End of the rains retreat in northeast Thailand: Political commentary on a boat

Bun Auk Phan Saa, the end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat, is usually accompanied by floating of krathong, formerly banana leaf, now usually styrofoam, individual offerings in a pond or stream.  On Monday night, 5 October, one day after Phan Saa, in Baan Dong Phong, near Khon Kaen City, a traditional, larger, temporary raft, rua pae, which includes offerings, such as husked rice, salt, fermented fish, goodies, etc., in other words, things to eat for the spirits of deceased in the water which come from the assembled village households, was allowed to float down the Phong River.  This offering took place a day later than it should because on Sunday night the village held a major festival, the only one in Amphur Muang, to parade rua fay, fire boats, down river for competition.

The Nam Phong River is perhaps 100 feet wide with two sharply rising banks at Baan Dong Phong’s location.  The abbot of the monastery, invited here in 2532 [1989], says when he arrived he immediately saw the potential of the river for an Auk Phan Saa celebration that would include the launching of rua fay constructed with specific designs in mind.  This year, the most elaborate of these celebrations, was the 5th in the current series which includes sponsorship by the Sub-district Administrative Office (Tambon) in the amount of 300,000 baat.  It also included a competition between boats for 1st and 2nd prizes.

Because of the Kingdom’s political situation, the rua fay this year were more overtly political than any before this.  Both the Tambon President and all village representatives of the Sub-district Administrative Council and the Provincial Deputy Governor were invited to the rua fay procession and acted as judges.  The rua fay parade was also extremely well attended by non-village residents, who drove in, creating a minor traffic jam on the village’s narrow streets.

Picture 1

Several days prior to the event, a truck with sound system and two of these sign boards drove around Khon Kaen City and neighboring villages, announcing it and encouraging people to attend.  In addition to the rua fay, the wat held a temple festival, mahorasop, including Thai boxing, films, soi daaw (which only made a profit of 2000 baat since many items had to be purchased), games for children, and much to buy.  In the afternoon before the rua fay competition, a parade was held from the village’s outskirts to the wat.  Leading the parade were the Tambon President and his wife riding in the back of a pick-up truck, followed by each village’s representatives walking.  Then came a pushed float on which a phayanaak boat carrying a picture of The Buddha was erected, rows of dancing village women and students, who had been practicing coordinated movements for several days, followed by the village khlaung yao, semi-professional music ensemble, and all the villagers who wanted to walk to the wat.

Picture 2

The pictures below show the four rua fay and give local explanations.  All the rua fay were constructed by the men of one family — Naay In Phoothirut and his sons — some now dispersed to nearby households; metal frameworks and netting were used, with construction alongside village houses.  The billboard on the river bank across from the wat was built by the wat’s monks and novices.  That sign, and all of the rua fay except for the first one, were lit with electric lights powered by portable generators.  As the rua fay floated slowly down river and into view from the banks of the wat, they fired fireworks; a truly impressive display of artistic and logistics skill.

Picture 4

The wat’s stationary sign:  Lights in the Wheel of the Law in the upper left rotated, The Buddha’s upper torso rested on lotus leaves, and, on the right, a Phra That, chedi, symbolizing the continuing presence of Buddhism.  The words beneath the sign read, in translation:

5th annual traditional fire boat festival 2552

In cooperation with Tambon Silaa Administrative Council

Picture 5

Rua fay boraan, example of an old-style rua fay, lit by oil lamps; the oil is now held in used M-150 and Krathing Daeng bottles with wicks of cloth.  This boat was not part of the competition.

A smaller example of the rua fay boraan was at the entrance to the village off the Khon Kaen bypass, with lit oil lamps posted along the road to the village to show the way.

Picture 6

The first rua fay in the competition brought the current political scene to the forefront.  Titled samaanachan, solidarity, it shows two figures, both of Hanuman, one dressed in yellow, the other in red, each waving a Thai flag, on either side of a replica of Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.  When asked if there was a problem with Hanuman dressed in both yellow and red appearing at the same time, the makers responded that that was suitable.

Picture 7

The second rua fay was more traditional, showing the Buddha with two acolytes at either side, who repetitively bowed toward The Buddha, with two thewadaa above them.  This boat won 2nd prize.

Picture 8

The last rua fay was the most elaborate and won the competition. In the upper register, in the Isan, Thai-Lao language (written in Thai characters):  Hak kan way diikwaa sang kan, “loving one another is better than fighting.”  Along the side of the naga boat, hanuman tahaan ek, “Field Marshall Hanuman”.  The red figure on the right, Thotsakhan (head with only one head rather than ten) shot son daeng, red arrows, which were met in the air by a kwaan, axe, thrown by the yellow Hanuman figure on the left.  In the middle is Rahu, who, locally, is known for eating Phra Athit, the Sun, and therefore time.

Picture 9

After each boat paraded down the river, they stopped in front of the wat pier and remained in place and were judged.  Each competing boat was given 30,000 baat for construction.  The winning boat won a prize of 5,000 baat, the 2nd prize was 3,000 baat, and the 3rd boat won a consolation prize of 2,000 baat.

Note: These photos are selected from the hundred or so taken by villagers and kept by the monk who is involved in the digital world.

About Leedom Lefferts, Guest Contributor