The illuminated boat procession

The illuminated boat procession

   As night falls, majestic ‘fire boats’, elaborately-adorned with flowers, incense sticks, candles and lanterns and each bearing an assortment of ritual offerings, are set alight and floated down the Mekong River.

    Against the darkness of the moonlit night, the sight of flickering light from candles and lanterns on magnificent ‘fire boats’ drifting downstream on the Mekong River, is both mesmerising and awe-inspiring. It is this enchanting spectacle that has given the water-borne procession its very name — ‘Lai Reua Fai’, which literally means to set afloat a ‘fire boat’.

    The illuminated boat procession is celebrated in I-San, the northeastern region of Thailand on the 15th day of the waxing moon to the first day of the waning moon in the 11th lunar month of the Buddhist calendar, usually a month earlier than the corresponding month in the conventional calendar. This dazzling event marks the end of the Buddhist Lent or ‘Ok pansa’ and is accompanied by a colourful street procession and cultural performances which add to the highlights of the event which is held annually.

    Illuminated boats vary in shape and form and reflect cultural identity, artistic and cultural splendour, indigenous culture and beliefs, folk knowledge and skills. Designs inspired by Buddhist motifs, The Royal Barges, mythical characters in I-san and Brahmin legend and folklore are depicted. Naga – the Serpent King, Hong – the swan, the sacred steeds of the Brahmin gods – Hamsa, the sacred goose and mount of Brahma, Garuda – the mount of Phra Narai (Vishnu), Erawan – the mount of Indra and Ganesh – the elephant-headed son of Shiva are commonly featured.

Origins of the Illuminated Boat Procession

     The Illuminated Boat Procession reflects Buddhist origins as well as animistic beliefs and the worship of the forces of nature.

According to some scholars, the ritual is based on ancient Buddhist tales and is undertaken to pay respect to the sacred footprint of the Lord Buddha on the bank of the mythical Nammadhammahantee river and in honour of the Buddhist trinity – Phra Buddha, Lord Buddha; Phra Dhamma – his teachings and Phra Sangkha – disciples of the Lord Buddha.

     In his seventh lent, in remembrance of his mother, Buddha ascended to the heavens to deliver a sermon to his mother. There he resided throughout the entire period of the three-months Rains Retreat or the Buddhist Lent. At the end of the Rains Retreat which falls on the first day of the waning moon of the eleventh lunar month, Lord Buddha returned to earth, descending by the Celestial Stairway comprising of the Silver, Gold and Crystal stairs.

     Delighted by the news of Buddha’s return to earth once again, Buddha’s disciples and followers prepared to receive him with offerings of food and other sacred items being presented. ‘Tak Bat Devo’, the Buddhist merit-making ritual performed on the final day of the festival signals the end of the Buddhist Lent, originates from the word “Devorohana” and refers to Buddhist celebrations marking the special occasion of the return of the Lord Buddha to earth, as mentioned in ancient Buddhist tales.

    In traditional river-based communities which rely on the river as a source of food, harvesting fish and other marine life from the river and planting crops on the banks of the river in the dry season when the water level recedes, water is the essence of life. In riparian cultures, ritual offerings are made to Mae Khongkha – Mother of Waters in an act of appeasement to beg for her forgiveness for Man’s carelessness in polluting pristine waters – the source of all life; The Naga – the mythical Serpent God associated with water that dwells in three realms: beneath the earth where it guards minerals and gems, in bodies of still and flowing water, and in the skies where it creates the rain which nourishes crops; and other celestial powers responsible for the gift of life revered by the I-San people. By setting the ‘fireboats’ adrift, one also symbolically casts away one’s grief, misery and ill-fortunes.

    Traditionally, a ‘fireboat’ was hewn out of a 10-12 metre banana tree trunk or and other buoyant material readily found in the vicinity. The various forms and structure it takes is made by shaping spliced bamboo slithers and other inflammable components. Contemporary versions are either made from actual boats or petrol drums adorned with flowers, incense sticks, candles, light bulbs, fireworks and pyrotechnics. Once the ritual offerings have been made, the boats are salvaged and recycled for the next festival.