly does not make that list.

Our plane ended up being delayed almost an hour, thanks #thaitime, but we finally took off by 7pm. We landed in Ubon just about forty-five minutes later, a very quick flight, and found a metered taxi to get to our hotel, The Outside Inn. What a delightful place! The man who owns the hotel is originally from Portland (small world), the staff was very nice, spoke excellent English, and were all very eager to help. They have a restaurant as well, Brent’s wife does most of the cooking, and they serve delicious Mexican food in Thailand! For dinner on Saturday, after unloading our packs in our room, Laura and I shared a plate of nachos, tried their “crazy spicy” salsa (it was SPICY, but so good), and had some drinks before heading up to bed.

On Sunday our day started around 7am. We woke up, had breakfast downstairs, and asked about how to get to Pha Taem National Park, one of the things on our agenda for the week. Brent gave us two options; we could rent a car for the hour-forty-five minute drive there, for one thousand baht; we could add a driver as well for just three hundred baht extra; or we could rent motorbikes from the hotel for 250/day. Laura and I were sort of on the same page at this point. We both really wanted to go to the national park, but we didn’t want to pay 1300 baht, and we also were very interested in learning/practicing how to drive a motorbike, something on my Thailand bucket list.

Our final decision, we rented the motorbikes on Sunday to drive around Ubon, get familiar and comfortable with them, and then we’d decided whether or not we wanted to drive them to the national park the next day. Sunday turned out to be a great day, despite the nearly-unbearable heat and humidity. We drove around Ubon, went shopping, walked a bit in the 100+ degree heat, checked out the carnival, then had lunch at a great placed called Peppers Cafe. It is run/owned by an American/German ex-pat living in Thailand, who says everything he puts on his menu are things he can’t live without in Thailand (salad, pasta, pizza, Mexican, German food, French food, to name a few…). We made it back to The Outside Inn for a quiet evening, Laura and I played cards, and shared a pitcher of Chang (Thai-style lager) from the tap.

Despite a lovely day, I ended up running into a few bumps along the road on my own on Sunday. My shorts got very wet from riding the motorbike all day in the heat, and this caused me to have some serious chaffing problems, ouch! It grew more and more significant as the day wore on when we were walking around the carnival and doing some shopping. Instead of driving from place to place, we parked the bikes, walked around, thus my legs were pretty raw after a long, very HOT day. I still managed to have fun though, even after I tripped on a fallen electrical cord on the sidewalk and scraped the top skin of my toe off too. It didn’t feel good by any standards, but it looked far worse than it felt when it was gushing blood. At this point in time, we were still making our way back to our parked bikes, my legs were raw, my toe was bleeding, and all I wanted to do was get back to our hotel room, change into long pants, and relax. All injuries aside, we made our way back to the park, made an obligatory first-aid stop at 7-11, and finally reached the bikes before getting home for the night.

If Sunday was a lovely day, then Monday turned out to be magnificent! This was the day we ventured away from Ubon to explore and go hiking in Pha Taem National Park. Monday morning we woke up, had breakfast, got driving directions, and by 10:15am having only one day experience driving a motorbike, Laura and I set off on our adventure. Since I had little experience from the day prior driving on any main roads, the drive to Pha Taem was quite intimidating from the beginning. I basically had white knuckles the whole way to the park, and although Google maps predicted our ride would take about an hour and forty-five minutes, that estimation was for cars and we were driving much slower than the speed limit, especially on the way there. It took a while to get accustomed and more confident with my ability to drive. Ultimately it wasn’t my own abilities that concerned me though. Rather I was much more nervous by what everyone else on the road might do, Thai drivers are insane!

Long story, and an even longer drive to the park, but a little over two hours later we finally reached Pha Taem. The first stop, prior to reaching the park entrance, was Wat Tham Khuha Sawan. This temple sits on a cliff overlooking what’s called the “Two-Color River”. The place where two rivers join, the brown Mekong River and the blue Mun River, it also creates the border between Thailand and Laos. The views were amazing, the temple was quite beautiful, and there was a huge gong painted with many Asian flags on it, although I’m unsure of it’s significance.

When we reached the park we paid our 400 baht entrance fee and stopped at Sao Cha Luang and Lan Hin Taek. The first of which is a unique rock structure, and the second is a rock with a huge crack separating it down the middle. From there we drove on to the visitor’s center, saw the place of the “First Sunset in Siam”, had a coffee and got to pour wax for the candle festival on Tuesday. Up next was the day’s highlight.

The hike through the park follows a path along the base of a 600-meter cliff edge, painted with ancient hieroglyphics depicting daily life in Thailand. This hike was just magnificent! I took way too many pictures, of course, but none of them truly do justice to the views we were afforded on our hike. Although I didn’t bring enough water, and I was sweating an abnormal amount, the day was still so much fun.

After our hike we drove further into the park to see one of the waterfalls, Soi Sawan. Unfortunately this waterfall turned out to be nothing more than a small swimming hole. Not quite the grand sight we were hoping to see. Not to worry, we enjoyed a further bit of a hike, hopped back on our bikes, and headed back to Ubon around 4:30. We wanted to beat the sunset back and just about made it into town, right as the sun was setting and it was getting dark. I am at a loss for anything more to say than it was so much fun!

Monday certainly was a day not to be topped, but definitely matched by the events on Tuesday at the Candle Festival. On Tuesday morning Laura and I decided we would sleep in, eat breakfast, pack, and stay at The Outside Inn until check-out at 11am. We both wanted to enjoy our last bit of time there and wished we could have stayed another night. Eventually though, we packed up and were ready to find our new hotel we had reserved for Tuesday night, before venturing to Thung Si Muang Park to check out what it looked like for the Candle Festival that evening. I had made our reservation for Tuesday night on Hotels.com (we couldn’t stay at The Outside Inn on Tuesday as they were already fully booked when I requested our dates), I already paid for the room, and had received a confirmation number and a receipt, my credit card was already charged. The place we were staying at wasn’t nearly as nice as The Outside Inn, but it put us about one kilometer closer to the park for walking purposes and was a bed to sleep in. With our packs on our backs and directions on Laura’s phone, we headed out at 11 in the 90 degree heat, with 70% humidity, and walked to Thawesook Grand Mansion. Once we arrived, we simply wanted to ask for a place to store our bags till check-in later, but as it turns out we were in for quite the surprise.

First problem: the girl working at the desk spoke no English. No problem, mai pen rai, I’ll just show her my booking confirmation and payment on my phone…or so I thought. Second problem: the hotel was overbooked, for quite possible the single busiest night out of three hundred and sixty-five days in Ubon, and we didn’t have a room! Third problem: this being the busiest night of the year, in an otherwise relatively small, quiet, non-tourist town, I had discovered that basically everywhere else in Ubon was also fully booked. Okay, still no need to panic, although I was getting slightly frustrated by this point, being that I had already paid for my room in full.

The first thing before any rational solution could be made was getting past the significant language barrier between Laura, myself, and the Thai front desk associate. Somehow, by the grace of God, and a seriously good dose of fate and good karma, there happened to be a Thai man who walked in to the lobby minutes after us, had been waiting (and listening…) all the while to our conversation (or rather lack-there-of, if you take into consideration the language barrier), who wound up speaking excellent English and offered to translate for us! Wow, did we luck out. The man told us even though our hotel didn’t have a room for us, they were working on finding us a different place to stay. We were instructed to take off our packs, sit down, and help ourselves to a cup of coffee while new arrangements were being made. About fifteen minutes later, after feeling frustrated, helpless, then eternally grateful for the kind Thai gentleman, Laura and I climbed into the back of a taxi to be driven to a different hotel with a room for us for the night.

Once we left, both Laura and I thought whether that situation would have turned out much differently, had it not have been for the helpful Thai gentleman? It’s a bit ironic, but based on my Thai travel experience thus far, honestly we probably would still have wound up in the back of that cab. Only major difference being because of our Thai gentleman friend, we knew why we were in the taxi and “where” we were headed. Without his help, we probably would have been ushered into the back of said taxi, looking at each other, neither one of us having a clue as to what was going on, but just simply hoping for the best…Chalk it up to Thailand travel and just go with the flow.

By the time we finally reached our new hotel, it turned out to be much further away from the park than I had hoped. One nice thing about leaving The Outside Inn was to have a shorter walk in the heat, but in reality, we had no such luck. All in all, despite my frustrations, and despite it’s less than ideal location (down some random back alley off a busy, Thai city street) our new hotel, called Varinthorn Residences, turned out to be fairly nice with very well-decorated rooms. When our room was finally ready we unloaded our bags and then headed out on foot to see what was going on at the park.

Something unique in Thailand (and probably many other countries where it is always so hot…) is how big into nighttime festivities everyone is. They’re really into night markets and often times things don’t get going till after five, due to the heat I can only assume. Despite it being just around 1pm we still decided to check out what was going on at the park at this point in time. By late Tuesday afternoon, Laura and I could start to see what we imagined would soon turn into an expansive production that evening. Streets were blocked off, there was a kid’s carnival setting up, lots of shopping, vendors selling everything from clothes, to jewelry, even hand-crafted wooden furniture was for sale. The options for street food were endless, the only thing missing by late afternoon time on Tuesday were the floats and the thousands of people who flood the city from all over Thailand to celebrate the traditional beginning of Buddhist Lent. A few hours of walking around and shopping later, it was still only 4pm and there was still no sign of candles yet.

At this point in time we were worn out, exhausted from Monday’s long hike, and dripping in sweat yet again due to the day’s heat and humidity. We decided to take a taxi back to our hotel, as I was far too tired and hot to walk again. Then, around seven we would grab dinner from Pepper’s Cafe again, finally making our way back down to the park on foot to see the highly-anticipated wax sculptures and parade floats. Again, things got a little bit more interesting when we tried to grab a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. After the first two drivers looked at the business card I handed them, with an address written in Thai, but seemed utterly confused as to where we wanted to go, I got slightly nervous. Not because we wouldn’t be able to walk home in the case that we ran out of other options, but rather because neither Laura nor myself could remember how to find the random alley our hotel was on, and no search results came up when we tried googling it for an address. Another potential crisis was adverted here because finally the fourth driver we asked seemed to have a grasp on our desired location. After settling on a fair price, (I’ve learned my numbers in Thai which helps IMMENSELY with bartering), we were driven back to our hotel, and I paid much closer attention how we got here for later on.

I was quite exhausted, and passed out for a two hour nap, nearly the moment I walked in the door and collapsed onto the bed. We got ready for dinner around six-thirty, walked to Pepper’s Cafe, and had a delicious dinner that did not disappoint. I am noticing that although I like Thai food, when I leave Ayutthaya on the weekends, I am more inclined to find alternate choices of cuisine, since Thai food is all I eat during the week. Pepper’s had wonderful salad (with REAL dressing, not just Mayonaise) and delicious Italian-style pizza. After dinner Laura and I walked back down to the park and were blown away by what we saw! Our expectations were far surpassed, and I am so glad we made it work to visit Ubon for this once-in-a-lifetime sight-to-see.

First, the parade floats! I should mention, I’m a pretty big parade-fanatic already, am a lover of floats, and easily impressed by what people can design, build, and create to be a moveable piece. Therefore I certainly expected to be impressed by floats made entirely out of wax, but I didn’t know just how amazed I was going to be. It was beautiful artwork, and uniquely Thai, a cultural experience I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to see up close.

Next, the crowds! As I mentioned before, Ubon is a relatively small, quiet city, without a lot of reasons for tourists to normally come visit. Except for once a year, in July, that is, when thousands of people flood the city to do the same thing that Laura and I were there for. Now I’ve been in crowded places before. I’ve gone to fairs, music festivals, amusement parks. I’m no stranger to crowds and how they’re organized and controlled in the West. But this is certainly not the West, and a huge festival in Thailand is nothing like anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. Organization, what a concept? Security or crowd control, what is that? Nah, people in Asia live a much more “relaxed” lifestyle. Instead of over-planning and preparing all the fun out of an event, they like to just let things happen their own way. Traffic was backed up for miles, people walk in and out in the same places because there’s certainly no need to distinguish between an entrance versus the exit. You walk wherever there’s space, and you make space to walk where there’s none. It’s a (for lack of a better descriptive term) giant, shit-show, cluster-fuck! It’s a free-for-all, go-where-you-please, do-what-you-like, madhouse!

For example, I’m certainly no expert and I didn’t see any signs posted, but past experiences and common sense lead me to believe you’re not supposed to touch the wax sculptures. Going into Tuesday night I would have declared that with one hundred percent certainty. But based on what I saw when the floats finally arrived, I can no longer say that what I thought was a rule everywhere, also applies in Thailand…who knows?

What I do know is that despite the heat, travel mix-ups, heat, and sheer volume of people that flooded Ubon last week (did I mention the HEAT already?…), I had an amazing time! It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am so grateful to have experienced, and I surely will never forget!

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