to Ubon’s Candle Festival

The festival took over much of the city center Tuesday morning.  Big cumbersome wax floats were being driven around corners and nearly over the toes of the packed onlookers. Parade officials motioned frantically to step back.  The street cops directed pedestrians with sharp whistles and stoic nods. And pushing the overflow of spectators into the street were the sponsors’ booths, the smiling workers handing free visors and water bottles to all.

Last week this place would have been an asphalt sauna baking in the 9 am sun. But after the morning rain it was only a warm towel on our skin.

If I could send you a post card of what it was like, I would.

But a post card doesn’t capture the noise of Thai voices talking over moving trucks and blaring loudspeakers. You might see some blurry people on the edge of a postcard, but would you be able to feel the press of the crowd, or the touch of someone you don’t know putting their hand on your back so they don’t get swept away by the tide?

A post card might show people, yes, but you wouldn’t be able to make eye contact with the dancers as they pass by, all dressed in silks and silver. With hair pieces piled high and sparkly eye shadow covering their lids they looked like beauty contestants. And you sidled by each other, each trying to navigate the slippery sidewalks and dripping eaves.

Older boys looked sour as they stood with their twenty-some balloons tangling above their heads, ready to sell them all.  An older women squeezed by, batting her woven fan under our noses, enticing us into a purchase with the flutter of her wrist. But even as we were regretting letting her go by, a breeze picked up and we were reborn.

We walked around the huge wax sculptures and followed the sounds of electric sitar, bells, and drums to a group of musicians warming up in the parade lineup.

If I showed you a picture of the scented candle float that came next, you might be able to appreciate the greens and blues and pinks, but would you feel that same sense of awe after rounding the corner as we did?  This dazzling watercolor of wax, so nuanced and full of depth, came after seeing only dark orange after dark orange for weeks before.

And if I handed you a picture of of this float you most certainly wouldn’t be able to trace the grooves of the fish scales under your fingers. And you wouldn’t be able to smell the delicate flowery perfume, which draws you in from several feet away with its lingering fragrance… an oasis for your nose in this car-exhaust, mud filled place.

 

The smells of street food filled our noses as we moved on. Vegetables in greasy breading, boiled squid and balls of sausage…all impaled on convenient sticks and ready to be grabbed for only 20 baht.

But the sizzle of frying bananas and coconut pastries beckoned us away.

I wish I could mail you the taste of the gooey green rice surrounding this bright yellow banana, a dessert like I’ve never had. I wish I could send you the feeling of biting into the rock hard shell of a fried donut and nearly chipping your tooth, only to be rewarded by finding a ball of sweet bean paste inside.

As I drank my icy coconut water, condensation dripping down my shirt in the heat, we walked by the main parade.  Stands were packed tight in neat rows, filled with people and their matching pink visors. Their eyes focused somewhere between the group of farangs walking past them and the floats driving by. It was a mutual scrutiny though, and we gave them a curious once over too.

A post card simply couldn’t immerse you in the blaring voices and commercial jingles blasting out of the loudspeakers of the floats. At such a volume they crackled into an earthquake of noise. We put our fingers in our ears and wondered how the performers could stand it.

The maze of the parade took us tiptoeing around the back of the stands, sidestepping the mud and all the electrical cords running through it. It was a popular passage and we had to take turns letting the opposite foot traffic go by.

Students from the local schools were waiting on the other side. They approached would-be-westerners timidly, asking for a short interview, a photograph, and a signature for a school project. Well, some were shy with their English, but others were completely assertive.

The next postcard would have to show a quiet moment in the shade of a wat. The festival still carried on around us, but through the walls and the food trucks the noise was a little subdued. And the postcard wouldn’t really be of the temple that we were sitting in front of but what’s behind the photographer on a bench under a tree: a baby smashing his chubby fist into a cup of juice. I can only assume that was his older sister maneuvering a second sibling up and down the bench in some game that looked vaguely familiar but that I didn’t recognize. The baby continued to slam his fist through the lid and as I smiled to myself I noticed that the mom was smiling at my reaction, and suddenly it felt like I was an active participant in this postcard all along.

Then we left the wat behind and were all piling into a taxi.  The driver was friendly and asked which city and which state… all through Mint’s helpful translations.  And as he cocked his head to hear our one-word answers, we began to slowly inch away from the crowd, away from the heavy traffic, and back into the normal city sounds.

And in the post card, if there is such a post card of you from the back seat of the taxi in Ubon, you’d be feeling pretty nostalgic already for next year when you could look back on this candle festival and say you got to experience a small part of it.

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