Festivals play an integral part in Thai life. Like many festivals around the world they celebrate religious events, key Buddhist dates in the calendar. But this is Thailand, where festivals are thrown in honor of everything from rice to rain. Each festival is uniquely Thai flavored, even those that are clearly Western by design. Infused with the culture of the hosts. What else would you expect from the land of smiles? Here is our list of some of our favorites. This could never be a definitive list and we did not set out to produce one. That would be impossible. It is simply a list of events that we know to be simply wonderful. Days that will create memories to stay with you forever.
Songkran – Water Festival
Where else could we start but with the craziest, wettest party in the world. The legendary Songkran is an amazing New Year party like no other. Prepare to get wet. Very very wet. You will have every possible medium for delivering water come your way. Buckets are popular, bowls and bags are used. Increasingly common though are the powerful hand-pumped water pistols that resemble serious military hardware.
The party has spread across the country and can now be enjoyed in cities and on islands throughout. To experience the original thing, head for its spiritual home in Chiang Mai. They take it seriously here and do it well. Water will be thrown on you by all, including little old ladies and small children. Some will have ice in it. Lots of it will be taken from the moat that surrounds the walls of the original city. Do try and avoid drinking any.
Songkran is part of the New Year party for Thais. A time when people working in the cities return to their family home. Sprinkling water by a relative is a blessing. This seems to have evolved into the world’s best water fight. It is a rare opportunity to see the Thais really let their hair down. They’re not noted for being gregarious and loud
Khao Pansa – Candle Festival
Khao Pansa simply means to remain in one place during the rainy season. The day is a special celebration. A sort of Buddhist Lent that marks the start of the rainy season. It is a time when monks retreat into their temples for a three month period. They will reflect, meditate and study – and stay dry. It is held on the full moon of the eighth lunar month… usually the last week of July.
The day is marked with processions featuring elaborate candles. Nowhere is this more true than at the “Ubon Ratchathani International Wax Candle Festival and Wax Candle Procession.” Here they really push the boat out with teams arriving from around the world to compete. The candles are not like anything you will have seen before. Some are huge, some colorful, all are intricately carved into breath-taking designs. But there is more to it than candles. Here they use the event to promote local art and culture. So there are endless opportunities to wander around and meet the locals. Who dig out their traditional dress and show off their own art. Traditional dances are performed including Khon, an ancient masked dance.
It is a magical, unforgettable experience with limitless opportunities for great pictures. To help remind you of the day… like you would ever need them. In every regard a perfect trip for the lone traveller or for the family.
Prapheni Bun Bung Fai – The Rocket Festival
This is a simply brilliant blend of the magical and the crazy. Make your way to Yasothon, Amnatcharoen in North Eastern Thailand for around the middle of May. The festival is timed to coincide with the start of the local rainy season. There are other rocket festivals on offer around the country but if you want spectacular this is most definitely your destination.
The origin of the rocket festival is one of our favorite stories. It is said that the God of rain, Phraya Thaen was at war with the giant toad Phraya Kan Kag. He delivered no rain for 7 years 7 months and 7 days. The people, understandably, revolted and went to war with the rain god themselves. That was never going to go well and the people. They were forced to retreat to the giant tree where the giant toad lived. It was a turning point and with the help of the toad the people were able to defeat the god. So rockets are sent up to remind Phraya Thaen that it is time for rain.
Villages in the area arrive with their rockets for a parade. Along with the vibrantly colorful traditional dress and dances it makes for a visual treat. When they get down to business it is serious. The aim is to launch a rocket that shoots higher than the competition. Some of these rockets are enormous. You would be forgiven for thinking NASA had decided to join in. 12M tall and containing 120kg of gunpowder… it makes for a stunning, visceral spectacle. The combination of music, that colorful dress of the locals and rockets is totally immersive. At the end of the day the assault on your senses is guaranteed to leave you shattered. You will sleep like a baby and wake up smiling like a local.
Loi Krathong and Li Peng
The list so far might be a little intense for some. Loi Krathong and Li Peng offer something altogether more serene. These are ancient pagan festivals which have evolved over the centuries. Like so many Thai events they are scheduled around a full moon, the 12th of the year in November. These days it is part of the time Thais use to make merit, where acts of kindness are expected to be performed. These acts of merit are widespread and often publicly led by members of the Royal Family.
The ceremonial element sees locals making Krathong. Krathong are small floats made traditionally of banana leaves, inside which they put a candle. The candle gives respect to Buddha through its light. They will also place an offering, usually food but sometimes nail or hair clippings. Then the Krathong is floated off down the river. The floating symbolizes a letting go of past misdeeds and negative thoughts. So much more evocative than a drunken rendition of Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve.
It is a celebration that is held country-wide and even spreads across the borders. Neighboring countries like Laos have Thai populations. While the celebration is nationwide it is worth heading to Chiang Mai. Here the festivals are embraced and extend to the locals decorating their houses. But if you can’t make it to the north then Bangkok is definitely a spectacular option. in 2016 the authorities there said they collected no less than 617,901 Krathongs the following day.
Li Peng coincides with Krathong and is not entirely dissimilar. All the action takes place in the air with the candles being mounted on sky lanterns. Visitors are treated to the sight of thousands of lights, on the water and in the air. Be aware that many parts of Thailand now ban sky lanterns, for fairly obvious reasons. It seems probable that at some point they will be banned everywhere. So well worth seeking them out while they are still on offer. They remain an essential part of the mix in Chiang Mai.
The atmosphere around these festivals makes it a very special place to be and experience. The Thais are wonderful and warm people at any time of the year. They take the process of relieving themselves of negative thoughts and performing acts of merit seriously. You cannot help but get caught up in that tidal wave of positive emotions.
Whichever festival you choose it comes with guarantees around seeing the people at their brilliant best. Whether they are cutting loose and partying or enjoying moments of deep introspection. The ambience is like nothing you will find anywhere else on earth. Make the time to get along and you will gift to yourself something money cannot buy. Experience it alone, with a friend, a loved one, or the whole family. Create special, unique, shared memories that will last forever.