Monday, March 3, 2014

Smoke on the Water: Nakhon Phanom's Fire Boat Festival

Regular contributor John Borthwick heads north to the Mekong River to witness a fiery nighttime flotilla.

Somewhere out there across the black tide of the Mekong River is Laos. There’s a full moon rising, but not much else to see. "Be patient," says my friend as we wait, along with thousands of others, on this riverbank at Nakhon Phanom in northeastern Thailand.

Upriver I spot something glowing — blazing. Something huge. With hypnotic slowness, the apparition drifts into view. It is a low boat, perhaps 50 metres long, supporting a 20-metre high flaming image composed of (I am told) 19,999 small lanterns depicting Thailand’s king and queen and a phoenix-like Garuda bird.

The huge vessel drifts past like a fiery ghost. Another boat of equal intricacy follows, then another. In Thai these are known as rua fai, but English approximations like "illuminated boats" or "fire boats" do no justice to these spectacular artistic conflagrations.

A fire boat on the Mekong

The original rua fai were small candle-lit rafts that carried flowers, incense and a little money to other villages downstream. The flame symbolised burning away the previous year's suffering while petitioning the deities for good weather and prosperity.

Thailand's tourist authorities saw the potential of the fire boats, if super-sized, as the focus of a major festival or Nakhon Phanom, 735 km northeast of Bangkok. The Lai Rua Fai (or Illuminated Boat Procession) Festival, held on the full moon of the 11th lunar month (late October—early November), heralds the end of both Buddhist Lent and the rainy season, and the beginning of the harvest. As Nakhon Phanom's major event of the year it sees Thais flooding in from Bangkok and across Isaan for parades, ceremonies and musical performances. The town population of around 40,000 people almost doubles during the festival.

Having been blessed by monks, we watch a large street parade of wax model Buddhist temples (that don't melt in the midday heat even though we spectators almost do) as well as dragon boat races by day and fireworks by night. And then comes the main event, the parade of fiery boats.

Street parade, Nakhon Phanom
Little drummer boys, Nakhon Phanom

The boats, painstakingly constructed for months by local communities, burn in brief glory. Having passed by us, they come ashore downstream to expire like dying swans. Next morning they will be just a burnt-out fleet of bare hulls, each supporting a billboard-sized framework and up to 30,000 smoldering little kerosene lanterns.

The fireboats, 13 in all, drift past us like images by an Oriental J.W.M. Turner, lighting the Mekong night with their fiery tableaux — of Garuda, Ganesh and Naga serpents, not to mention motor cars and more royals. Some years ago one boat caught fire and the evening's entertainment was enhanced by the sight of the crew leaping for their lives into the river.

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