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Thailand festivals: when to visit

Kieran Meeke / 20 December 2016 ( 23 May 2022 )

The combination of Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese traditions with tourist marketing has given Thailand a wealth of festivals throughout the year.

Colorful handmade umbrella's Bo Sang village, province of Chang Mai, Thailand
The umbrella festival is among the many modern festivals created for tourism, which also include events such as the Lopburi Monkey Buffet.

Many Thai festivals are unique to a certain district or town but there are also more than a dozen public holidays. The dates of many vary with the lunar calendar and any that fall on a weekend will spill over into the next working day.

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January: Bo Sang Umbrella Festival

The umbrella festival is among the many modern festivals created for tourism, which also include events such as the Lopburi Monkey Buffet (see below), Bangkok Motorbike Festival and the Hua Hin Jazz Festival.

Despite their recent origins, they all remain good fun and Bo Sang’s offering is no exception. Umbrellas can be very useful in the hot Thai sun – or in the rains – and this festival near Chiang Mai allows local artisans to showcase their very best work.

Traditionally handmade here in mulberry-bark paper, they are handpainted in glorious designs. A highlight is the Beauty Pageant Bike Parade which is, yes, a beauty contest on bicycles with the entrants all bearing parasols.

February: Chiang Mai Flower Festival

Held on the first complete Friday, Saturday and Sunday in February, this festival dates back only to 1977.

Its flower-laden floats, high school marching bands, vintage cars, concerts and “Miss Chiang Mai Flower Festival” competition may also owe more to western ideas than traditional ones but Thais have warmly embraced it.

The floats reflect local themes such as scenes from Thai history or the life of Buddha. Chiang Mai’s high altitude encourages the growth of chrysanthemums and roses, including the local Damask Rose variety which you will see in abundance.

Popular places to visit in Thailand

March 13: Wan Chang Thai (National Elephant Day)

With about 4,000 elephants remaining in Thailand, most in captivity, this day was created to honour an animal that has deep significance in Thai culture.

It also helps raise awareness of the abuses in some animal training. Many elephant centres will parade their elephants with flower garlands, and lay out a buffet of special treats.

April 13: Songkran (Thai New Year)

The most important festival in the Thai calendar comes at the height of the hot season, a perfect time for a mass public water fight.

Traditionally, this was a chance to wash away bad spirits, ritually bathe a statue of Buddha and visit a Buddhist monk, who would use chalk to apply a blessing.

These two elements have evolved into the water and talcum powder that are now thrown on revellers on an industrial scale. It’s also a time to make New Year’s resolutions and spring clean the house, throwing out anything old or broken.

The tradition of drinking a toast to the royal family also sees alcohol being consumed liberally and makes this a dangerous time to drive on the country’s roads.

It’s also worth remembering that you will get soaked – being a foreigner makes you a target, not immune – so join in the fun and leave delicate electronic gear such as a camera or mobile phone behind.

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May: Yasothon Rocket Festival

Three days of people letting off homemade rockets – the bigger, the better – accompanied by liberal use of the local firewater, rice whisky. What could possibly go wrong?

The festival’s origins are in Laos, where it was part of a Buddhist ritual to encourage the coming of the rains. Fertility plays a large part in the symbolism and many of the rockets are phallic-shaped to drive that point home.

The north-eastern provinces are the natural home of the festival, with Yasothon being a major centre. Its three-day event includes a carnival parade and lots of bawdy humour.

The finale is a competition for the biggest and best rockets, judged on appearance, distance and height. Any misfire leads to the competitor being given a mud bath (sometimes a necessity for burns). A lot of fun, as long as you stand well back.

July: Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival

During the monsoon season from July to October, monks remain in their temple grounds. This Khao Phansa, similar to the Christian Lent, is a time of retreat and prayer.

But, just as Christian nations have their carnival beforehand, so too do Buddhists have their own celebrations.

The festival has grown from a tradition of presenting monks with candles to light their night-time studies but the offerings now are elaborate and massive waxworks, usually scenes from Buddhist scripture.

 These floats are paraded through the streets, with lots of music and traditional costume. It’s well worth arriving a day or two earlier to see these impressive works of art being carved in the various temples around town.

Thailand: history and culture

September: Tesagan Gin Je (Vegetarian Festival)

An important festival for those of Chinese descent, this festival has its roots in Taoism. The nine-day festival is a time to fast by not eating meat but many adherents also mutilate themselves to show their devotion and cleanse impurities.

Bangkok and Phuket, with their large Thai-Chinese population, are major centres for the event. The parade in Phuket, where piercings with bizarre objects such as swords, chains and even spanners are common, is not for the squeamish.

October: Chonburi Buffalo Racing Festival

Chonburi is a two-hour drive from Bangkok, helping this century-old local festival swell into a visitor-friendly event. Originally, this was a way for farmers to let off steam following the harvest, when they gathered from all over the province to give thanks at the local Buddhist temple and sell their produce.

You can see a “Miss Buffalo” beauty contest and Thai martial arts competitions as well as find plenty of food stalls. But the main attraction is still the buffalo races on a 100-metre course with a jockey clinging precariously atop.

It’s now a two-week event, with big prizes on offer and has become fiercely competitive. 

November: Loi Krathong/Yee Peng

Loi Krathong and Yee Peng are similar but different festivals held on the same date, the full moon of the 12th month on the Thai Lunar Calendar.

Loi Krathong is a floating lantern festival celebrated throughout Thailand and other parts of the region, particularly Laos and southeast China.

It is considered the second most important event in the Thai Calendar. Yee Peng involves releasing paper lanterns into the air and is found only in northern Thailand, with Chiang Mai being the centre.

However, since Loi Krathong is celebrated everywhere in the country, you will also see floating lanterns there at the same time. This has led many foreigners – and some Thais – to merge the two festival into one they call the “Festival of Lights”.

The origins of Loi Krathong are obscure but may be to thank the Thai water goddess for a good harvest (the full moon marks the end of the rice harvest). Yi Peng is more rooted in Buddhist beliefs and celebrates the idea of rebirth, letting go of negative thoughts and regrets for sins in the past year.

The krathong raft, made from banana leaves or wood carved to resemble a lotus flower, is loaded with small offerings as well as its candle.

Couples will release their krathong at the same time in the hope they float together, an auspicious sign. Fireworks have become part of the festivities in recent years, and the Royal Barge Procession is a highlight in Bangkok, while Loi Krathong’s beauty contests are among the country’s most prestigious.

No matter where you are, and whether it’s candlelit lanterns on the water or in the air - or both – it’s a photographer’s dream and hence extremely popular.

Parks and wildlife in Thailand

November: Lopburi Monkey Buffet

The hundreds of crab-eating macaques here originally gathered around the town’s historic Khmer temple and shrine to snap up offerings left by worshippers. 

They are now mischievous enough to grab cameras, glasses, hairbands or any loose object from unwary tourists. Visitors are warned not to give them food, so they can be controlled at a few feeding sites. 

Out of this has grown an annual party for our primate friends, held on the last Sunday in November since 1989. Thousands of macaques, considered sacred in Thai religious culture, now arrive for free bananas and other treats such as sticky rice and frozen fruit. 

The monkeys are usually surprisingly well behaved during the festival. However, while it is rare for them to bite, any broken skin may need a rabies shot and a clinic is set up during the festival for this.

November/December: River Kwai Bridge Week

Kanchanaburi commemorates its famous bridge with a week-long festival of events that includes a chance to ride the tracks on a vintage train.

The highlight is a sound and light show involving a simulated attack and demolition of the bridge. More serious historical exhibitions recall the 60,000 prisoners of war and some 180,000 Asian peoples who worked on the Thailand–Burma Railway.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery holds the graves of 3,585 British personnel, a tiny fraction of those from all nations who died, including at least 100,000 Asian workers.

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