Ubon Ratchathani: temples, lotuses, and the great Mekong

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Ubon Ratchathani, "the royal city of lotus", as its name translates, is a typical Thai provincial capital - too urban to pass as quiet backwaters, too mellow to qualify for a modern megalopolis. The city owes its prosperity and perhaps its very existence to the strategic position near the great Mekong River. The most renowned attractions here are Buddhist temples, often quite unusual, and the giant candle parade just before the rainy season - usually in May. Thus said, foreign tourists seldom visit Ubon. Locals, on the other hand, flock here for the "secret" sights, mainly natural: a weirdly perforated river gorge, white sand dunes, and of course, the city's living emblem: lotus flowers.

Temples of Ubon

© Istock/Mumemories

Even if you have already been, as tourists in Thailand say, "watted out" (from the Thai word "wat" - which means s "temple"), at least one monastery in Ubon is worth seeing. Wat Ban Na Meuang is centered on the royal barge theme: buildings here are shaped like the ceremonial boats used for important royal events in Bangkok. The main prayer hall actually stands in the middle of a pond. Other temples of note include Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram, housing a precious Buddha image carved out of a topaz, Wat Thung Si Muang, with a library of ancient palm-leaf Buddhist scriptures, and Wat Chaeng, famous for its wax-carving craft - this is where many of the carved giant candles are produced for the festival.

Candle festival

© Istock/13672071

The main reason to visit Ubon is its giant candle festival. Huge, lavishly carved and adorned candles are paraded around the city on heavy trucks. This is the local version of Bung Ban Fai, the rocket festival celebrated all over East Thailand and Laos. This event takes place in May, just before the start of the monsoon. Large gunpowder-filled rockets are launched straight up to penetrate the sky and make it give birth to the seasonal rains, re-vitalizing the soil. The sexual tune is not accidental - we are talking penetration, impregnation, and the beginning of new life here, after all. And yes, elongated objects used for the purpose are quite symbolic. In Ubon, however, it has been decided that homemade rockets are too risky, and candles have replaced them as the phallic symbol of choice. 

Crafts of Ubon

© Istock/fordzolo

Another unique cultural attraction in the vicinity is Thai gong casting. The gongs are used in classical Thai music, and like all musical instruments, they have to be produced by hand. This process, involving hot flowing metal and a lot of beating with wooden hammers, can be observed in Phibun Mangsahan village. If you are into handicrafts, your next destination should be Ban Pa Ao, a village of artisans employing ancient methods of silk production. Everything is done on the spot, the entire cycle from planting mulberry trees to weaving the fabric. There is also a traditional bronze foundry here.

Nature of Ubon

© istock/2e812ac3_768

Due to its location next to the great Mekong, nature attractions of Ubon mostly involve water one way or another. One particularly interesting spot is Sam Pan Bok, known as "3000 holes". A rock reef on the banks of the river, it is covered in round holes of every size created by the turbulence of fast-flowing water. In dry season, when the water levels drop, the perforated rocks are exposed. Next comes Hat Hong, yet another dry season destination: an island in the river that is submerged during the monsoon, but when it emerges in the drier months, it looks like a piece of Arabian desert teleported into the middle of Mekong: dunes, dunes, and dunes. It is also a popular beach spot for the locals. Finally, a city named after the lotus flower could not restrict itself to just a few lotus ponds in temples. In Ban Tha Lat, a large reservoir is totally filled with the sacred plant, and when the flowers bloom, it transform into a magical land without land, consisting instead of green floating leaves and red petals. Wooden walkways and gazebos have been built for visitors, and boat rides are on offer.

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