Festivals can also be about elephants, lights, rockets, processions, boats, and fish. There is often much merry-making! These occasions can do wonders for your spirits, make your worries float away, bring you luck and prosperity, and even ensure a good crop.
The date of some festivals is determined by lunar months, so consult a lunar calendar; the calendar should also indicate when there will be a full moon, new moon or crescent moon.
January to April
National Children’s Day and The Teachers’ Day
The Teachers’ Day is celebrated January 16, a day or two after National Children’s Day, which is held the second Saturday in January. Both days involve lots of merit-making at temples around the country. Thai people often say that “Children are the future of the nation, if the children are intelligent, the country will be prosperous.” This day is to let children realize their importance and be aware of their responsibilities.
Teachers make a great sacrifice and do good deeds for the benefit of the nation. This ceremony pays tribute to teachers, acknowledges their sacrifice, expresses gratitude and wishes them and their family happiness and good health for a long life.
Magha Puja Day
This is one of the most important Buddhist celebrations. It falls on the full moon day of the third lunar month, usually the last week of February or early March. It marks four great events. On the evening of this day, Buddha lay down the principals of his teachings summarized into three acts: to do good, to abstain from bad action and to purify the mind. It is a public holiday so everyone can go to the temple to make merit and perform other religious activities and then to take part in a candlelit procession.
Poy Sang Long Festival
This is a three-day ordination celebration of Buddhist novices in the northwest province of Mae Hong Sorn. It is a tradition of the Shans, an ethnic Thai tribe that migrated from northern Myanmar. Young boys between 7 and 14 years are ordained as novices for a period to learn the Buddhist doctrines and to gain merit for their parents. The festival is colourful and draws people from the entire province and tourists as well. Prior to the festival the boys have their heads shaved and are then bathed and anointed with special waters. They are dressed up in jewelled clothes and their faces are expertly made up. These boys are known as the ‘Jewel Princes’. Celebrations begin with a procession around the town. There is a community feast and elders tie white threads around the wrists of the boys to protect them from evil spirits. There are other processions the second and third day until the boys take their vows and change from the princely attires to yellow robes and become full novices. The celebration takes place in late March or early April.
Songkran is the Thai traditional New Year on April 13 and an occasion for family reunion. Songkran means ‘change place’ as it is the day when the sun changes its position in the zodiac. It is also known as the Water Festival as people believe that water will wash away bad luck. It begins with early morning merit-making, offering food to Buddhist monks and releasing caged birds to fly freely into the sky. Paying homage to one’s ancestors is an important part of the day, which they do by pouring water over the palms of their elders’ hands. The elders in return wish the young people good luck and prosperity. Later in the day they splash water over each other and build sand pagodas. It is a most joyous occasion that involves everyone.
April to August
The Giant Catfish
Every year in either April or May at Hat Krai Village in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thai and Lao fishermen cast their 250-metre long net to catch the giant catfish of the Mekong River. Before catching the fish, the Brahmin rituals are held to please the Father-spirit of Pla Buk. The success of the fishing season depends partially on this opening ceremony. After the ceremony the fishermen offer a chicken and local-made liquor to the guardian spirit of their boat and burn a special herb to drive away the evil ghosts from the net. Whoever tastes the fish will have a long life and become clever so the fish has become a favourite and expensive dish served in leading restaurants. Each season about 25-30 giant catfish are caught.
This festival is usually held at the beginning of the rainy season in the second week of May. It started when the rain god named Vassakan was known for his fascination of being worshipped with fire. In order to receive lots of rain for rice cultivation, farmers send homemade rockets to the heaven where the god resides. It takes the villagers weeks to make the rockets, the launching platforms and decorations, all done under the guidance of Buddhist monks. An average rocket is 9m in length and carries 20-25km of gunpowder.
On the day of the festival, villagers dress in traditional costumes and there is singing and dancing. Then one by one the rockets are fired, with each liftoff greeted by noisy cheers and music. The rocket that reaches the greatest height is the winner.
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony
This annual event has taken place near the Grand Palace in Bangkok since ancient times. It is of Brahman origin and was practiced even before the birth of Buddha. The event takes place in May although the day and time are set by the Royal Brahman astrologers. During the ceremony the amount of rainfall to be expected in the coming season is forecast. The Ploughing Lord, appointed by the King, is offered a choice of three lengths of cloth that all look identical. If he chooses the longest one there will be little rain during the coming year; if it is the shortest one, rain will be plentiful while the one of medium length indicates average rain.
The Ploughing Lord puts on the cloth and ploughs furrows with a sacred red and gold plough drawn by sacred white bulls and followed by four women who carry gold and silver baskets filled with rice seed. Walking alongside the plough are Brahmans who chant and blow conch shells. When the ploughing is finished the bulls are presented with seven different foods and drink (rice seed, beans, maize, hay, sesame seed, water and alcoholic liquor). After the ceremony everyone tries to get some of the seeds to mix with their own rice to ensure that their crop will be a good one in the coming year.
Visakha Puja Day
This is one of the greatest religious holidays, which falls on the 15th day of the waxing moon in the 6th lunar month. The celebration is held to commemorate Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. In Thailand it is celebrated throughout the country. Religious flags are flown and there are religious ceremonies and merit-making. In the countryside, people wake up early to prepare food and sweets for monks and at dawn go in a long line to the nearby temple and spend the day in religious activities. In the evening there is a candle-lit procession where they go around the main chapel three times. Each person carries flowers, three incense sticks and a lighted candle in remembrance of the Triple Gems: Buddha, his teaching and his disciples. A grand religious ceremony, usually led by a member of the royal family, is also held where the statue of the Walking Buddha is located at Phuttha Monthon in Nakhon Pathom Province.
Asanha Puja Day and start of Buddhist Lent
The Asanha Puja Day is one of the sacred days in Buddhism as it marks the coming into existence of the Triple Gems: Buddha, his teachings and his disciples. The day falls on the 15th day of the waxing moon of the eighth lunar month. It is the anniversary of the day that Buddha delivered the First Sermon to his first five disciples. Buddhists all over the country perform merit-making and observe Silas (Precepts).
The tradition of Buddhist Lent or the annual three-month Rains Retreat dates back to the time of early Buddhism in India when all holy men spent three months of the annual rainy season in permanent dwellings and avoided unnecessary travel when crops were still new for fear they might accidentally step on young plants. Buddhist Lent covers a good part of the rainy season and lasts three lunar months. The celebration of the beginning of Buddhist Lent is marked by the ceremony of presenting candles to the monks.
September to December
National Youth Day
After the United Nations declared 1985 as the International Year of Youth, Thailand set aside September 20 as an occasion to encourage young people to understand their responsibilities, cultural heritage and customs. The day was chosen because it was the birthday of two kings who came to the throne at a young age, King Rama V (born Sept 20, 1853) and King Rama VIII (born Sept 20, 1925).
Honey Offering Ceremony
Usually on the full-moon day of the tenth lunar month (in September or October), Thai people of Mon descent throughout the country perform an annual merit-making ceremony offering honey to monks. Mon people believe that since honey is abundant in the summer but rare at this time of year that to offer it then means they will receive great merit. However, some communities have replaced honey with white sugar because honey is so scarce! Mon people gather at a nearby temple, dressed in their traditional clothes and carrying honey, savory foods and luk yon, a special offering made for this event. They make luk yon by soaking sticky rice in water, then cooking it in coconut milk, adding black beans, then wrapping the mixture in phong leaves or screw pine leaves. After tying each packet into a triangular shape with banana string it is steamed.
The ceremony begins early in the morning when the monks’ alms-bowls are placed in three rows outside the temple: one for rice, one for luk yon, and the other for a variety of savory dishes. Honey is offered after that. The ceremony ends after the monks give a blessing chant.
Chinese Vegetarian Festival
This is a colourful and dramatic annual celebration that takes place during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, usually in late September or early October. In Thailand, the most known vegetarian festival is in the southern province of Phuket where it is held in a grand style. Devout Chinese Buddhists, dressed in white, convert to vegetarians and observe the ten rules in order to purify their minds and bodies. Besides a strict vegetarian diet and temple offerings, there are acts of self-mortification such as climbing ladders of knife-blades, walking on hot coals, and mediums who walk about in a state of trance with sharp objects sticking out of their bodies. The atmosphere is religious frenzy mixed with firecrackers and lion dances.
With the end of the 3-month Rains Retreat, which is usually between July and September, monks throughout the country are free to move from place to place and receive new robes in an annual presentation ceremony called ‘Thot Kathin’. They are also presented with Buddhist literature, kitchen equipment, financial contributions and building materials. Buddhists regard this ceremony as the most significant form of merit-making next to the ordination of close family members and everyone wants to sponsor it once in their lifetime. It does involve a lot of time, manpower and expense to do this and the temple needs to be reserved well in advance so sometimes a few people get together to organize the ceremony. The king takes a journey on board the Royal Barge to Wat Arun in Bangkok accompanied by a fleet of escort barges, which is a spectacular event.
It is very common to see Kathin processions travelling through the country, presenting Kathin robes and other necessities to monks in remote temples or in other countries where Buddhist temples have been established.
Rice offering ceremonies
Thai people believe that spirits are everywhere, even in the grains of rice where Mother Pho Sop – the rice goddess – lives. She is usually depicted as a beautiful woman with long hair sitting with her legs folded backwards. She is believed to be fragile and easily scared, so farmers perform the rice offering ceremony to calm her. Farmers perform the ceremony three times a year: when the rice grains develop (October), before harvesting (December) and before threshing (after the rice has been in the sun for 3 days to dry).
Loy Krathong Festival
This popular festival takes place in November when the weather is fine, the rainy season is over, and there is a high water level all over the country. ‘Loy’ means ‘to float’ and a ‘Krathong’ is a lotus-shaped vessel made of banana leaves. The Krathong usually contains a candle, three joss-sticks, some flowers and coins. The festival is actually of Brahmin origin in which people offer thanks to the Goddess of the water. By moonlight, people light the candles and joss-sticks, make a wish and launch their Krathongs on canals, rivers or even small ponds. It is believed that the Krathongs carry away sins and bad luck and the wishes that have been made for the new year that will soon start. It is time to be happy for the sufferings are floating away. The festival starts in the evening when there is a full moon.
Yee Peng Festival
This annual festival is held to celebrate the full moon in the northern capital of Chiang Mai on the day preceding Loy Krathong (see above). The festival is celebrated as a religious event in which local people throughout the region make merit and other religious activities. The highlight of the event is the launching of floating lanterns into the night sky with the belief that misfortune will fly away with the lanterns. If the lanterns are made and offered to monks, they will receive wisdom in return as the flame in the lantern is said to symbolize knowledge and the light it gives will guide them to the right path.
Each lantern is actually a balloon in a light bamboo frame covered with mulberry paper. It floats by means of hot air heated by a flaming torch. Companies and individuals make merit by sponsoring balloons. If their balloon goes high and travels far it indicates prosperity. Yet everyone is happy because as the lanterns float to the sky bad luck is floating away.
The Elephant Round-Up Festival
This popular northeastern festival first began in 1960 and is held annually in November. Usually 120-150 elephants are involved. The people of Surin have long been known for their skill in capturing and training wild elephants and through this event they can show how talented elephants are. It begins with a procession of all the elephants, ranging from calves only a few weeks old to well-trained elephants with decades of experience. The elephants perform different acts such as moving logs, playing soccer, winning a tug-of-war against humans, to show they are intelligent, gentle and obedient.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
This article was extracted and adapted from “Essays on Thailand”, compiled and written in Thai and English by Thanapol Chadchaidee, first published in 1994 with 22 editions.
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012