2020 notwithstanding, every year, several festivals are held in the “Land of Smiles” starting from the Thai New Year and continuing all year long. Although beaches or cuisine are usually what draws tourists in, it’s Thailand’s deep cultural traditions that set it apart, and each of these unique festivals showcases that. What makes these festivals so unique and a worthwhile experience for travelers? Read on to find out.
Songkran Festival (Between 13 and 15 April)
This festival promises to be a fun one as the city transforms into one giant water fight. Songkran derives its name from the Sanskrit word meaning “to move” or “pass into”. The Water festival is held annually between 13 and 15 April and marks the Thai New Year. The festival is most famous for Thai citizens and tourists who take to the streets with water balloons, buckets or water pistols and spray each other in one giant water fight, so be prepared as no one on the streets is exempt from being hit by the spray of an errant water pistol.
The notion behind this festival is to purify or wash away bad luck from the past year so that one can start afresh in the new one. Tradition calls for the cleaning of Buddhist statues in the hope of bringing good luck in the new year. The festival is best celebrated in Bangkok and in the northern cities like Chang Mai.
Festival of Lights or Loi Krathong (13 November)
During Loi Krathong festival, Thai people go to lakes, rivers, beaches and canals to pay their respects to the goddess of water by releasing Krathong (lanterns). It takes place late October or early November. Chang Mai is the place to experience this beautiful site as hundreds and thousands of lanterns are launched onto water.
When releasing the lantern one is supposed to wish your problems and bad luck away as it is a symbol of new beginnings. This festival is especially popular with newly married couples wishing for a happy life together.
It is also customary to include a coin offering in the krathong, however it has been known that people may swim to retrieve these coins after the celebrations are over. The festival always takes place on a full moon, this year the date is set for 13 November.
Yi Peng Lantern Festival (01 November)
Loi Krathong coincides with Yi Peng festival, which is also held in November every year. The festival involves releasing floating lanterns into the sky and takes place mainly in Chiang Mai.
Numerous iconic photos have been taken of hundreds and thousands of lanterns being launched into the air at this iconic festival. These lanterns made from rice paper known as khom loi are decorated with various messages letting go of misfortune and heralding a new beginning.
Folklore says that if you release your lantern correctly you will receive good luck but only IF you do good deeds in the following year. If you watch your lantern disappear into the darkness it is also considered good luck however if you watch it burn out before it disappears the converse is true. Be warned! This has to be one of the most charming and beautiful festivals.
Boon Bang Fai (The Rocket Festival) (The second weekend in May)
To symbolically seed the clouds and mark the beginning of the rainy season many people gather to launch rockets into the sky. Boon Bang Fai literally translated means “fiery tube” and is one of the iconic elements of Isan culture. The festival is held annually at the start of the rainy season and the rockets or bang fai are launched to ask the god of the sky Phaya Taen to send rain.
The festival is unique as it involves the first few days of bawdy activities, cross-dressing, raunchy dances and songs and giant phalluses are just a part of the days revelry. After which a procession of the rockets takes place towards a giant launch pad. After showing respect to the Gods in the morning at the caterpillar shrine. The rockets are launched with prizes going to the rocket that travels the highest in the sky. The biggest festival is held in Yasothon, in Thailand’s North East province.
Surin Elephant Festival (12 and 23 November)
This festival takes place between 12 and 23 November in Thailand’s Surin province. The festival has been ongoing for the last 50 years or more. It starts with a parade through the streets of Surin. The day also includes the appropriately named “elephant breakfast” which sees the elephants tuck into a buffet of fruit laid out for them in their honour. There are other festivities that make the day astounding to audiences such as an elephant “tug of war” between man and the giant pachyderms.
Thailand celebrates the special connection the Thai people have with these gentle giants. Although there are a lot of ethical issues around elephant tourism in Thailand, it cannot be denied that these animals play a significant role in the history and culture of the country. And whilst it is recommended that tourists and citizens alike do not engage in activities that perpetuate this trade, this festival marks a celebration for a creature that is deeply rooted within the country and its culture.
Wing Kwai (Water Buffalo Racing Festival – Every October)
This tradition has been ongoing for the last 100 years and every October brings in tourists from far and wide. Chonburi in Thailand’s Pataya province, hosts this festival. The race of the water buffalo takes place on a racetrack which is over 100 meters long and jockeys ride bareback on their trusty stead. The main purpose is to stay on the track if the rider falls off, he loses the race. The water buffalo are divided in different categories based on their size to make the race fair. The festival originated in the 19th Century when farmers wanted to express their gratitude the creatures who helped them on their farms.
Although the race is the main attraction many tourists flock there for the other activities taking place throughout the day such the buffalo beauty contest and buffalo decorating. The buffalos selected for the race must be healthy and properly cared for. The winning buffalo can be sold for as much as $9000.
This festival has attracted throngs of locals and foreigners and heralds the end of the rainy season and start of the harvest season. The water buffalo were an integral part of agriculture in Thailand and this festival celebrates them.
Phuket Vegetarian Festival (9th Lunar Month of every year)
Last but not least, this colourful festival is held in the 9th Lunar Month of each year and celebrates the belief that abstinence from meat and other stimulants will bring them peace and clarity of mind and good health.
The history of this festival can be traced back to a group of travelling Chinese Opera singers who fell ill upon arrived on Phuket island. The group followed the Chinese tradition of abstaining from eating meat, drinking alcohol, engaging in sexual activities, telling lies and quarrelling and the group made a miraculous recovery. Hence the tradition began to follow the same rules in thanks to the gods who saved their ancestors and the festival has been celebrated ever since.
Although this one is certainly not for the faint hearted, visitors need to be warned the festival has a gruesome and terrifying aspect such as participants spear themselves, walk across hot coals and are often seriously injured due to improper use of fireworks.
The starting event is known as the Rising of the Lantern Pole which sees a 10-meter pole erected into the air to notify the 9 Chinese Gods that the festival is starting. After which some of the festival participants will walk across burning coals or climb up a ladder of sharp blades. However, the best part is indulging in the delicious vegetarian cuisine on offer all around the island during the festival, soy and tofu are used as meat substitutes. Yellow flags around food stalls denote vegetarian food being served there.