Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Alexandra DeCraene

Published Date : Dec 3, 2019

Camp and Culture in Ubon Ratchathani

Alexandra DrCraene is a 2018-2019 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) placed at Patumpittyakom Secondary School in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand where she teaches grade 7-12 students. Alexandra is from Grosse Pointe Woods, MI and graduated from Miami University with a BA in English and a minor in Marketing. She enjoys learning to cook Thai food, reading, and traveling.

Ubon Ratchathani is a city of about 90,000 people in northeast Thailand, in a region called Issan. Issan is known for hot weather, spicy food, and beautiful people. It has its own culture, different than other parts of Thailand, as it is heavily influenced by Laos. Many people speak Issan dialect rather than “Bangkok Thai.” This region is unexplored by most Thai people.

However, every July tourists from all over Thailand come to Ubon Ratchathani to take part in the annual Candle Festival. The Ubon Candle Festival marks the beginning of Buddhist Lent. Buddhist Lent lasts for three months, and people are encouraged to abstain from alcohol, avoid rich foods, and otherwise focus on living a better life. The huge candles at the festival are meant to symbolize the candles used by the monks during this period and wish them luck during Lent.

When I say the candles are big, they are not your average three-wick affair. People from all over the community start working on the giant floats in April or May, spending months delicately crafting wax to decorate the candles. There are two main types, carved candles and ones with a ‘base’ and intricate patterns of wax are attached.

I visited a temple that is sponsored by my school during the lead up to the festival. In the workspace, monks and other helpers take balls of hot wax and press them into molds using wine bottles as rolling pins. The creates a wax pattern. Then, the volunteers carve off the excess wax. Students from my school, Ubon’s universities, and community members come during their free time to work on sculpting the wax. Tables are set up next to the temple where people all sit together and share tools, sitting in near silence as they focus on the delicate wax carving.

After the design is finished, the monks collect them and hand them off to the float so the decoration can begin. Sometimes the heat of Thailand is enough to make the wax pliable to stick, other times they employ the use of a hair dryer. With one of my teachers, I was able to take part in every step of the process. It really built the anticipation for the festival to begin.

While festivals happen all over Thailand, Ubon’s is by far the largest. It was such a fun and unique experience to share my city with people from the rest of the country. The somewhat slow-paced city was transformed with huge crowds and parages in the street. The many parades had traditional Thai and Issan style dancing and performances to accompany the floats. The students at my school practiced in their free time for weeks to prepare. With such a large audience, I understand why they were nervous!

My fellow ETAs and I attended the festival and watched as the parade traveled through the streets of Ubon. We were even invited to learn some traditional Issan dancing in the parade! We saw some of my students helping out with our school candle, and they were so excited to see the ETAs they had met the day before at our English camp.

I was lucky enough to host 9 other ETAs from the cohort for the festival. My school also planned an English camp and the ETAs came to my school to meet my students and teachers as well as join in the festival activities. Ubon is pretty far from the other ETAs in the cohort, so it worked out they could join us for both activities in one trip.

The camp had 80 students from my school, Patumpittyakom Secondary School, and hosted 40 students from other schools in the city. We even had one group of adorable elementary school students join in! It was such a joy to see the students I’ve come to know over the past 10 months get to know the other ETAs and practice their English skills to speak to them. I was so proud of their success and their progress. My students who were so shy when I met ehm, were going to speak to my friends with ease!

For me, this is the beauty of teaching abroad. Although it is sometimes frustrating when students don’t understand instructions, or I don’t have the language skills to know their concerns and lives, there is an ability to communicate and connect which goes beyond language. A little English, a little Thai, and a lot of smiling and laughing.

As usual, Thai people were gracious hosts. My school helped organize the lodging for the ETAs, planned a welcome party with delicious food, and even hosted a party for us at a nice restaurant on the river to celebrate a successful camp. It is a part of Thai culture to “take care of you” as they say, but time and time again I am struck by the generosity Thai people show me and even strangers.

A big highlight of the camp for all of us was the opportunity to work with a student teacher at Patumpittyakom, named Bank. Bank will spend a semester at Marysville College in Tennessee as a part of Fulbright’s Global UGrad program. It was such a unique opportunity for all different parts of the “Fulbright Family” to work and spend time together.

Hosting all the ETAs, planning a camp, and all the logistics made a hectic month of preparation, but I wouldn’t change anything about the experience. As my Fulbright year comes to an end, I cherish the memories of my cohort and in my community. I am so lucky I could take part in such a special part of Ubon Ratchathani tradition and share it with the rest of my cohort.