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Thailand: A year in festivals

By John McMahon 15 November 2019

Traditional Thai festivals are joyful, celebratory affairs where locals and tourists mingle and have fun together. They are perfect opportunities to experience local culture and to keep traditions alive. John McMahon highlights four of his favourite Thai festivals to experience, from Bangkok to Phuket. 


Thailand is known worldwide as a party destination, which is due in some part to the fact that Thai people love to party. There are 20 official national holidays on the calendar in Thailand and about ten religious ones, adding up to over 50 weekdays off per year. As if that isn’t enough, Thailand absorbs other cultures’ days of celebration as well. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are as important in Thailand as in America. Thai people celebrate New Year’s three times; January first like most people in the world, January 28 for Chinese New Year, and again in April for Thai New Year. On top of this, every full moon is a Buddha day and there’s a smattering of royal birthdays that about half count for a party.

Photo courtesy of Bangkok.com

Water fights of Songkran

Mid-April and Late December; all across Thailand

The granddaddy of Thai holidays is Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration that can last anywhere between three days and two weeks depending on where you live. Songkran takes place on the vernal equinox, a traditional time across Southeast Asia to celebrate the end of the dry season and welcome the coming rain. It’s meant to be a celebration of renewal, rebirth, the survival of hard times passed, and bounty to come. Traditionally, Songkran was a time to join with family, venerate respected elders and pray to the field spirits for a good crop. Songkran today, however, is quite different. In most towns, the celebration consists of three or four days of water play. People stand on the roadside, tossing buckets of water or aiming hoses at any passersby, whether they be pedestrians, cyclists, dogs or vehicles. The big day arrives when the moon is full—the streets are jammed with roving pickup trucks loaded with fifty-gallon drums of ice water, and anywhere from ten to thirty revellers throwing water at everyone and everything that moves to the pounding beat of pop music.Depending on your temperament Songkran is either a great multi-day party or a week when you stock up and lay low in the air-conditioned confines of your house. It’s celebrated twice a year, the other being the week between Christmas and New Years when millions of people leave Bangkok for their home towns all around the country.

Floating candles of Loi Kratong 

Mid-November; all across Thailand 

From the chaos of Songkran to the tranquillity of Loi Kratong. Celebrated on the first day of the full moon of the twelfth month, it’s a spectacle where people gather at temples near rivers or any other place that holds a large body of water to release kratong, a decorative offering traditionally made of banana stems, leaves, and flowers, but today as likely made of styrofoam and plastic with a candle and joss sticks (incense) stuck in the middle. Letting the kratong float away on the water represents letting bad luck flow away. Traditionally, this was a way to honour the spirits of water and wash away the bad karma of the old year. It is also said that by simultaneously releasing your kratong with a sweetheart will predict whether your relationship will last depending on whether the kratong float together or if the current pulls them apart. In addition to the kratongs floating on the water, there will be khom loy filling the air. Khom Loy are essentially large white paper bags with a beeswax candle suspended in the mouth. The lit candle fills the bag with hot air and floats off into the sky. As the kratong stream down the river with flickering candles releasing their fragrant aroma the sky is lit with of khom loy slowly disappearing into the darkness of the night. Traditionally people would put coins in their kratong for children to retrieve in the water and also write their address on the bag of the khom loy so if someone should find it, they could return it and get a small reward, thus making good merit for both finder and sender.

Buffalo racing at the Chonburi Buffalo Festival

October; Chonburi

An annual event that doesn’t receive much international attention—but is one of my favourites and the only one in the world of its kind—is the annual Chonburi Buffalo festival. It takes place in Chonburi, situated between Bangkok and Pattaya. Three days of non-stop buffalo-related events, including the healthiest buffalo contest, the Miss Thai Farmer beauty contest, buffalo cart parade, greased bamboo pole climbing for small denomination bills, catapult marksman contests, and—of course—heat after heat of buffalo racing. The buffalo jockeys sit far back on the animals’ haunches and use a whip-like piece of rattan to goad the buffalo’s on. Some of the biggest buffalos weigh upwards of 800 kilos and reach speeds of 30 kilometres. The festival is a reminder of the key role buffalos once played in Thailand as the all-purpose beast of burden that kept the rice bowl overflowing. These days few people keep them and they are disappearing from their mud wallows across the countryside. This serious side to the festival is easily forgotten though when swept up into the raucous company of mud-covered farmers parading their best animals amongst head hammering music and strong drink. 

Photos courtesy of BBC

Extreme face piercing at the Vegetarian Festival 

October; Phuket 

It’s all the rage. Get a little stud set in the corner of your mouth and everyone will know you’re a rebel. Put a three-foot-long skewer through your face, hang some watermelons at the end, and you’ll be part of the Vegetarian Festival.  This annual nine-day festival in October began a couple of hundred years ago on the island of Phuket when a Chinese opera troupe were stricken with fevers while visiting to perform. After being put on a vegetarian diet, they all recovered and this built into what is now a national celebration marked by mock meats of all kinds from fish maw to pork shoulder being sold on the streets.But it’s not only about food. Some take this time to abstain from all earthly delights; booze, sex, lying, stealing, and killing (it is only 9 days, after all). Attendees also dress in white and invite Chinese spirits to cleanse their souls. To prove they’re are truly possessed, participants take to the streets performing acts of strength and self-torture. Walking on coals, bathing in boiling oil, climbing up bladed ladders, and, of course, running huge skewers through both cheeks and then weighting them with fruit, vegetables, and flowers. There are more, so many more festivals. Any time of the year you may find yourself in the land of smiles, you’ll be able to satisfy your inner culture vulture by joining in on rituals of the sacred, profane, and just plain odd. 

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John McMahon

Contributor

John McMahon is a freelance writer and artist who lives on the banks of the River Kwai. He is the author of five novels and countless short stories, and his work has been published all over the English-speaking world.

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