Thai­land Cel­e­brates

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From a rocket fes­ti­val wel­com­ing the rainy sea­son to New Year’s cel­e­bra­tions that prom­ise to make a splash, the Land of Smiles knows how to party. Here are more than a dozen Thai cul­tural fes­tiv­i­ties to add to your travel cal­en­dar this year.

APRIL 13–15

Songkran

Thai­land’s wildest party is also its wettest, yet no one seems to mind the three-day drench­ing. Mark­ing the Thai New Year, Songkran cel­e­bra­tions be­gin with morn­ing merit mak­ing in the form of tem­ple vis­its, where lo­cals leave of­fer­ings for Bud­dha and pour wa­ter over stat­ues to wash away sins and bad luck. Over time, this sym­bolic ges­ture has bal­looned into the world’s largest wa­ter fight, held along streets and in parks across the coun­try, with ev­ery­one from chil­dren to the el­derly tak­ing part. Many Thais re­turn home to be with their rel­a­tives over the New Year pe­riod, but those that re­main in big cities will hap­pily take on tourists with buck­et­fuls of wa­ter and squirt guns. If you’re in Bangkok, head to Wat Pho to see the fes­tiv­i­ties in full swing, while in Chi­ang Mai, pro­ceed­ings launch on April 12 with a street pa­rade that leads to Tha Pae Gate, a fourk­ilo­me­ter stretch hand­ily lo­cated along a moat.

MAY 4–8

Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Fes­ti­val)

This north­ern Thai fes­ti­val goes off with a bang—lit­er­ally. Held in the north­east prov­ince of Ya­sothon, Bun Bang Fai sees vil­lagers pa­rade col­or­fully dec­o­rated rock­ets through the streets, cart­ing floats for kilo­me­ters while par­tak­ing in mu­sic and dance per­for­mances. Rang­ing in size from a few cen­time­ters to 10 me­ters long, the rock­ets are launched sky­ward one by one to much ap­plause, with the act seen to earn fa­vor in Bud­dhist tra­di­tion and has­ten the rainy sea­son. There’s healthy com­pe­ti­tion around each take-off, with rock­ets judged not only on their ap­pear­ance but also by the height they reach and the di­rec­tion they fly. With an econ­omy heav­ily re­liant on agri­cul­ture, the re­gion’s lo­cals will go to great lengths to ap­pease Phaya Thaen, the god of rain, and Phra Mae Phosop, the god­dess of rice.

MAY 29

Visakha Bucha Day

It may be one of the more sub­dued Thai fes­ti­vals, but Visakha Bucha is also one of the coun­try’s most im­por­tant. Com­mem­o­rat­ing three defin­ing events and held on a full moon, Visakha Bucha marks the day Bud­dha was born, reached en­light­en­ment 35 years later, and died and en­tered Nir­vana 45 years af­ter that. Cel­e­bra­tions re­volve around the county’s tem­ples—if you’re in Bangkok, head to Wat Pho, the city’s old­est Bud­dhist tem­ple and a hub for wor­ship­ing on the day. Thais also of­fer alms to monks in the morn­ing, lis­ten to Dharma preach­ing, and set birds or fish free to pre­vent bad karma. In Chi­ang Mai, join the pil­grim­age at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, where a can­dle­light pro­ces­sion sees devo­tees cir­cum­am­bu­late the tem­ple holding of­fer­ings of in­cense and lo­tus flow­ers.

JUNE 15

Bun Pha Wet

A group of events held in Loei prov­ince in Thai­land’s north­east­ern Isan re­gion, Bun Pha Wet kicks off with Phi Ta Khon, also known as the Fes­ti­val of Ghosts. In one of his past lives as a prince, Bud­dha made a long jour­ney and was pre­sumed dead. When he did fi­nally re­turn, the cel­e­bra­tions were so rau­cous

they woke the dead, or so the story goes. Lo­cals call upon leg­endary monk Phra Upakut for pro­tec­tion while march­ing in a pro­ces­sion wear­ing or­nate masks and car­ry­ing wooden phal­luses. There are more cos­tumes and pa­rades on day two, which also gets loud thanks to the in­cor­po­ra­tion of el­e­ments of Ya­sothon’s Rocket Fes­ti­val. The ca­coph­ony con­tin­ues on day three with men parad­ing through town wear­ing cow­bells at­tached to their waists. Bring your stamina (and per­haps some earplugs).

JULY

Ubon Ratchathani Can­dle Fes­ti­val

Held around the days of Asalha Puja (Bud­dha’s first ser­mon), this cel­e­bra­tion is ob­served in many vil­lages through­out the coun­try. But few fes­tiv­i­ties are more en­ter­tain­ing than those held in the north­east prov­ince of Ubon Ratchathani. The sea­sonal mon­soon rains de­scend­ing over the king­dom mark the be­gin­ning of the Bud­dhist “rain re­treat” and lent, dur­ing which time monks re­treat to their tem­ples. It’s tra­di­tion for lo­cals to make of­fer­ings to the monks and light can­dles to dis­pel the gloom of the rain. In the city of Ubon Ratchathani, res­i­dents take the lat­ter ac­tiv­ity to heart, parad­ing elab­o­rate can­dles de­pict­ing Bud­dhist mythol­ogy through town. Crafted from wood be­fore be­ing coated in wax, the larger-than-life mas­ter­pieces are too beau­ti­ful to burn, but there are smaller can­dle cre­ations to en­sure streets are set aglow.

AU­GUST

Ang Thong In­ter­na­tional Drums Fes­ti­val

If some­one at this fes­ti­val tells you to beat it, don’t be of­fended —they’re prob­a­bly en­cour­ag­ing you to make some mu­sic. Held in Ang Thong prov­ince, around 100 kilo­me­ters north of Bangkok on the Chao Phraya River, the event was cre­ated to show­case the tal­ented drum mak­ers that call the re­gion home. Ex­pect a lot of noise dur­ing the street pro­ces­sion that at­tracts hun­dreds of dancers and mu­si­cians, as well as drum­ming com­pe­ti­tions, cul­tural per­for­mances, and demon­stra­tions on how to make the mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

AU­GUST 25

Por Tor (Hun­gry Ghost Fes­ti­val)

For the Chi­nese com­mu­nity of Phuket, ghostly an­ces­tors are as much a part of a fam­ily’s daily life as its liv­ing rel­a­tives. Oc­ca­sion­ally, these ghosts are haunted by hunger, at which time it’s be­lieved the gates of hell open to give these poor starv­ing spir­its the chance to re­visit their fam­i­lies and en­joy a feast. Many events re­volve around the home, in­clud­ing the prepa­ra­tion of a multi-course meal laid out for the dearly de­parted to en­joy—a stick of burn­ing in­cense in each dish in­di­cates when the ghosts have fin­ished eat­ing, and when the rest of the fam­ily can join in. In Phuket Town, fes­tiv­i­ties are at their fullest in Seng Tek Bel Shrine and Ranong Road mar­ket, where lo­cals par­tic­i­pate in merit-mak­ing cer­e­monies and lion dance pa­rades to wel­come the spir­its back to earth—if only for a short time. Of­fer­ings left at al­tars in­clude flow­ers, fruit, and red cakes shaped like tur­tles, with the

color bring­ing good luck and the an­i­mal rep­re­sent­ing strength and longevity. SEPTEM­BER

Phi­chit Long Boat Rac­ing Fes­ti­val

Held dur­ing the rainy sea­son when wa­ter lev­els are high, the long­boat fes­ti­val in Phi­chit, lo­cated 330 kilo­me­ters due north of Bangkok on a trib­u­tary of the Chao Phraya, is thought to be the old­est of its kind in the king­dom. Need­less to say, par­tic­i­pants take it very se­ri­ously, some­times spend­ing years carv­ing their craft from aus­pi­cious trees–train­ing is just as crit­i­cal, with only sports­peo­ple at the top of their game tak­ing to the wa­ter. Be­fore they’re floated on the Nan River, the 50-plus boats are pa­raded around town by their row­ers, grouped into three race types: large long­boats with up to 55 row­ers, medium-sized craft with up to 40 row­ers, and small boats with up to 30 crew mem­bers. Af­ter the race, fes­tiv­i­ties take to the shore where cul­tural per­for­mances and pageants trans­form river­banks with a riot of color. While the main event takes place in Phi­chit, sur­round­ing prov­inces in­clud­ing Sing Buri, Ang Thong, and Ayut­thaya also host smaller races. OC­TO­BER 8–17

Phuket Veg­e­tar­ian Fes­ti­val

Thai­land’s most ex­treme cel­e­bra­tions ac­tu­ally have very mod­est mo­ti­va­tions, with the coun­try’s Chi­nese com­mu­nity be­liev­ing that an ab­sti­nence from meat and stim­u­lants dur­ing the ninth lu­nar month of the Chi­nese cal­en­dar will help bring good health and well­be­ing for the year ahead. Lo­cal leg­end has it that a tour­ing oper­atic group fell ill with malaria while vis­it­ing Phuket, but made a re­mark­able re­cov­ery af­ter ad­her­ing to a strict veg­e­tar­ian diet and pray­ing for pu­rifi­ca­tion. To com­mem­o­rate the troupe, events held in Phuket Town are marked by a grue­some line-up of cer­e­monies—think fire walk­ing, climb­ing a lad­der of knives, par­tic­i­pat­ing in ex­treme body pierc­ing, and other acts of self-mor­ti­fi­ca­tion while in a trance-like state; it’s said that those in­volved are act­ing as medi­ums of the gods. Lo­cals punc­ture their cheeks with knives and spears and pa­rade through town, con­fi­dent that deities will pro­tect them from harm and pain. And yes, there’s veg­e­tar­ian food aplenty; look out for yel­low flags dis­played in restau­rant win­dows. OC­TO­BER 23

Rap Bua (Lo­tus Re­viv­ing Fes­ti­val)

In Bang Phli on the out­skirts of Bangkok, thou­sands of wor­ship­pers gather on the banks of Sam­rong Canal on the morn­ing of Rap Bua, one day be­fore the end of the Bud­dhist Lent. As gilded cer­e­mo­nial barges dec­o­rated with stat­ues of Bud­dha pass by, peo­ple throw lo­tus flow­ers at the wa­ter and make wishes for the com­ing year’s for­tunes. OC­TO­BER 23–24

Chon­buri Buf­falo Races

Held an­nu­ally for more than a cen­tury, this fes­ti­val cel­e­brates the im­por­tant place that wa­ter buf­fa­los

play in the life of Chon­buri farm­ers. Al­though truth be told, it’s more of an ex­cuse to get to­gether and have a lot of fun. Buf­fa­los dressed up with col­or­ful cloth and flow­ers are raced in three classes based on size, pick­ing up quite a pace along the muddy trail— jock­eys need to be ag­ile and strong to hang on. Per­haps the high­light, how­ever, is the Miss Buf­falo beauty pageant, which sees at­ten­dees don glam­orous cos­tumes while vy­ing for the high-pro­file ti­tle. NOVEM­BER 23

Loy Krathong

A na­tion­wide fes­ti­val of lights, Loy Krathong trans­lates as “to float a bas­ket.” While there are var­i­ous rit­u­als held at Bud­dhist tem­ples across the coun­try, the most pop­u­lar is the launch of krathong: buoy­ant, dec­o­rated bas­kets crafted from banana leaves and topped with can­dles, flow­ers, in­cense, and per­sonal items—some peo­ple add coins, nail clip­pings, or locks of hair—be­fore be­ing re­leased, along with your wishes, on rivers, lakes, and canals. The glow­ing spec­ta­cle of thou­sands of lights is made even more mag­i­cal by the fact it’s held an­nu­ally on the evening of a full moon. Thais will have you be­lieve that if your krathong floats away and the can­dle stays lit, your wishes will come true; if it re­turns to shore or the flame goes out, you may not have the good for­tunes you hoped for. While not strictly a re­li­gious fes­ti­val, the event is thought to pay homage to the wa­ter god­dess, Mae Khongkha, for pro­vid­ing an abun­dant har­vest. NOVEM­BER 23

Yi Peng (Lantern Fes­ti­val)

Co­in­cid­ing with Loy Krathong, this cus­tom­ary Lanna (north­ern Thai­land) event is a time to make merit and get one’s for­tunes in check for the year ahead. The khom loi (lanterns) are tra­di­tion­ally made from rice pa­per stretched over a bam­boo frame; a can­dle pro­vides the hot air re­quired to lift the lantern into the sky. Lanterns are also used to dec­o­rate homes, gar­dens, and tem­ples, and some lo­cals carry them around strapped to long sticks. Chi­ang Mai is one of the few Thai cities per­mit­ted to host this fes­ti­val, and given the po­ten­tial haz­ards, flights are of­ten can­celled in and out of the city on the night. For the best view of the lantern re­lease and fire­works that fol­low at 6:30 p.m., head to Maejo Univer­sity or one of the city’s rooftop bars—the twin­kling out­look is hard to beat. NOVEM­BER 24

Lop­buri Mon­key Ban­quet

Long-tailed macaques take cen­ter stage at this ex­trav­a­ganza, held in the north­ern Thai city of Lop­buri. Mis­chievous mon­keys are a com­mon daily sight across the re­gion, with many of the pri­mates gath­er­ing amid the town’s spec­tac­u­lar Kh­mer ru­ins. It’s here that the ban­quet takes place, with long ta­bles piled high with sticky rice, fruits, and salad for the mon­keys to en­joy; while they eat, there’s live mu­sic and dance per­for­mances to bring good luck. Stand well away from the ta­bles, as food fights are a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence among the cheeky crea­tures.

Above: Splash­ing out dur­ing Songkran fes­tiv­i­ties in Chi­ang Mai. Right: A mask worn dur­ing Phi Ta Khon, or the Fes­ti­val of Ghosts.

Left: Red tur­tle cakes are of­fered to an­ces­tors dur­ing Phuket’s Por Tor Fes­ti­val. Above: A pa­rade of larger-thanlife can­dles high­lights the Ubon Ratchathani Can­dle Fes­ti­val.

Left: Rit­ual self­mu­ti­la­tion is a sta­ple of the Phuket Veg­e­tar­ian Fes­ti­val. Above: On­look­ers toss­ing lo­tus flow­ers to a pass­ing barge to cel­e­brate Rap Bua.

Left: A teenage girl at Chi­ang Mai’s Wat Phan Tao float­ing a lantern for the Loy Krathong fes­ti­val. Above: Mon­keys at a Kh­mer-era ruin in the cen­ter of Lop­buri.

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