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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.