by Greg Jorgensen
Thais are serious about having fun and enjoying life, a trait that is best seen in the many and varied festivals that go on throughout the year. From waterlogged street parties to raucous fireworks displays, to solemn candle-lit meditation, there’s a festival for every mood! Here are five of our favorites:
Chinese New Year
With Thailand’s large ethnic Chinese population, it’s no surprise that one of the more exuberant festivals is the Chinese New Year. The date changes each year but it generally falls between late-January and early-February. It’s a raucous explosion of parades, dances, costumes and food that sees entire communities mobilized to celebrate the holiday as colorfully as possible. Although there are plenty of opportunities for action-packed pictures and all-night celebrating, locals also use the time to pay respect to their ancestors, making sure their children recognize and understand the spiritual component of it all. Most towns and villages observe the holiday, but the best place to experience it is in Bangkok’s dense and steamy Yaowarat district (Chinatown).
Pee Ta Kon, aka, Ghost Festival
There’s a legend that says when the Buddha returned to his home after many years away, there was a party so big that even the spirits joined in. And thus goes the increasingly famous Pee Ta Kon, or Ghost Festival, which takes places in Loei province in July. Possibly the wildest celebration in Thailand, revelers dress up in large, elaborate ghost masks and stream up and down the streets parading giant phalluses like trophies through the dancing, cheering crowds. On the last day, homemade bamboo rockets (some of them startlingly large) are launched into the sky in the hopes of bringing rain. The fun is underscored by serious introspection, and on the last day many attend sermons that delve into the teachings of the Buddha. And there’s a bit of alcohol consumed along the way.
The mother of all Thai festivals is undoubtedly Songkran, or the Thai New Year, officially occurring from April 13-15. To the untrained eye, it may seem nothing more than an all-out, three-day water war between you and every other person you see, but it actually comes from a much deeper tradition than merely blasting your neighbor with a super-sized water gun. Officially the festival is a way to pay respect to your elders by pouring scented water over their cupped hands which signifies humility, a cleansing of past transgressions and the beginning of a new year full of opportunity. Families also pour a bit of water down the back of the neck of elders. It’s also a time to wash/bathe Buddha images which are most important to you, usually those at home or at a nearby temple. While these traditional acts still play out at serene family gatherings, it’s the waterlogged partying that brings out the crowds. Festivities take place all over the country, but the biggest and best are in Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
Buffalo Racing Festival
Often used as slang for a stupid person, the water buffalo – or kwai – has been a key part of Thailand’s agricultural development for centuries, and this fun and rowdy festival in Chonburi province in October finally gives these beasts their due. Jockeys sit astride their mounts and when the whistle blows, they’re off! Well, sometimes – often they just wander forward without a care in the world looking for grass to eat, but when they do decide to thunder down the track, it’s a sight to behold. There are also parades, food, and even a beauty pageant for the most beautiful buffalo!
Undoubtedly Thailand’s most beautiful festival, November’s Loy Krathong is all about giving thanks, mainly to Phra Mae Khongkha, the water goddess, for using her water; Thailand, after all, has always been a heavily agricultural and water-based society. During the full-moon day in November devotees across the country will literally ‘let go’ of stress and bad feelings by floating a ceremonial krathong, a small floating object usually made out of banana plant, onto a body of water and saying a prayer. In addition to this, millions of candle-lanterns are let go, making for a gorgeous scene as they rise slowly into the night. Huge crowds throughout the country are a testament to Loy Krathong being the most romantic and spiritual of all Thai festivals.
Now it’s time to get to Thailand and experience a few for yourself!