The Illuminated Boat Procession (Lai Ruea Fai) has its origins in northeastern Thailand or the Isan region, specifically Nakhon Phanom. The festival—this year, taking place from October 20th to 30th, 2023—marks the end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat, also known as Buddhist Lent. In Thai, Lai Ruea Fai literally translates to “floating a fire boat.”
The footprints of Buddhist mythology
The beginning and end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat are referred to as Khao Phansa and Ok Phansa, respectively, meaning to “enter Vassa” and “exit Vassa.” In Buddhist lore, Ok Phansa marks Gautama Buddha’s descent from Trayastrimsa heaven, where he spent the entire three-month period converting his mother to Buddhism.
However, the festival’s connection with the Mekong River is based upon a completely separate tale. As the story goes, the mythical Naga serpents invited Buddha to preach Buddhism in their underwater palaces. Afterwards, he was asked to place his footprint at the mouth of India’s Narmada River. The procession is held to worship the sacred footprint, as the Naga holds cultural significance to the peoples of the Isan region.
According to folklore, the Mekong River is believed to be one of the places where the Naga reside. Locals, therefore, use this opportunity to honor the river, which is a significant part of Thai culture, and repent for any wrongdoing.
Illuminated Boat Procession in Nakhon Phanom
To mark the occasion, the 12 districts of Nakhon Phanom decorate boats with flowers, incense, hand-carved candles, and lanterns. The boats are launched into the Mekong River in the evening, illuminating the waterway in one of the Kingdom’s most picturesque festivals. Filled with flammables and candlelight, the stunning boats eventually set themselves ablaze.
Modern versus historical processions
Nowadays, the illuminated boats use candlelight to create an image related to Buddhism, mythical creatures, or commemorating the royal family. Historically, however, the boats were made of bamboo or banana tree trunks. The practice is now referred to as Lai Ruea Fai Boran, or the Traditional Illuminated Boat Procession (🇹🇭).
During the ancestral custom, locals and other festival-goers are invited to place their hair trimmings or nail clippings on the boat to “burn” their sorrows away. The blazing fire also symbolizes the transience of life, destined to go out.