While everyone knows about Thailand’s lovely beaches and islands, not as many know about Thailand’s top festivals, which give plenty of cultural insight and show off age old traditions, in addition to being incredibly colorful, and in some cases just downright wacky and bizarre. While the Songkran Thai New Year’s festival is the world’s largest water fight and does draw a fair share of tourists, there are loads of other upcountry happenings, and here are 5 of the best of Thailand’s top festivals.
This Isan (Thailand’s northeast) festival takes place every June or July, depending on the lunar calendar, and has been likened to a mix of Mardi Gras, Halloween, and a Grateful Dead concert! It is bawdry, colorful, and a whole lot of fun, as locals and visitors alike gather to welcome the rainy season.
Phi Ta Khon takes its origins from both Buddhist and animist rituals, and is somewhat tied in to the Bun Bang Fai Rocket festival, where bamboo rockets are fired into the sky in hopes that the heavens will open up with abundant water for the planting season. In tiny Dan Sai village, where the festival is held, young men and women wear spirit masks made from sticky rice baskets, and carry wooden phalli and plastic swords, which they use to prod and tease everyone around. All this goes on to the accompaniment of some of Thailand’s best mor lam country music tunes, and despite the fact that the festival starts and finishes with Buddhist rites and shamans, there is plenty of moonshine passed around, and lots of letting one’s hair down by everyone involved.
Celebrated in Phuket and in a smaller version, in Phang Nga down south, the Vegetarian Festival is anything but tame and organic. Despite its name, this is one of the most macabre and bizarre festivals anywhere on the planet. Every year in either September or October depending on the lunar calendar, locals in Phuket Town carry on a tradition that was bought over by Chinese mine workers back when the island was a tin mine magnet. Locals go through purification rituals to ask for prosperity for the coming year, all following caveats of not eating meat, wearing all white, abstaining from sex, alcohol, and other prohibitions. Hundreds of young men and women go into trances, and take on the personification of spirits, and then make their way around town, stopping to bless every business, which have all put small shrines outside.
The “spirits” here do bizarre acts of self mutilation, such as bathing in hot oil, climbing bladed knife ladders, and putting skewers, knives, beach umbrellas, and other sharp objects through their faces, as they parade merrily around town, to the accompaniment of a cacophony of fireworks. The tourism office doesn’t tell you how bloody and gruesome it will look, instead preferring to talk about vegetarianism, but for something that really needs to be seen to be believed, it is highly worth scheduling a visit here at this time. Bangkok also holds a version of the festival in Chinatown, but without the blood and gore.
Throughout Thailand, men are ordained as monks at least once in their lives, and this attempt to preserve tradition and make an act of merit for one’s self and family has become so commonplace that it usually is not celebrated with any great display. Yet in Mae Hong Son Province, the ritual of joining the monastic order hails from the Shan tradition across the border in Burma, where the occasion is observed with great fanfare and joy. Every year in either April or May depending on the date fixed by the monastery, young boys are brought to the temple, have their heads shaved, and then are adorned in wildly colorful costumes and paraded through town as part of Poi Sang Long.
The boys are not allowed to touch the ground for three days, so they ride through town being carried on the shoulders of their family members and friends amidst great fanfare, with musicians playing, ponies adorned in ribbons, and traditional Thai dancers leading the celebration. In addition to being of great cultural insight, this is a great small town festival, and not many tourists make it out to Mae Hong Son, so it is well worth the trip.
This is the Thai New Year festival, celebrated from April 13-15 each year, all over the kingdom. Songkran is held during the height of the hot summer season, it is originally a Buddhist holiday in which people pay respects to their elders and then sprinkle cool water on their friends and neighbors to help cool off, but these days, at least for tourists, it is known more as the world’s biggest water fight. While there are plenty of temple celebrations, traditional Thai dances, and other festivities put on throughout the country, the big event for many is loading up on water guns, hoses, and all sorts of paraphernalia to go out and join the debauchery. Plan on carrying your cell phone and money in a waterproof bag, and be assured that all of your clothing and belongings will be completely drenched out in public.
Over the last few years the festival has been tempered a bit, as it has gotten out of control with ice water or large water cannons now being banned, and revellers told to not wear see through clothing or behave inappropriately. This is the one festival you will really have to plan for, as all Thais are travelling during this time, and transportation and accommodation is booked solid for months in advance (although Bangkok tends to empty out at this time). Additionally, the drunk driving fatality rate at this time is off the charts, so it is highly advised not to be out on the road during this time (all the highways across the country are also backed up endlessly with traffic).
Another crazy festival, at least to most Western eyes, the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival, also known as sak yant “mystical tattoos,” is held every March, at a small temple called Bang Phra which is on the outskirts of Bangkok in Nakhon Chai Sri. This festival pays tribute to the former Abbott, who had very strong supernatural powers, some say even black magic. Locals get their bodies covered in tattoos, with figures such as snakes, tigers, and lizards adorning their anatomy. When the monks start chanting, the devotees go into trances, and soon become whatever their tattoos are, beginning to froth at the mouth, growl, and charge the stage, trying to reach the sacred stupa.
The scene descends quickly into frenzied bedlam, with hundreds of tattooed men roaring and bellowing as a scrum forms with everyone trying to get to the Buddha image at the stage. It’s wildly photogenic and quite unbelievable to watch, but make sure to stay close to those with lizard tattoos, as they tend to just crawl slowly, as opposed to the uncaged tigers. Amazingly, at the end of several hours, everyone comes out of the trance, looks harmless as a kitten, and then everyone enjoys the food and rides at the adjoining temple fair.