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What do you get when you place a sacred Buddha image on a boat, add a million lotus flowers, lots of food, a little alcohol, endless other colourful boats and thousands of onlookers who frantically throw flowers from the side of a canal? It’s the Lotus Throwing Festival, or Rab Bua, held annually on Awk Pansa day near Bangkok. The exact dates depend on the moon but usually fall in September or October.
The lotus, or bua in Thai, is a symbol of purity in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In the Buddha’s birth story, dazzling lotuses magically appear at each of the infant’s first footsteps. Lotuses also represent the human journey from suffering to enlightenment, beginning deep down in the murky water — which represents the monotonous cycle of birth, death and rebirth — before “blossoming” above the water at the point of enlightenment. In Thai Buddhist temples, lotuses are routinely incorporated into many ceremonies.
The Lotus Throwing Festival’s roots are thought to have been sewn by the many Mon people who settled in Samut Prakan province, just south of Bangkok, after fleeing their war-torn homeland in what’s now southern Burma during the 1700s. In the old days, Bang Phli residents received festival-goers by offering them the freshly picked lotuses that thrived in the area. Rab means “to receive”, though the festival has also become known as Yon Bua, or “Throw Lotus”, for obvious reasons. In front of Wat Bang Phli Yai Nai along the Samrong Canal in Bang Phli district, the festival still takes place in a frenzy of lotus tossing each year.
Rab Bua coincides with Awk Phansa (literally: “Out of the Rains”), a Thai holiday marking the time when monastics are free to travel again after spending the monsoon months in study and meditation. Wat Bang Phli Yai Nai houses Luang Phor Toh, a sacred Buddha image that’s said to have miraculously floated down the Chao Phraya river centuries ago. During the festival, a replica of the image is taken for a morning cruise along the canal, symbolising the re-emergence of the monastic community after the rains.
Three days of festivities includes folk theatre, beauty contests, a boat decorating competition, boat racing and a rowboat tug-of-war among other activities. The main event is an elaborate floating procession that gets underway early — by 07:00 — on the final day and features intricately decorated wooden boats rowed by local people in traditional Thai costumes. Thick crowds throw lotuses at all of the boats, but everyone makes sure to have a handful ready as the one carrying Luang Phor Toh gets close.
The faithful nudge and stretch to grab as many lotuses as they can from centrally located flower bins. Even after living in tightly packed Bangkok for a few years, this was one of the most crowded scenes we’ve experienced. Expect a fair bit of good-natured jostling.
As the golden Buddha approaches, the revellers pause to hold lotuses up to their foreheads while making a wish or prayer. It’s believed that if your lotus lands on Luang Phor Toh’s lap, your wish is bound to come true. Any direct hit means good luck is on the way. To gain optimal odds, the most serious festival-goers fill up longtail boats with mounds of lotuses and chase Luang Phor Toh down the canal, flinging as they go.
When Luang Phor Toh is finally within striking distance, the scene resembles a small, happy riot where lotuses fly rather than tear gas. The crowd pulses closer to the canal. A few people take an unexpected dip. Hundreds of lotuses are heaved into the air.
Finally, the boat parks in front of Wat Bang Phli Yai Nai, allowing for one last chance to hit Luang Phor Toh with a lotus. A path is cleared through the thick crowd as the replica Buddha image is carried back to its usual resting place. Everyone gathers round to take pictures as if this inanimate statue were Tom Cruise.
The scene resembles New York’s Times Square minutes after it rings in the new year, except it’s pedals instead of confetti that blankets the grounds.
By noon, the crowd thins out as this dizzying yet fascinating spectacle comes to a close. Some stick around to graze on the bountiful food sold by the stands in the temple parking lot, or go for a spin on the ferris wheel at a carnival that runs into the night. Others take a stroll through neighbouring Bang Phli old market. Most residents turn up the music for an afternoon of partying. This is Bang Phli’s day in the sun.
Wat Bang Phli Yai Nai is located 30 kilometres southeast of central Bangkok in Samut Prakan province. Get up before sunrise and catch a taxi to “Wat Bang Phli Yai Nai / Talaat Bang Phli”. The trip should cost around 200 baht from lower Sukhumvit Road.
Starting at 07:00, songthaews also run to Bang Phli from Bearing BTS sky train station; just make sure the driver is heading to Thepharak Road (thanon thae-paa-rak) before you hop on board. The songthaew will drop you along the main road near a shopping centre, from where you’ll need to find the side road that leads over the canal (just follow the crowds). Alternately, you can watch the parade from anywhere along the Samrong Canal in Bang Phli, including nearby Wat Bang Phli Yai Klang, which should be slightly less crowded. For the return trip, make your way back to Thepharak Road and wait for a taxi, or catch a passing songthaew or bus after asking if it runs to “BTS Bearing/Sukhumvit”.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 10th March, 2015.