My Top 10 Favourite Thai Festivals

Thai Festivals

(1) As the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (usually in mid-November) lights up the night sky, throughout the Thai kingdom, hundreds of thousands of ornately-decorated krathong or traditional banana leaf floats are set adrift in rivers and waterways in a spell-binding ritual called “Loy Krathong” – the ‘festival of lights”. This is one of the Kingdom’s oldest and best-preserved traditions. The next festival takes place on 17th November 2013.

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(10) One of the most famous places in Thailand to see monkeys is among the ruins of the historical city of Lopburi. In appreciation of their efforts to attract tourists, local businessmen put on a grand Monkey Buffet Festival for the monkeys on the last Sunday in November every year. Over the years this has become one of the world’s biggest monkey parties. The next festival is on 27th November 2011.

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(3) The celebration of the Chinese New Year remains the most important of annual festivals on the Chinese lunar calendar observed in the various regions of Thailand. Festive celebrations are typically staged in areas where there is a significant Thai-Chinese community such as the Yaowarat district in Bangkok and in the provinces of Suphan Buri, Ayutthaya, Chon Buri, Ratchaburi, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nakhon Sawan, Chiang Mai, Songkhla and Phuket.

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(4) The Lotus Flower Receiving Festival, or Rub Bua in Thai, takes place at Bang Phli. This festival has been handed down from one generation to the next. It is held annually one day before the end of the Buddhist Rain Retreat.  Traditionally, local people line up on both sides of Klong Samrong and throw lotus flowers onto the boat carrying a replica of a revered Buddha image.

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(5) The Candle Festival takes place as the seasonal monsoon rains descends over the kingdom, marking the beginning of the Buddhist “rain retreat” and the Buddhist Lent, or “Phansa”. As Ubon Ratchathani province prepares for the Buddhist Lent, men with artistic skills set about the task of moulding and sculpting Lenten candles. As these works of art are to be presented as Buddhist merit-making offerings, the artisans pour their heart and soul into their craft.

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(6) The Phi Ta Khon festival is unique to the Dan Sai district in Loei Province and reflects the local Isan belief in ghosts and spirits. Held once a year, it is part of a grand merit-making festival known as the “Boon Luang” festival. Young men of the community dress up as “spirits” wearing long trailing costumes made from colourful strips of cloth sewn together. The next festival will take place around June/July 2012.

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(7) The Hae Pha Kuen That Festival is unique to the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Holy cloth, known as Phra bot, is draped around the stupa in a merit-making ritual. The custom reflects a form of communal merit-making designed to strengthen community spirit and foster unity and has been observed for some 800 years. According to Buddhist belief, participation in communal merit-making earns an individual more merit.

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(8) The Tak Bat Dok Mai floral offering merit-making ritual is unique to Saraburi province. This ritual stands out from the merit-making activities conducted in the other parts of Thailand because in addition to the offerings of cooked rice, food, incense, candles and other conventional sacred items, the Tak Bat Dok Mai ritual includes offerings of Dok Khao Phansa flowers that only come into bloom during the Buddhist Lent.

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(9) The longest running temple fair in Thailand is the Phra Samut Chedi Fair in Samut Prakan. It starts with parades through the town and along the river of the red cloth that is later wrapped around the stupa. Then for ten days the city virtually comes to a standstill for one of the biggest temple fairs in the region.

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(10) Songkran Festival, a national celebration of the traditional Thai New Year, captures the imagination of travellers for both its cultural and fun attributes; the latter being enthusiastic bouts of water splashing between friends and relatives. This takes place all over Thailand in mid-April. The date used to vary but it is now fixed and takes place on 13-15 April every year.

There are obviously more big festivals that take place in Thailand. Those will have to wait for another day and another list. What are your favourites? Are they missing from this list? Let us know in the comments below.

23rd Lopburi Monkey Festival 2011

One of the most popular festivals in the central region of Thailand is the Monkey Festival held annually in Lopburi. The city is about 150 kms north-east of Bangkok and is a convenient stopover on the northern railway line to Chiang Mai. The iconic Khmer ruin in this city is Prang Sam Yot, which was originally a Hindu shrine. However, it is its inhabitants that is of more interest to both local and foreign tourists. In and around the Khmer temple can be found literally hundreds of Crab-Eating Macaques.

Pictures of the 23rd Lopburi Monkey Festival 2011

These days the monkeys are the symbol of the province. Alighting from the train you will see a giant monkey on the platform. Then a short walk north of the station will bring you to Prang Sam Yot and Sarn Phra Karn. All around this area the monkeys are roaming the street almost as if they were teenage gangs. A naughty student at school is often called a “ling”, which is the Thai word for a monkey. That is exactly what they are. If you are not careful they will snatch a bag from your hand or rifle through your backpack.

I saw them jump onto the back of a pick-up truck as it slowed down to go around a corner. They were looking for anything that they could steal. At the next corner they would jump off and scamper up the side of buildings where they will search through the goodies that they had just stolen. If you are walking down these streets, don’t forget to look up as they are perched on window sills and hanging from telephone wires. Local people arms themselves with sticks and slingshots. Some houses also have electric fences around their windows.

The idea of the Monkey Festival, now in its 23rd year, started with a local man called Yongyuth Kitwatananusont. He is the owner of the Lopbui Inn which is where I stayed the night before going to the festival. In front of the hotel there is a large monkey which he has been using as a kind of symbol for many years. Business has been good for both him and other people working in the tourism sector. Recognizing the important role that the monkeys have played in this, he decided one year to lay on a buffet meal for them.

The first Lopburi monkey festival took place on Sunday 25th November 1989. There were 35 Chinese tables set up and covered with an abundance of food. These were placed at three different locations around the city. Phra Prang Sam Yot, City Shrine and Downtown areas populated by the monkeys. Guest of honour that first year was former prime minister M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. The monkeys were naturally stunned to have so much food offered to them in such a free manner. Normally they would have to work for it.

These days, the festival is held around the main Khmer temple. It starts at around 10 a.m. with musical performances and human monkey dances. After the speech by the Governor of Lopburi, the monkeys are then invited down to eat from the buffet tables. Normally when you explore this temple the monkeys are everywhere. But with literally hundreds of tourists standing around the tables, the monkeys were naturally shy. But, they came down eventually and people were able to get the pictures that they wanted.

The festival goes on all day with two more rounds in the afternoon at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. It was good this year to see more foreign tourists than normal. In particular there were quite a few backpackers. I asked some of them how they had heard about this event and they all said from the Internet. That just shows you how things have changed these days with websites being the prime source of news. It was also good to hear that people had come here after reading about the festival on some of my websites such as www.ThaiFestivalBlogs.com and www.ThaiTravelBlogs.com. If you missed the festival and you want to go to the party next year, then I can tell you that it will take place on Sunday 25th November 2012.

Candle Festival in Ubon Ratchathani

One of the biggest and most beautiful festivals in Thailand is the Candle Procession which marks the start of the Buddhist Lent. In Thai this is called Khao Phansa which is the day after the full moon in July.  Traditionally during this period, Thai Buddhists take part in parades to their local temples where they offer basic essentials and candles to the monks. This year, I attended the Candle Procession in Ubon Ratchathani, which is in the Northeast of Thailand.

For the three months of the Buddhist Lent the monks are not allowed to leave their temples and must spend their time studying the scriptures. This is also the height of the rainy season and so in the past it wasn’t easy for them to travel around anyway. The idea for the large candle is to give light to the monks during this period. Some Thai people believe that by donating candles, they will have wisdom, be resourceful and be bright like the candle.

In the beginning, they probably gave the monks plain candles, but over time, the more devout Buddhists would decorate the candle or carve it into intricate designs. We have now gone from normal candles to these 15 meter long floats that depict scenes from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The normal Candle Processions still take place all over Thailand at this time, but the big floats first started to appear in Ubon Ratchathani about 34 years ago. Ubon is still the most famous though a few other cities now copy them.

The Candle Festival takes place in Ubon for the entire month of July but the main activities only take place around the full moon. If you are planning on going next year, make sure that you book your accommodation in advance. This year there was an estimated 200,000 domestic and international tourists at the festival. Ubon’s 3,100 hotel rooms were fully booked for these three days. Flights were also fully booked.

This was my first time at the festival and I had a really enjoyable time taking pictures of the dancers and floats. Though it was very exhausting as it went on for about three hours. I am not sure how many floats there were in the end but it was certainly a lot. In the evening, the winning floats were displayed at Thung Si Mueang Park. I already posted pictures over at Thai Travel Blogs of the winners. I’m not sure how long they will stay there as they were suffering a bit in the heat. But the entrants in the International Wax Sculpture competition will be on display in the grounds of the National Museum until 31st July.

I don’t have the dates yet for the Candle Festival Procession in 2012, but it will be around the full moon in July 2012. I will post the dates and schedule as soon as they are confirmed on my Twitter account @RichardBarrow, Facebook Fanpage, Thai Festival Blogs and also Thai Travel Blogs. In addition to the Candle Procession in Ubon Ratchathani, there are also big ones in Nakhon Ratchasima and Suphan Buri at the same time. There are smaller candle processions elsewhere in Thailand including some on a boat. But, Ubon has the biggest.

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Hilltribe Ordination at The Marble Temple in Bangkok

Wat Benchamabopit, which is more commonly known as The Marble Temple, is probably the most beautiful temple in Bangkok. It is certainly one of the most unique as it is a blend of European and Thai architecture. It is a beautiful place to photograph at any time of the year. However, this last weekend was extra special as 285 Hilltribe people, mainly youngsters, were being ordained as novice monks.

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The boys and young adults taking part in this ordination ceremony came from 13 different provinces around Thailand. This is an annual project that has been organized in order to promote Buddhism among the Hilltribe people. This year it was done in honour of the 84th birthday of H.M. The King which is on the 5th December.

Normally young men being ordained as monks are supported by their families. However, as many of these Hilltribe people come from poor backgrounds, members of the public were invited to sponsor one of the novice monks. They donated 2,500 Baht to a scholarship fund and were then able to make merit by presenting the robes.

Presentation of robes took place all day on Saturday and also on Sunday morning. The same robes were presented many times to the young men dressed in white. Then on Sunday afternoon, the actual ordination took place. This started with a parade around the main chapel. This was done three times in a clockwise direction. They were led by long drums and dancers.

They then entered the main chapel where the ordination ceremony took place. Everyone first ordains as a novice. The first part of the ordination procedure is called the “Going Forth in Homelessness”. This is where the candidate requests to become a novice.

He is instructed about the Triple Gem (the Buddha, the Teaching, and the Community of Monks) and the purpose and benefits of the ordination. He is then told the five basic objects of meditation which are: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth and skin.

The first half concludes when the shoulder cloth is put over the head of the boys. After this, all of the candidates are taken outside to change from their white clothes to their robes. These are not easy to put on. The boys certainly couldn’t do it themselves. As there were so many of them, they needed the help of monks.

Once they had the robes on, then all of them went back into the hall. They next request to take Refuge in the Triple Gem and the Ten Precepts. They said: “I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.” This is then repeated three times. The abbot then tells them that they are now “samanen”.

As a novice monk, they have to obey the ten precepts. This includes basic things like not stealing or lying and also not eating after noon. But they can drink liquids in the afternoon like milk. At the end of the ceremony, the abbot reads the 10 precepts out in Pali which is the ancient language of the scriptures. The novices have to repeat them after him. The new novice monks now prostrate three times and leaves the hall.

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Candle Procession and the Buddhist Rains Retreat

During the full moon of this month we celebrate the religious holiday of Asarnha Bucha Day. It commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon to his first five disciples. The following day marks the start of the Rains Retreat which is sometimes referred to as the Buddhist Lent. It lasts for about three months. This year, these two holidays are on 15th and 16th July 2011. These are public holidays and many people will go to the temple early in the morning to make merit. Then they will be back in the evening to take part in candlelight processions around the main stupa. They will also listen to sermons and many of them will make an effort to keep the Buddhist precepts.

In the days leading up to this Buddhist holiday, there are many parades around the Kingdom of Thailand of large candles that are given to monks at the temples. The candles are large enough to stay alight for the entire three months of the Buddhist Rains Retreat. However, some are much larger than others and certainly more beautifully decorated. The best of these can be seen in the annual parades in cities in Isaan such as at Ubon Ratchathani. I’ll be flying there next weekend and hopefully will be able to get some great photos to share with you. I have never been to the Candle Procession Festival in Ubon before and so I am very exited to be able to go this year.

One of my favourite festivals in Thailand for taking pictures is Tak Bat Dok Mai Festival at Wat Phra Phutthabat Ratchaworamaha Wihan in Saraburi Province. This always takes places at the start of the Buddhist Rains Retreat. This temple is famous for the Mondop at the top of a hill which houses a large Buddha’s footprint. Local people make merit by giving flowers to the monks. The flower is called Dok Khao Phansa and only blooms during this time of the year. The monks then climb the steep steps to the top of the hill. Then, after paying respects to the footprint, they descend the other side where even more followers are waiting. This time the lay people wash the feet of the novices and monks as they walk down the steps. This year this takes place on 15-16 July 2011 at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The tradition of the Rains retreat dates back to the time of the Lord Buddha. He made it a rule that during the rainy season monks shouldn’t go wandering around the countryside as they could damage crops and insects underfoot. So, for the next three months, the monks have to choose a temple where they will stay. Tomorrow I will be going to take pictures at a mass ordination of an expected 20,000 monks. This is traditional for Thai males to become a monk at least once in their life. In fact, they are not considered a full man until they do so. If they work in a government office, then they are entitled to paid leave while they are in the monkhood. These days they usually only become a monk for a couple of weeks. However, if they become a monk during this time, they have to stay until the end of the Rains Retreat as no-one is allowed to leave during this period.

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Phi Ta Khon Festival 2011

One of the most unique and colourful festivals in Thailand is Phi Ta Khon that takes place every year in Dansai in Loei Province. It is sometimes translated into English as the Ghost Festival as many people wear ghost masks during the processions. Really the festival is called Bun Luang which is a combination of two different festivals. These are Bun Phra Wet and Bun Bang Fai. The first is the continuous listening of thirteen sermons. The other involves the firing of rockets to ask for sufficient rain.

There are two theories about where the name “Phi Ta Khon” comes from. One is that it evolved from the phrase “Phi Tam Kon” which in English means “Ghost follows a person”. A long time ago, the Dansai villagers believed that ghosts came out of the forest to follow the Lord Buddha. Another theory is that because of the similarity of Dansai’s ghost masks with that of the Khon masks of Central Thailand, that they came to be called “Phi Ta Khon”.

The Phi Ta Khons wear a mask and a unique costume made by each villager. Over the years, these masks have become very intricate in design and also colourful. In the old days, the masks were thrown into the river at the end of the festival. But these days, the people use the masks as decoration during the year and then re-use them during the next festival. Every Phi Ta Khon has a weapon such as a sword which has a tip that looks like a penis. They also wear cow bells which make a noise as they do a kind of a rain dance.

In addition to the Phi Ta Khons, there are also others taking part in the procession. These two are the Giant Phi Ta Khon. Unlike the regular sized ghosts, there are only two giants. They must be male and female giant Phi Ta Khons. The male giant has a large penis which he teases the crowds with. Models of buffaloes remind people the importance of farm animals.

This group of men represent villagers who lived long ago in the forest. They have darkened their skin and are carrying short bamboo poles which they bang on the ground to make a noise. There are others carrying bamboo trays with mulberries or leaves used for herbal medicines.

Quite a few people in the parade have symbolic sexual objects which they use playfully with the crowd. In particular with the young ladies. In an agricultural society, the sex organs are the symbol of fertility. Villagers believe that playing with the symbolic sexual organs causes sufficient rain to fall in the rainy season. Some people also believe that this also helps to expel bad spirits.

The Bun Luang Festival takes place over three days. It begins with the ceremony to invoke Phra Uppakut. It is believed that this is the spirit that will keep the festival free of trouble. The ceremony is led by men dressed in white who are attendants to the spirit leader called Jao Por Guan. They go from Phon Chai Temple to the Man River where they dive into the river looking for the stone that symbolises Phra Uppakut. This is then brought back to the temple.

A little while later, everyone will come together at Jao Por Guan’s house for the Bai Sri ceremony which is the tying of white sacred threads around the wrist of the two spiritual leaders, Jao Por Guan and Jao Mae Nang Tiam, to wish them happiness, good health and good luck. After this ceremony has finished, the spiritual leaders will lead the procession to Phon Chai Temple where they will walk around it three times. The Phi Ta Khons also take part in this.

At dawn on the second day, local people dress up as Phi Ta Khon and cheerfully dance around the town. In the afternoon there is the Phra Wet worship procession. The parade is lead by the leader of the Por Saen holding the Bai Sri tray. Next comes a sacred Buddha image which is followed by four monks. Jao Por Guan is also in the procession sitting on a bamboo rocket. Bringing up the rear of the procession are the villagers wearing white.

Late that day, bamboo rockets are launched into the sky with the hope of bringing sufficient rain for their crops. There is also a competition to see whose rocket goes the highest. The day finishes with the throwing of  the costume and masks of the two giants into the river. They believe this will rid the villagers of any bad luck. The third and final day is spent back at the temple where they listen to sermons about the 10 lives of the Lord Buddha.

Bun Luang and the Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival takes place every year either at the end of June or early July. The actual date is worked out in advance during a ritual performed by Jao Por Guan, Jao Mae Nang Tiam, the Por Saen and the Nang Tang. I will post information on the dates and schedule over at www.ThaiFestivalBlogs.com as soon as we get it for Phi Ta Khon 2012. If you get a chance, it is really worth attending this festival. I am really happy that I was able to go this year.

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Songkran at Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall

A good place to enjoy the traditional side of Songkran, and probably learn a bit about its culture and history, is at the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall on Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue in Bangkok. For this month, until 30th April 2011, they have a free exhibition where you can learn about Songkran in the four regions of Thailand.

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Photos of Pattaya Music Festival 2011

This weekend, Thailand is hosting one of Asia’s biggest beach music festivals. The Pattaya International Music Festival, 18-20 March 2011,  is now in its tenth year and is bigger and better than ever. The opening night was on Friday which I attended. It continues over the weekend with both Thai and international singers.

Over 400,000 people are expected for this three day concert at various stages along  Beach Road. This stretch of road is three kilometres long which is why they are now calling it “The Longest Beach Music Festival in Asia”. The four main stages are Galaxy Stage located on Laem Bali Hai, Moon Stage on Pattaya Soi 4, Universal Stage at Central Pattaya and Reggae Stage at South Pattaya.

Over one hundred famous Thai and foreign artists are scheduled to perform during the  three day event. They represent different styles of music such as Pop, Hip-Hop, R&B and Rock. Some of the big Thai stars include Golf-Mike (see picture below), Da Endorphine, Potato, Paradox, Slot Machine (see picture above), Chin Chinawut, Ice Sarunyu, Namcha, Aof Pongsak, Punch, Sweet Mullet,  Blackhead, Bie The Star, Tai Oratai,  The Richman Toy and Modern Dog.

Last night I started at the Galaxy Stage which is at Laem Bali Hai, the southern end of Pattaya Beach Road. The opening ceremony took place at 7 p.m. and was attended by the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand as well as the Pattaya City Mayor. The opening song, by Golf-Mike and Vietrio, was an arrangement of H.M. The King’s song “Klai Roong”.

I stayed at the Galaxy Stage for an hour or so then decided to walk north up Beach Road. From Walking Street up as far as about Soi 4 the road had been closed and many vendors had set up shop selling everything from delicious food to handicraft and clothing. Also along the way were a couple of other smaller stages with bands performing. I found the biggest crowd at Universal stage which is just north of the Hard Rock Hotel. This one has the popular Thai pop singers.

More information about Pattaya Music Festival can be found on our festival blogs. We have the full schedule there for each of the main stages. Below are some more of the pictures that I took on Friday night.

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Muay Thai Festival in Ayutthaya

Muay Thai is truly an international sport these days as people all around the world compete in this ancient form of boxing. However, the spiritual home is definitely here in Thailand with the home base being in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. Yesterday, 350 boxers from 35 different countries came together at Wat Mahathat to take part in the Wai Khru Ceremony. They came to pay respect to their teachers, and to pay homage to the legendary Muay Thai folk hero, Nai Khanom Tom.

Muay Thai is Thailand’s national sport and Ayutthaya, the home of its legendary hero is the stronghold of Muay Thai. According to legend, Nai Khanom Tom was captured by the Burmese after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. Along with other prisoners, he was taken back to Burma. During a Buddhist festival he was selected to fight in a tournament that was put on to see which forms of boxing were the best; Thai or Burmese. Nai Khanom Tom fought ten Burmese boxers in a row without pause and defeated them all.

The Wai Khru Muay Thai Ceremony is the most important date on the calendar for Muay Thai boxers from around the world. They come together in the days leading up to National Muay Thai Day, which is on 17th March, to pay respect to their teachers, and to pay homage to the legendary Muay Thai folk hero, Nai Khanom Tom. This takes place during the annual three day Thai Martial Arts Festival in Ayutthaya which is now in its 7th year. The aim is to preserve the Thai martial arts.

The Wai Khru Ceremony took place at Wat Mahathat on Tuesday 15th March 2011. Highlights of the event included Muay Thai exhibitions as well as demonstrations of Thai handicraft and cuisine. Over the following two days, 16th-17th March 2011,  there is a Muay Thai tournament with international boxers contending for the Nai Khanom Tom belt with a cash prize for the weight divisions of 60, 65, 70, and 80 kilograms. There will also be a Wai Kru competition for Thai students. This takes place at the stadium in Ayutthaya.

You can see more of my photos on my Facebook page.

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