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.
Phi Tha Khon Festival
June/July: Dan Sai, Loei
Also known as the Ghost Mask Festival, Phi Tha Khon has been described as “a sexually charged festival haunted by long-nosed ghosts.” If that’s not intriguing, we’re not sure what is.
The origins of the festival come from when the Buddha in a past life as a prince was presumed dead following a long journey. When he was found to be alive, the celebrations were said to be so loud and raucous that they woke the dead. During the festival, local men dress in colourful masks to re-enact the scenes, equipped with huge, red phallic objects to point at other festival-goers.
The festival spans around three days with the first and second given over to the ghost mask parade and other festivities, and the final day taking a quieter turn with a series of Buddhist sermons.
July: Ubon Ratchathani
Marking the start of the Buddhist Lent, the Candle Festival sees the Thai people donate candles to monks and wats in order to support them through the three-month Lenten period.
On Asanha Bucha day (in commemoration of the Buddha’s first sermon), the many candles – which vary in size, elaboration and design – are taken to a park in Ubon where they are decorated and put on show, while the day of Wan Kao Pansa sees a full-scale candle procession through the city with floats, traditional dancers and musicians.
The candle-giving symbolises the gratitude of the Thai people to the monks and allows them a chance to demonstrate their own devotion to Buddhism.
Por Tor Hungry Ghost Festival
The Hungry Ghost Festival is another Chinese traditional festival and is a way for families to assist their sinful dead relatives who, for one month every year, are released from the depths of hell in order to sate their hunger and feast on the offerings of those still alive.
Food, flowers and candles are offered up on Chinese altars and shrines throughout Phuket, mostly centred around the Seng Tek Bel Shrine and the Ranong Road market. As well as copious amounts of food – including the red turtle cakes unique to the festival – there’s always plenty of festivities like parades, merit making, concerts, cabaret and more.
Also in Phuket is the innocuous sounding Vegetarian Festival, also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The premise of the festival is again Chinese and held throughout the world: communities believe that an abstention from meat during this time will promote good mental and physical health. However, in Thailand, the festival is accompanied by various unique religious rituals…
Perhaps the most unusual are the masochistic rituals designed to invoke the gods; and in particular, the extreme body piercing. Participants are known to pierce their cheeks with knives, while tongue slashing is also a common phenomena.
It’s thought that the origins of the festival in Phuket stem from a Chinese touring opera group that contracted malaria while they were on the island many hundreds of years ago. They abstained from meat and invoked the Nine Emperor Gods to help them recover; once they had done so, the locals held a festival to thank the gods for their mercy.
Lotus Flower Receiving Festival
October: Samut Prakan
Also known as Rub Bua, Yon Bua and the Lotus Throwing Festival, the Lotus Flower Receiving Festival sees locals in Bang Phli line the Klong Samrong river and throw lotuses at a boat carrying a replica of Luang Poh To, a revered statue of the Buddha.
Floats and hundreds of smaller boats follow the main boat down the river, with traditional costume donned by those in the procession. The thought is that you will be bestowed with good luck if you manage to get your lotus to touch the Luang Poh To.
The festival is held on the day of Awk Phansa, the end of Buddhist Lent and a time when monks are able to leave the monastery after three months of study.
Loy Krathong is many people’s favourite Thai festival, thanks to its unique and beautiful manifestation: floating baskets are launched into the water throughout Thailand’s major cities and waterways.
The festival takes place on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar and sees thousands of participants release their decorated krathong into the water with a wish, symbolising the letting go of negativity. While some Thai use the festival to honour the water spirits and the goddess of water, Phra Mae Khongkha, many Buddhist intend for the rituals to honour Buddha himself.
Loy Krathong is especially prevalent in Chiang Mai, where it coincides with the Lanna festival Yi Peng; where floating lanterns are released in the sky as a way of making merit.
Monkey Banquet Festival
Lopburi is an ancient city north of Bangkok, parts of which are overrun by macaques. Once a year every November, the locals lay on a spread for their monkey cohabitants, which is meant to bring good luck to those who participate.
Described by observers as part feast, part food fight, this festival is one of Thailand’s kookier festival offerings. Tables heave with vegetarian food, fruit and dessert, propped up in the midst of the city’s Khmer ruins. The funniest part is that the invitations are attached to cashew nuts in order to best lure the guests to the meal.
What’s your favourite Thai festival?