If there’s one thing (other than food) that Thailand can’t get enough of, it’s festivals.
Nearly every month there’ll be a date in the diary for a religious ritual or ancient celebration; sometimes mainstream but often pretty damn obscure.
Thanks to the diverse religious makeup and heritage of Thailand, a few of these festivals are inspired by other cultures — a Chinese influence can readily be spotted in many of the year’s celebrations, for instance.
Here are 11 of the most weird and wonderful of Thailand’s festivals. We’ll see you at the next one!
Chinese New Year
Also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is an important celebration in Thailand thanks to the many Chinese communities and shared Sino heritage throughout the country. As can be expected, the celebrations generally revolve around Bangkok’s Chinatown – one of the largest and most vibrant Chinatowns in all the world.
Traditionally, the festival is held on the second new moon after winter solstice, meaning some time between 21 January and 20 February. Chinatown plays host to a parade, fireworks and other festivities, while the rest of the country indulges in marginally lower-key celebrations.
The dragon is the symbol of Chinese New Year thanks to the legend behind the festival. That told of a mythical, dragon-like Nian that would sweep through a Chinese community during the New Year of ancient times, feasting on children. The community would protect themselves by leaving food for the Nian, eventually getting their revenge with firecrackers and the display of the colour red, which the Nian was frightened by.
Chiang Mai Flower Festival
February: Chiang Mai
The Flower Festival is one of Thailand’s most visually spectacular festivals, centred around the Suan Buak Haad park in the centre of Chiang Mai.
Hundreds of stalls with a variety of gorgeous blooms frame the park while chrysanthemums, orchids and Chiang Mai’s own Damask Rose take centre stage. A parade meanders through the town usually during the Saturday afternoon of the festival, complete with marching bands, drummers, hill tribe representatives and traditional Thai dancers.
There’s also a beauty contest held in honour of the festival called Miss Chiang Mai Flower Festival, or Miss Flower Blooming Beauty Contest. Fancy a flutter?
Songkran festival marks the dawning of the traditional Thai New Year and is one of the highlights of the Kingdom’s festival calendar. The festivities are more or less inescapable wherever you are in the country, but particularly in the tourist-heavy cities of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket.
The most visible side to Songkran is the epic countrywide water fights, held over three days in mid-April. This practice stems from the tradition of pouring water over statues of the Buddha to symbolise the cleansing away of the sins and bad luck of the previous year.
Inevitably, Songkran is incredibly popular with younger tourists who come for the water battle phenomena, while the locals are more prone to leave the city and travel to the homes of their families.
Bun Bangfai Rocket Festival
Rocket Festivals – or Bun Bangfai – are held throughout Laos and Thailand’s Isaan region, in order to make merit before the rainy season and help to redistribute wealth while enhancing personal prestige among the community.
The most popular and raucous Rocket Festival is held in Yasothon, characterised by all night Mor Lam performances, street parades, the demonstration of richly ornate rockets (only some of which can be launched) and beautiful floats. Once attached to fertility rites, the festival still sports phallic imagery and parade ornaments, while many participants choose to cross-dress as part of the festivities.
The final day of the festival sees the competitive launching of the Bangfai rockets, which can be dangerous and has led to injuries and deaths in festivals past.