Thai festivals are rarely solemn occasions, and few countries celebrate them with so much fun and color. Annual rites and festivities, marking religious devotion or the passage of seasons, have long been an integral part of Thai life. A 13th-century inscription reads: “Whoever wants to make merry, does so; whoever wants to laugh, does so.” This still applies today, with dozens of festivities taking place each month. The main festivals, such as Songkran, are celebrated nationwide, with the most exuberant activities taking place in Bangkok and other major cities. Each region has its own unique festivals, too. Many festival dates change each year, as they follow the lunar calendar.
Songkran, the Thai New Year, is celebrated nationally from April 12–14. In Bangkok, festivities take place at Sanam Luang, where a revered Buddha image is bathed as part of the meritmaking rituals. Over the years, the festival has become a boisterous affair involving water-throwing, when few people escape getting soaked.
Visakha Bucha, in May, marks the birth, Enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, all said to have occurred on the same day of the year. It is celebrated with candlelight processions around important temples.
The Royal Plowing Ceremony is held at Sanam Luang at the start of the rice-planting season in May. The display features oxen plowing and Brahmin priests sowing rice seeds. The oxen predict the coming year’s harvest by selecting one of several types of food offered to them.
The Golden Mount Fair is in November. With its carnival, performers, and candlelight processions, this is Thailand’s best temple fair.
December’s Trooping of the Colors in the Royal Plaza is the best of many nationwide celebrations marking King Bhumibol’s birthday.
Every March, pilgrims flock to the Temple of the Holy Footprint near Saraburi for the elaborate Phra Phutthabat Fair, which has theater and folk music performances.
Full-moon night in November is the occasion for Loy Krathong. It is celebrated throughout the country, but magically amid the ruins of Old Sukhothai, where it is said to have originated. The festival is held in honor of Mae Kongkha, the goddess of waterways, and takes place by rivers, lakes, and ponds. Small, lotus-shaped vessels carrying offerings for Mae Kongkha are floated to take away the sins of the past year and to bring good luck for the future.
Khwae River Bridge Week (late November/early December), held at Kanchanaburi, marks the building of the infamous bridge with historical displays and a dramatic sound and light show
Bo Sang, which is famous for its hand-painted umbrellas, holds an Umbrella Fair every January. Umbrella painting competitions, umbrella exhibitions, parades, and a “Miss Bo Sang” beauty contest are part of the festival.
Northern Thailand shows off its beautiful blooms to full effect during Chiang Mai’s Festival of Flowers in February, when parades of lavish floral floats fill the town with color. Events include floral exhibitions, handicraft sales, and a beauty pageant.
Mae Hong Son comes alive during its Poi Sang Long Festival, held in late March or early April. The highlight of this Buddhist festival is a mass ordination ceremony for Shan boys. Wearing sumptuous costumes, the novices parade through the town before exchanging their finery for simple monks’ robes in a symbolic gesture of renouncing worldly goods.
Northeast Thailand is renowned for its unique festivals. In May, the town of Yasothon hosts the Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival), perhaps the most thrilling of Thailand’s regional celebrations. This two-day event, accompanied by much highspirited revelry, is staged to ensure plentiful rains during the coming rice-planting season. On the first day there is a parade of carnival floats, as well as carnivals, music, and folk dancing. The next day, huge, home-made rockets are set off.
Dan Sai in Loei Province is known for the Phi Ta Khon Festival, held in June or July. Celebrations begin with a parade. Locals dressed as ghosts follow a Buddha image through the streets of town to make Buddhist merit and call for rain.
Ubon Ratchathani has a Candle Festival in July, its own version of the nationally celebrated “beginning of the rains retreat,” or Khao Phansa. As part of the celebrations, huge, intricately carved beeswax candles are exhibited on floats in the town before being presented to temples, where they burn throughout the rainy season.
The national holiday of “end of the rains retreat,” or Ok Phansa, is celebrated in particular style at Nakhon Phanom in October with the Illuminated Boat Procession. Intricately fashioned model boats carrying single candles are set adrift on the Mekong River at nightfall.
Gulf of Thailand
Modern-style merrymaking is found at Pattaya, which hosts the week-long Pattaya Festival in April. Floral float parades, beauty contests, and fireworks displays feature amid a non stop carnival atmosphere. One of Thailand’s most colorful water festivals is the Receiving of the Lotus Festival, which is celebrated in late October at Bang Phli, just south of Bangkok. Here, Ok Phansa is marked by a ceremony in which a locally revered Buddha image is showered with thousands of lotus buds while it is paraded by barge along Khlong Samrong, the local canal. Lively crowds, thronging the canal banks, throw flowers until only the image’s head remains visible above the mounting floral offerings. Other events include boat races, boxing matches fought on poles placed across the canal, and likay theater shows.
Traditional Southern culture gets an airing at the week-long Narathiwat Fair (last week of September). This features races between brightly painted traditional korlae fishing boats, as well as dovecooing contests and performances of Southern music and dance.
For sheer spectacle, it is hard to beat Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival (late September/early October). This nineday festival, marking the start of Taoist Lent, is celebrated by people of Chinese ancestry. During the festival followers eat only vegetarian food and take part in acts of selfmortification, such as piercing the body with skewers, with no apparent harm.