Nine Festivals to Experience in Thailand
Featured destinations: Thailand
Published 16 December 2016
It goes without saying that travelling is an enriching experience. From discovering new cultures and acquiring some local lingo, to sampling unusual delicacies and generally escaping your comfort zone, we learn so much more the further and further the journey. While living as a teacher in Thailand, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to enjoy many of the unique celebrations and events happening there. Although I missed many of the festivities taking place back home, such as Easter and Bonfire Night, I instead replaced them with a whole load of wonderfully exotic traditions and customs, central to the country’s Buddhist philosophy and in commemoration of its long history.
Below you’ll find a guide to, in my opinion, some of the biggest festivals, though really I’m just scratching the surface, as there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of events taking place regionally, as well as nationally. But as a bit of an insider, I think I’ve given you a good starting point, should you be thinking of heading over anytime soon.
Elephant shrines and offerings image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Wan Chang Thai (National Elephant Day)
These genteel giants have long been revered throughout the centuries in Thai society and are one of the nation’s most significant symbols. Wan Chang Thai is dedicated to these beautiful beasts and coincides with when country’s Royal Forest Department designated the white elephant as Thailand’s national animal way back in 1963, although the day has only been officially celebrated in its own right since 1998. To mark the occasion you’ll find events and ceremonies happening at zoos and elephant parks up and down the country, with the animals being treated to banquets of fruit and sugar canes, while Buddhist ceremonies take place with the hope of bringing luck to both the animals and their mahouts (handlers).
When: 13th March
Where: Zoos and elephant parks nationwide
National Muay Thai Day
Muay Thai is an exciting martial art that hails from the ‘Land of Smiles’. Going to see a local match while over there is definitely worth the trip, especially if you’re a fan of combat sports. Each year, those involved in Thai boxing will get together to celebrate one stand-out fighter, who they dub the hero of the year. In conjunction, commemorative events will take place at stadiums and training camps, with the most prestigious affairs happening in Thailand’s former capital, Ayutthaya. Visit here to enjoy week-long festivities, including displays, blessings and of course, matches.
When: 17th March
Where: Ayutthaya, plus Muay Thai stadiums and training camps nationwide
Songkran water fight image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Songkran (Thai New Year)
Who doesn’t love a water fight in the summer? Well, how about a festival dedicated to your favourite childhood past time? New Year in many Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, is celebrated with lively street parties and a whole lot of enthusiastic water splashing. So be prepared to get completely soaked by water guns, hoses and ice cold buckets when heading out into the streets. You may even be caught off-guard and ambushed, but it’s all in good fun and meant to be good luck! The water signifies a cleansing and purification of the soul, giving you a clean slate for the year ahead. Another tradition is to paste each other with din sor pong, a natural talc that is used as sun protection and to heal skin irritations. It’s pretty thick and messy, but it’s also completely harmless, as well as another token of good luck. Finally, if you’re taking part in Songkran, be sure to kit yourself in the brightest, most colourful attire possible. Flowery shirts are the general trend and are sold extensively throughout the festival.
When: 13- 15 April
Where: Nationwide, but particularly Chiang Mai, Bangkok and the islands
Man carves a candle at Thailand's Candle Festival
Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival
It might sound like a mundane theme for a festival, but the candle creations on display during this event are true masterpieces; moulded and sculpted to perfection to mark the start of the monsoon season and Buddhist Lent, or Phansa. Be prepared to be wowed!
When: Beginning of Buddhist Lent and the rainy season, generally in mid July
Where: Ubon RatchathaniHungry Ghost Festival shrine image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Hungry Ghost Festival
While the Thais don’t officially celebrate Halloween, this probably serves as the closest thing to it. As a people, they are deeper superstitious and have a strong belief in the paranormal – my students particularly loved me telling them ghost stories – and they believe that throughout the month, the veils separating Earth and the afterlife are lowered, allowing spirits to roam the living world. These ghosts are thought to be searching for food and entertainment, so in turn will be left offerings during special ceremonies at temples and shrines. Taking part is meant to bring you good luck, as well as appease the ghouls from the other side.
Where: Nationwide, but particularly Chiang Mai, Bangkok and the islands
Vegetarian food stalls image: Sandy Dhaliwal
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival (Vegetarian Festival)
Many Thais have Chinese heritage and for that reason their traditions and beliefs often stem from the Taoist strand of Buddhism. The Vegetarian Festival is one such example, as it is the Taoist Lent. During this time, meat, seafood and dairy – and in some cases even sex, alcohol, gambling and bad language – will be abstained from in order to keep the mind and body pure. The festival also celebrates with street parades hosting dancers, drummers, fireworks and more. Additionally, there will be rows and rows of delicious food stalls serving amazing veggie fare, so it’s a great place to try something new.
Another significant element of the festival are the Mah Song, people who become entranced during the festival and allow the spirits of the gods to enter their bodies. These individuals are said to feel no pain during this time, and testament to this are ritual demonstrations, which see the possessed pierce their bodies, normally their cheeks and tongues, with objects including knives! This not-for-the-fainthearted custom is meant to take away bad luck and evil spirits from the community, and is probably one of the most bizarre, yet fascinating things I have witnessed while living out there.
When: Varies from year to year, depending on the lunar calendar, but generally between September and November
Where: Phuket and southern Thailand
Krathongs, Loy Krathong image: Sandy Dhaliwal
Loy Krathong (Festival of Light)
Loy Krathong marks the end of the rainy season, seeing krathongs – elaborate flower and candle offerings – set adrift on water to give thanks to the water goddess, Mae Kongkha. Taking part is meant to be good luck and is supposed to allow your sins to float away with your krathong. To do it properly though, the locals advised me that I should add my hair and a few nail clippings, as well as some coins to my offering. You can also make a wish as you set your krathong off too. This was one of my favourite events in the Thai calendar as the waters would be beautifully lit, the community would be in jovial spirits holding street parties, parades, fireworks and concerts, and there was a wonderful sense of optimism and turning over a new leaf at this time of the year.
When: First full moon day of November
Where: Nationwide, but particularly Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Old Sukhothai and the islands
Lanterns at Yi Peng festival
Yi Peng (Lantern Festival)
Like Loy Krathong, Yi Peng marks the end of the rainy season, celebrating with a variety of colourful lantern releases, parades and ceremonies taking place around Chiang Mai’s Old Town district. You will also see homes, temples and shops decorated in similar fashion, while many donate lanterns to the temples as a form of good luck as well.
When: Coincides with Loy Krathong in November
Where: Chiang Mai
Monkeys eat at the Monkey Banquet Festival
Monkey Banquet Festival
If you love monkeys, then you do not want to miss the historical town of Lopburi, located just outside Bangkok. Take a trip to explore the region’s famous ruins, as well as the chance of meeting the hundreds of macaques who frequent the area. As these cheeky primates are a big tourist attraction, the local businesses put on rather lavish spreads and festivities every year, by way of thanks for the tourism they generate. It’s a wonderful sight, animal lover or not!
When: Last Sunday in November