Happy New Year - whilst most of us are still in recovery mode after this world wide, once-a- year special event, here in Thailand it often seems that the festivals and major celebrations are endless. In a country where everyday cultural norms never fail to fascinate and amaze newcomers and expats alike, it is no surprise that festivals often seem a little strange to the uninitiated. Thai people love to party, and over the centuries they have found a wealth of reasons to celebrate, and developed a range of accessories that includes umbrellas, candles, buffalos, rambutans and sunflowers, to name but a few. Although the theme of the festival may vary greatly, activities and events are generally quite similar with ceremonial processions, beauty parades, merit making and plenty of food and drink involved. The following summary of the major festivals in the Thai calendar is by no means complete, but it certainly provides an insight into the Thai party spirit, both traditional and modern. Please note: exact dates are subject to change based on the lunar calendar.
Chinese New Year (late Feb - early Mar) is the first major festival of the year, and it is celebrated with a week of house cleaning, lion dances and fireworks. It is also a time to pay visits to the family and to make merit for a prosperous future. Koh Samui has a large Thai Chinese community, and here the festival is celebrated with particular vigour with a special fair taking place in Nathon, and special pork, duck and chicken dishes prepared in houses all around the island. After this second New Year celebration comes a third, Songkran (April 13 - 15), the traditional Thai new-year festival that is without a doubt Thailand's biggest cultural event. The ceremonial part of Songkran takes place early in the day when offerings are given to temples, Buddha images are cleansed, homes are given a thorough cleaning and elder members of the family are sprinkled with water by their young relatives as a sign of respect. Later on, the action takes to the streets and considering the ferocity with which people celebrate, it is often hard to believe that Songkran is actually about things like wishing people luck, asking for rain and cleansing Buddha images with rosewater. This is especially true when you are in the back of a pick up truck filled with people, and everyone around you is armed with giant water pistols and buckets, throwing masses of water as hard as they possibly can at you and following this with giant handfuls of talcum powder in your face. To many foreigners, it is unfortunate that such excess takes place when water shortages are common, but many Thai people would argue that this, and the extreme nature of the event are a recent problem caused largely by western-style development. The festival itself is hundreds of years old. By early evening, the water is starting to smell, nobody can see anymore, people are falling out of their cars, and everyone has had the best day of their lives.
Once the New Year has been well and truly welcomed, on May 5 The King & Queen hold a ceremony to commemorate their 1950 coronation and then on May 20, revered monks deliver sermons, and candlelit processions are held throughout the country to celebrate Visakha Puja, which is widely considered to be the principal day of Buddha's life, symbolizing his birth, death & enlightenment. Along with Lord Buddha, the monarchy is also deeply honored by Thai people and the Queens Birthday (Aug. 12) & Kings Birthday (Dec. 5) are treated as special celebrations when buildings everywhere are colorfully lit up, and flags are hung outside homes. The western traditions of Mother's and Father's Day are also held on these dates.
Almost as big Songkran, though slightly more sedate, the festival of Loy Krathong (Nov. 20) is about making and decorating small floats, which are traditionally constructed from banana leaves and contain candles, incense, flowers and sometimes a lock of hair or some finger nail clippings. These small floating shrines symbolize the cleansing away of the past and also pay homage to Mother Water. The floating of the Krathong is thought to be a very romantic moment, and when a couple send their boat out onto the water, how far it goes, and how long the candles burn is indicative of how long the relationship will last. Wishes can also be made, and the likelihood of the wish coming true also depends on whether the Krathong floats or not. Hundreds of thousands of boats are pushed into waterways around the nation on this day, but fortunately most of them are bio - degradable, and in recent years the government has encouraged people to use traditional materials to make their floats. There are also fireworks, parades and a huge party that accompanies this celebration, which makes for a memorable evening of light, noise, and revelry. The beginning of the all important rice planting season is celebrated at the Royal Ploughing Festival (9 May) with the King presiding over an ancient Brahmin ritual and various ceremonies performed that provide omens used to predict how big the years rice crop will be. The major deciding factor is the Lord of the Festival ('Phaya Raek Nah'), who is presented with three types of clothes worn around the hips ('Panungs'), all of different lengths. If he chooses the longest one, then there will be much rain and rice, but if he chooses the short one, unfortunately there will not. Towards the end of the year the Yarowat (China Town) Food Festival takes place in Bangkok (25 Sept.), and is followed later in the year by the Trooping of the Colour (2nd Dec), when the King and Queen preside over a military display that
emphasizes Thailand's strength and sovereignty. As well as these national festivals, each region of the country also has its own collection of celebrations that take place throughout the year. Samui is home to many thousands of migrant workers from all over the country, so it's possible that some of the following selection may also be celebrated on the island.
The Festivals of Central Thailand
The renowned Don Chedi Memorial Fair (22 - 31 Jan) celebrates King Naresuan, who won an elephant duel that liberated Thailand in 1592. The highlight of the fair is, obviously, elephant duelling. Another fair celebrating a King then takes place (14 - 18 Feb) in Lopburi, the King Narai Reign Fair, which is held at his palace. During the 1600's the King's promotion of relations with European powers is celebrated with rituals, processions, sound shows, folk entertainment, and bazaars. Pattaya then holds something a little more modern with hip hop, pop, rock, jazz, and easy listening on the beach at the Pattaya Music Festival (18 - 20 Mar). Then a month or so later, when fruits like durian, rambutan, mangostein and zalacca are ripe, local people celebrate with fruit and flower processions, fruit contests, cultural shows, handicraft and agricultural exhibitions. All this and more can be seen at the Chantaburi & Trat Fruit Fair in May. The Flower Alms Offering Festival (31 July - 1st Aug.) takes place in Saraburi, but for a little more excitement later in the year the Buffalo Races (15 Oct) take place in Chonburi, where instead of ploughing, buffalos race against their friends and their farmers. Beauty contests are also held at this time, but the buffalos do not participate.
Another flower celebration is then held at the Sunflower Festival (1st Nov) and the well known River Kwai Bridge Week (21 Nov - 2 Dec) takes place with light and sound shows, exhibitions and rides on the vintage trains, all commemorating the 90, 000 prisoners of war who died constructing the bridge in Kanchanaburi. Ayuthaya, which was designated a World Heritage Site in '91 by UNESCO, also celebrates its past with exhibitions, processions and performances, along with a spectacular light and sound show around the city ruins in December.
The Festivals of Southern Thailand
Thanks to its popularity with tourists, Southern Thailand is fast becoming a centre for many of Thailand's more modern festivals. This year, the new Blues & World Music Festival began on Samui (28 Dec - 6 Jan) and don't leave your friends behind at the Phuket Gay Festival (3 - 6 Feb), South East Asia's premiere gay event. Jazz lovers shouldn't miss the Hua Hin Jazz Festival (18 -20 June).
There are also several more traditional events held in the south, the Asean Barred Ground Dove Festival (Early Mar) in Yala attracts bird lovers from all over Asia for a dove singing contest that also includes local handicrafts and sports contests. While the rambutan, which was first planted in 1926, is celebrated in Suratthani at the Rambutan Fair (1 - 10 Aug), which includes fruit floats and monkey shows. The King hosts some interesting events in Prachuap Kiri Kan during the Kings Cup Elephant Polo Festival (8 - 12 Sept.) Then a few days later the moon receives offerings, as well as lion and dragon dances, lantern processions, contests and folk entertainment, all of which take place during the Chinese Lunar Festival (20 Sept) at Songkhla. Also in September, a week long festival is held in Narathiwat with music, dance, and handicraft displays at the Kings Cup Koh Lae Boat Race (21 - 25 Sept.)
Chinese Thai people have celebrated the Vegetarian Festival (2-10 Oct) since the 19th century with a 10 day vegetarian diet, rituals, and parades. Many people also go into trances, walk on red hot coals, and pierce their bodies with spikes. These incredible displays of mind control can mainly be seen in Phuket and Trang, but there are also similar festivals on Koh Samui and Koh Phan Ngan at this time of year.
The Festivals of Northern Thailand
Bo Sang Village, near Chiang Mai, is renowned for its hand made umbrellas, and these are celebrated with contests, exhibitions, handicraft stalls and the crowning of Miss Sang in the Bo Sang Umbrella Fair & Sankampaeng Handicrafts Festival (17 - 19 Jan). The Chinese community honour their Golden Dragon god with lions, dragons and deities parading along side marching bands in a Dragon & Lion Parade at Nakhon Sawan (20 Jan - 10 Feb). While Poi Sang Long (20 Mar - 15 April) is set in one of Thailand's most scenic areas, Mae Hong Son, where a procession of monks in the Thai Yai tribal group allow for insights into tribal rituals as they celebrate the ordination of novices. Anyone who wants to can eat with elephants in a traditional northern banquet (kantoke) organised by the Thai Elephant Conservation centre at the Elephant Kantoke Fair (7 - 8 Feb) and then (7 - 9 Feb) floats, flower displays and beauty contests are celebrated at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival along with another celebration of flowers in Mae Hong Son, the Bua Tong Blossom Festival (14 - 16 May). The interestingly combined theme of lanterns and garlic is then celebrated at Yi Peng Lantern Festival (25 - 27 Nov.) in Chiang Mai, while garlic has its very own festival in Lampang, when a local beauty is actually crowned as Miss Garlic.
The Festivals of North Eastern Thailand
A week long homage to a sacred temple is attended by pilgrims all over the country in Nakhon Phanom Province at the That Phanom Festival (Jan) and March commemorates the work of an Angkor style temple with a procession, sound and light shows in Buriram Province. Also known as Bongfire, the Rocket Festival (May /June) sees locals in towns all over the Northeast make gigantic rockets out of PVC or bamboo, gunpowder and car batteries. The day before the event, massive rockets are paraded around in the back of pick up trucks and the next day everyone is given license to act as crazy as they like, dress however they want to (men are usually dressed as women or school kids) and then shoot rockets from atop a wooden platform. The idea is that the sky is female and shooting rockets at her will bring rain, this is also why phallic symbols are displayed on the day. Some people also dress as penises and wear them on their heads in order to entice the sky to come down. Usually, all that comes down is the giant rockets which tend to cause fires, as this festival is held during the driest part of the year. Those that haven't been injured finish the day by rolling around on the floor, covering themselves in mud and dirt. Also in June is a huge festival where everyone dresses in spirit costumes and masks to celebrate the story of Buddha who, when he was a Prince, returned home. The welcome back party was so big that the spirits came down to join in the celebrations and this story is continued in the Bun Phra Wet / Phii Ta Khon Festival (14 - 15 June). At the Candle Festival (31 July - 1 Aug), candles up to several metres tall are paraded to local temples in order to celebrate monks entering the 'Buddhist Rains Retreat' during the rainy season in Ubon Ratchathani. Carved boats baring candles on the Mekong River are then floated to celebrate the end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat in Nakhon Phanom in the Illuminated Boat Procession (23 - 27 Oct.) and in late November the Surin Elephant Round Up is held. This was so popular that other towns have copied the idea with over 100 elephants participating in races, mock battles, tugs of war, log pulling, parades of elephants in medieval clothing and elephant taming everywhere.
The extent and diversity of the festivals celebrated in this country are a testament to the depth of culture and history that Thailand embodies. Even today, local people go to great effort to prepare decorations, costumes and food for their village festivals and each event acts a bond for the community and also passes on valuable information about the past to the next generation. The sheer colour and verve expressed at many of the festivals described above has made them tourist attractions in their own right. Understanding, and participating such Thai celebrations is not only great fun, it will also ensure their longevity, and guard against a dull, branded world mono-culture replacing these fascinating traditional spectacles.