Thailand - Holidays & Festivals

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Holidays & Festivals

The number and frequency of festivals and fairs in Thailand is incredible - there always seems to be something going on, but especially during the cool season between November and February.

Thailand has gained its classic title as the cultural capital of Southeast Asia as a result of its celebrated festivals and ceremonies. The majority of these festivals are of a religious nature in connection with the life of Lord Buddha. Because the Buddhist faith follows a lunar calendar many of the festivals and their respective public holidays change yearly.

10 to 12 January
Chaiyaphum Elephant Round-up - a rather recently established event that focuses on re-enactment of medieval elephant-back warfare. Much smaller and less touristy than the Surin round up in November.

24 to 31 January
Don Chedi Memorial Fair - commemorates the victory of King Naresuan of Ayutthaya over Burmese invaders in 1592. The highlight of the fair is dramatized elephant-back duelling. At the Don Chedi memorial in Suphanburi Province.

1st week of February
Flower Festival in Chiang Mai - colourful floats and parades exhibiting Chiang Mai's cultivated flora.

February
Magha Puja (Makha Bucha) Magha Puja (Makha Bucha) - held on the full moon of the third lunar month to commemorate the preaching of the Buddha to 1,250 enlightened monks who came to hear hint 'without prior summons'. A public holiday throughout the country: culminating in a candle-lit circumambulation of the main chapel at every wat.

Makha Puja commemorates the day when 1,250 Buddhist saints spontaneously met the Lord Buddha on the full moon of the third lunar month. It was regarded as a miraculous event in the history of Buddhism.

It happened when the Buddha took up residence in the bamboo grove of the City of Rajgir of old Indian in the north and on the full moon of the third lunar month, the Buddha's disciples 1,250 in numbers all of whom happened to be ehi bhikkhu, of whom the Buddha himself had performed their ordination.

All these members of the Holy Order of the Yellow Robe had already attained arahatship (Sainthood). They converged from all directions without any prior knowledge of each other's destination to pay homage to the Buddha on this day.

Seeing that all his arahats came before him in full force, taking the opportunity of his unbelievable coincidence the Buddha then delivered his great Patimokha Sermon. The Patimokha is none other than the Rules of the Order, 227 altogether, as they stand today, it is the most stringent code of daily observance to be found in any religions, and is formally recited twice a month in every monastery in Thailand.

The Ruler of the Order was created for man who obeyed them. However, the gist of the Buddha's great Patimonkha sermon to anyone everywhere is simply:

To avoid evil
To do what is good
And to purify one's mind
This is the teaching of the Lord Buddha

1st week of March
Barred Ground Dove Fair - large dove-singing contest held in Yala that attracts dove-lovers from all over Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

14 to 21 March
Phra Buddhabaht Fair - annual pilgrimage to the Temple of the Holy Footprint at Saraburi, 236km north north east of Bangkok. Quite an affair: with music, outdoor drama and many other festivities. The shrine is worth visiting even in the 'off-season', if you're in the area.

6 April
Chakri Day - public holiday commemorating the founder of the Chakri Dynasty, Rama I.

13 to 15 April


Rumwong Wan Songkran - Vocal


Rumwong
Wan Songkran


Rumwong Wan Songkran - Music

Songkran Festival Songkran Festival - the New Year's celebration of the lunar year in Thailand. Buddha images are 'bathed', monks and elders receive the respect of younger Thais by the sprinkling of water over their hands and a lot of water is tossed about for fun. Songkran generally gives everyone a chance to release their frustrations and literally cool off during the peak of the hot season. Hide out in your room or expect to be soaked; the latter is a lot more fun.

Songkran has long been a traditional festival for the Thai people. It is not known exactly when this festival began, but it does date back for many centuries. The word 'Songkran' is from Sanskrit and means the beginning of a new Solar Year. However, in modern times, New Year is celebrated on January 1st, the same as in Western countries. In some ways, Songkran resembles the Christian Easter, also those of the Chinese New Year and the Vietnamese Tet. Songkran festival begins when the sun enters the Taurus zodiac sign. It falls on the 13th April and usually ends on April 15th but occasionally it extends through April 16th.

One this day, the Thai people celebrate in various ways. If you are Buddhist, the first thing to do on Songkran Day is offer alms to the monks in the early morning. Young and old dress in new clothing and visit their wat where food is offered to the monks. It is a feast day for the monks and often music is played in celebration while the food is enjoyed.

Every year, the day before the Songkran festival, a most famous and much revered Buddha image known as Phra Buddha Si-hing (thought to be of Sri Lankan origin and to date from the second century A.D.) is removed from the embellished throne in the Royal Chapel and taken in procession through the streets of Bangkok to Thonburi in the West Bank of the Chao Phraya river. On Songkran Day it remains at the Phramain Ground where crowds line up to sprinkle it with scented water, making merit for the traditional Thai New Year.

The youngsters will go to pay respect to their family elders - normally those who are over 60 - and present them with a piece of white cloth. As in previous years, they pour scented water over the elder's hands as a mark of respect while seeking the blessing of the older people. In ancient days, the old people were actually given a bath and clothed in new apparel presented by the young folks as a token of respect for the New Year.

Another unique Songkran custom is the releasing of live birds and fish purchased in the markets. It is believed that great merit is gained through this kind act. During the afternoon of the 13th, Buddha images are bathed as part of the ceremony.

Songkran Festival Then it is the time for fun when all of the people, particularly the young ones, start to celebrate the event with traditional water throwing at each other. This water throwing usually begins after the bathing of the Buddha images. Armed with beautiful silver bowls filled with rose-scented water, young and old people prowl the streets ready to fling their offerings at each other. It is an old belief that the nagas or mythical serpents brought on rain by spouting water from the seas. The more they spouted the more rain there would be. So, one might believe that the Songkran custom of throwing water is actually a 'rain making' idea the same as in Europe where water is thrown on the last crop of corn or on the farmer bringing in the load of corn, in the hope of having ample rain for the next year's crops.

Songkran embodies much more than just the water throwing. It is also regarded as a public health day. On the eve of festival, a thorough cleaning takes place in the house and the area around. Rubbish is burned, for the people believe that everything old and useless must be thrown away or it will bring bad luck in the New Year. Songkran festival is concerned with songs, dances, games and other pastimes as played by boys and girls of the village. It is only natural that farmers make more of the celebration as their farm work is at a standstill until the rains come when they can begin ploughing for the new rice crop. The work of the women - cutting firewood, carrying water and pounding rice ceases during the three-day celebration. Songkran is truly one of the Thai traditional gaieties, which is being observed throughout the country.

As the festival draws to a close, small mounds of sand shaped like Chedi are erected both at the wat and on the banks of the river; they are topped with paper streamers, ornamented with zodiac signs. Their builders beg the Gods to grant them the favour of a long life, of wonderful days filled happiness and wealth as numerous as the sands they are made of.

13 April
Phanom Rung Festival - a newly established festival to commemorate the restoration of this impressive Angkor-style temple. Involves a daytime procession to Khao Phanom Rung and spectacular sound-and-light shows at night. Be prepared for very hot weather.

5 May
Coronation Day - the King and Queen preside at a ceremony at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, commemorating their 1946 coronation. Public holiday.

May (Full Moon)
Visakha Puja (Wisakha Bucha) - falls on the 15th day of the waxing moon in the 6th lunar month, which is considered the date of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and parinibbana, or passing away. Activities are centred round the wat, with candle-lit processions, much chanting and sermonizing, etc. Public holiday.

Visakha Puja, Buddhists celebrate Visakha as the most sacred day in the Buddhist calendar. It is a day of three-fold significance for on this day, in the year 623 B.C. Lord Buddha was born a prince, son of King Suddhodhana and Queen Sirimahamaya at Lumbini Grove, midway between Kapilavatthu and Devadaha, on the borders of Nepal. Thirty-five years later after a strenuous search for truth, the Prince attained the Noble Truths became the Enlightened One on the full-moon night of Visakha. After 45 years of teaching the Lord Buddha at the age of 80, passed away at Kusinara on the full-moon night of the sixth lunar month. In view of the miraculous coincidence of the three great events: the Birth, the Enlightenment and the Demise, Buddhists observe Visakha Puja as the most sacred day throughout the world.

Visakha Day is observed annually on the 15th day of the lunar month - a date chosen by common agreement after World War II. Visakha is a Thai world (in Singhalese it is Wesak, in Sanskrit Vaiskha, and in Pali Vesakha), and is the name for the month, which coincides with the 4th moon of the Chinese calendar.

Visakha Day is a public holiday in Thailand. Thousands of people celebrate the occasion with the traditional Vien-Thian ceremony, in which the public makes three rounds of the main temple hall in a clock-wise direction with lighted candles, joss sticks and flowers in a gesture of respect to the Lord Buddha at temples throughout the country. Observances begin with decoration of Buddhist temples and homes with five-coloured Buddhist flags and paper lanterns, and brightly illuminated at night with miniature oil lamps and fairy lights.

2nd week of May
Royal Ploughing Ceremony - to kick off the official rice-planting season, the King participates in this Brahman ritual at Sanam Luang (the large field across from Wat Phra Kaew) in Bangkok. Thousands of Thais gather to watch, and traffic in this past of the city reaches a standstill.

Raek Na (Ploughing Ceremony). One of the Thailand's most interesting events, the ceremony is of great importance to the country's farmers. In the old days, its purpose was to inform farmers of the auspicious date to start ploughing for the new rice crop. The ceremony can be traced back to the time of Buddha more than 2500 years ago. It has been observed consistently since then, although, in some years, with less pomp and grandeur.

For centuries, in Thailand, a high dignitary of the State, appointed by the sovereign, has always presided at the ceremony of the first ploughing and the ceremony of blessing of grain. These two ceremonies are usually held a few days before the coming of the rainy season at the end of May or the beginning of June every year. The ceremony is entirely Brahmanical and it takes place outside the city in some Crown paddy field. Royal Brahmin astrologers determine the date.

His Majesty the King, who presides at the ceremony, appoints a Phraya Raek Na (Lord of the Festival) as his representative to carry out the rites. On his arrival at the grounds, Phraya Raek Na will be presented with three phanungs (loin cloths) of different lengths from which he chooses one. If his choice is the longest one, there will be little rain; the medium length denotes average rain.

A red and gold sacred plough drawn by bulls decorated with flowers leads the procession of drummers in green costumes, the chief Brahman chanting and blowing conch shells, drum and umbrella bearers and four Nang Thephi or Celestial Maidens carrying gold and silver baskets filled with rice-seeds to be scattered by Phraya Raek Na. The bulls then turn a few furrows with the sacred plough, after which the animals are presented with seven different types of food and drink, namely: rice seeds, beans, maize, hay, sesame seeds, water and an alcoholic beverage. Whatever the bulls choose to eat or drink, will be plentiful during the next year.

Raek Na is the religious rite where by ceremonial rice-seeds, blessed with the chanting of stanzas by Buddhist monks, are distributed to farmers at the Royal Ploughing Ceremony as good luck seeds to be sprinkled in their fields along with their own. The importance attached to these rites, and other less solemn ones of the same nature is sufficient to show the high place that the patriarchal industry of agriculture holds in the Thai people, for whom rice forms the basis of food, as corn does with Westerners.

2nd week of May
Rocket Festival Rocket Festival - all over the northeast, villagers craft large skyrockets of bamboo that they then fire into the sky to bring rain for rice fields. This festival is best celebrated in the town of Yasothon, but also good in Ubon and Nong Khai.

Boon Bang Fai or rocket festival is held annually for more than a century now in several provinces of Northeast Thailand during the sixth lunar month on the 14th day of the waxing moon - the day of the Buddha's birth, death and enlightenment. The hiss of rockets soaring into the clear sky signals the formal beginning of the festival. Boon Bang Fai is an occasion for pomp, pageantry, and general merriment. The festival has ancient, legendary origins.

The day before a recent rocket festival in Nong Khai, more than 2,000 participants from all over the province joined the colourful parade, which took some three hours to pass the reviewing stand on the city's main street. Over 12,000 people watched the one-kilometre long pageants, which featured dancers in gay costumes, musicians playing a variety a variety of instruments and at least 24 brilliant coloured, homemade rockets mounted on trucks. In front of each truck, girls dressed in black and gold costumes performed traditional dances along the parade route. Celebrants dressed in an endless variation of bizarre costumes provide comic relief.

In the city of Nong Khai, three contests are now part of the annual rocket festival. One contest awards a trophy and cash prizes to the groups of contestants who launch the five rockets that soar the highest. Another set of prizes is awarded to the best groups in the festival parade, and a third set to builders whose rockets designs are judged the best.

The festival grew out of a legend that is known in the Northeast as 'Thao Pha Daeng and Nang Ai-kham.' Once upon a time, so that legend goes, there was a city called Nong Harn (now Sakon Nakhon), ruled by a benevolent king named Khomarat who had a very pretty daughter - Nang Ai-Kham. The beauty of his daughter was known throughout that area and there were young men from royal families and eminent people trying to marry her. King Khomarat was very worried and tried to find a way of settling the squabbles. So he asked all the young men to participate in a 'Bang Fai' competition, the one who could shoot the highest rocket was to be accepted as his son-in-law.

Thao Pha Daeng won the competition but Suwanpankee, son of the dragons, was also fascinated by Nang Ai-Kham's beauty. So he disguised himself as a white squirrel and tried to attract Nang Ai-Kham by sitting on a tree stem in front of her. Nang Ai-Kham, very eager to own the squirrel asked her people to catch it for her. But, Nang Ai-Kham's men found it difficult to catch the squirrel so they killed it with an arrow. The people of Nong Harn came to eat the squirrel's meat but could not finish it. More people came and they also could not finish the meat.

Suwanpankee's father (a dragon) then heard about his son's death and was very furious. So he came with his fellow dragons to avenge the death of his son. Thao Pha Daeng tried to help Nang Ai-Kham but he could not because the dragons were strong. She was killed along with the others who ate the white squirrel's meat. Thao Pha Daeng did not eat the white squirrel's meat and therefore escaped death.

The city prospered during the early part of the king's reign; his subjects were contented and happy. But in later years a prolonged drought brought misery. Crops withered and died; many people starved. The king summoned his ministers and bade them to give him counsel. The ministers came up with many suggestions. Various ceremonies were performed invoking the gods to give rain. But nothing happened, and the people continued to starve.

One day, during another futile ritual, a young stranger named Thao Pha Daeng came on the scene. 'Water would pour down from the heavens,' he told the king, 'if the people would make a Bang Fai, a rocket, and fire it into the sky as a token of sacrifice to Siva (chief of the gods)'. The king ordered the building of the rocket at once. When it was fired, the skies opened and torrents of the water drenched the arid earth. Crops grew; the people prospered and they were happy again. The annual festival of the rockets has been preserved among the people of the Northeast since that time.

Long before the festival, villagers go around the community soliciting funds from fellow rocket enthusiasts. Donations are pooled for the purchase of gunpowder, rope, bamboo poles and bright-coloured paper used to build the rockets. The rockets are sponsored by boxing clubs, farmers' organizations, or by the wat.

Festival rockets average nine metres in length and carry a load of 12 to 25 kilogrammes of gun power. It takes about 20 days to build such a rocket.

On the day of the festival, the rockets are hoisted into place on launching racks that have been prepared in advance. When everything is ready, the heavy bamboo rockets are launched one by one igniting 10-metre-long fuses. With the advent of space science, some of the more sophisticated rockets are fired electrically.

Some ignited rockets never get off the launching racks - either because they get stuck there or because the fuses don't ignite properly. Such mishaps earn jeers for the builders. Successful launches are timed by a board of judges, and are celebrated by applause, cheers, dancing, and sometimes by heaving surprised but amused sponsors into the mud of the nearest rice paddy.

Mid-July
Asanha Puja - full moon is a must for this holiday, too, commemorating the first sermon preached by the Buddha. Public holiday.

The third of the trinity, marks the date on which Lord Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples. This comes in the 8th lunar month (July) and has only in recent years been regularly celebrated in Thailand. It falls on the full moon day, one day before Buddhist Lent.

Mid to late July
Naga Buad Nagh (Ordination as Buddhist Monk) takes place during June and July before the beginning of Lent. It is the occasion when young Thai men enter the monk hood at the age 20 or over, for a limited period, in order to receive training in Buddhism and to gain merit for themselves and their parents. The candidate must learn the prayers and chants he must use during the ceremony and in the meantime he will finalize his leave taking from mundane affairs.

The eve of the ordination is a time for feasting and friends and relatives flock to the house to congratulate him. In the afternoon friends will take him out on a trial procession around town in a gay throng that gives the townspeople a preview of things to come. By now he had become a Naga or Nagh (in local dialect). The name is taken after a Buddhist parable in which a naga - a snake person of the underworld - who became devoted to Buddhism and changed into a man in order to get ordained as a priest. He was found out, however, when he reverted back to reptile form during his sleep. Being an animal, he was not allowed to continue his priestly career but because of his great devotion, it was decreed that a man who is about to enter the priesthood would be called a naga.

When the naga returns home at nightfall a special ceremony called the 'Rap Khwan' is performed for him, attended by relatives and followers. This ceremony is aimed at softening up the young naga and making him realize fully the importance of the undertaking.

A master of ceremonies presides over the function, which begins with a call to attend to the angels. Then in a lilting chant the master of ceremonies will embark on a vivid description of the sufferings of the mother in bringing the naga into the world and the father while raising him up to be a man. A good master of ceremonies can reduce the stalwart young naga to tears and wipe away any misgivings he still might harbor about giving up three month of the best time of his life. The ceremony concludes with the naga being anointed and fed ceremonial coconut milk by the parents.

The 'Rap Khwan' is the heart of the pre-ordination ceremonies. The naga must be softened up so much that any wish for a last wild fling is wiped out. Some lads are not convinced and saunter off after the ceremony on a binge, turning up for the naga procession the next day as a green-faced wreck, a walking hangover. Some naga even get into various scrapes or accidents on the eve and bring the whole ordination program to an abrupt close.

At the auspicious moment the next day, the naga starts off in a procession to the temple after having his head, eyebrows and beard shaven smooth. The procession is led by a rowdy band of dancers and percussion musicians who beat a conglomeration of long drums, cymbals and hollowed bamboo stick into a stirring rhythm. The naga himself dressed in white robes will ride on the shoulder of an attendant in the procession, holding in his joined palms, lotus blossoms, candles and incense in a homage gesture.

In the country, the wealthier naga rides on horseback or elephant back according to his financial status. The procession is always made as pompous as possible. In the old days of the absolute monarchy, a naga was allowed to be shaded by an imitation royal tiered umbrella used only by the king. The offense when committed by a layman was punished by skinning the culprit alive.

Relatives and friends help bear his monastic equipment in the procession. The chief items however, are borne by his parents. Usually, the mother will hold the robes while the father carries the begging bowl. Others required equipment consist of a water-filter device, a sewing kit, and a razor.

The speed of the procession is regulated by the carousing dancers and drumbeaters who are given full artistic license to enjoy themselves. After the ceremony when the candidate is accepted into the monk hood, he them dons his yellow robe and vows to follow the 227 rules of Sangha. Although, in principal, Buad Nagh can take place at any time, in practice the Thai traditionally carry on the ceremonies of indoctrination during the month preceding Lent so that the newly ordained monks can remain three full months of the rainy season inside the temple during the Lenten season.

Khao Phansaa (beginning of Buddhist 'lent') - the traditional time of year for young men to enter the monk hood for the rainy season and for all monks to station themselves in a single monastery for the three months. A good time to observe a Buddhist ordination. This is a public holiday.

Khow Phansa (Beginning of Lent) which marks the period of fast, observed by the monks, begins with the full moon of the 8th lunar month (July) and ends with the full moon of the 11th lunar month (October).

This period recalls the three months of rain during which, unable to go on his preaching rounds, the Buddha and His disciples retired to the Jetavana Grove. Moreover, the rainy season which stimulate proliferation of life everywhere, breeds swarms of all insects: it is therefore impossible at that time to go about without violating at each step the precept which condemns the destruction of sentient beings, however small they might be. It follows that during this three-month retreat, no monk should leave his temple for more than seven days for any reason. This period of restricted travelling for monks is known as the 'rains-residence', and it generally begins on the day after the Full Moon day of July.

There are various versions of how this tradition originated. One is that during the days of Lord Buddha the farmers complained that at the beginning of the rainy season the monks trampled all over their newly ploughed and planted rice paddies. Therefore, to appease the farmers, the Lord Buddha laid down a rule requiring monks to stay in their abodes during the rainy season. Another legend claims that before the Lord Buddha decreed that monks should remain at their temples during Lent, they travelled far and wide all year long. Because of this they were criticized for not resting and, again, for trampling on the newly planted rice crops during the rainy season.

As such, the practice of congregating in one place and remaining there throughout the rainy season became a tradition.

Before the beginning of Lent, the faithful meet in each district to prepare the candles. A competition is then organized at a given spot, where lots will be drawn as to the name of the wat to which the most beautiful candles will be offered. After that a procession will go through the streets on its way to visit the temples. However, in country towns and villages, the offering of candles to the monks is done without any of the ceremonials.

Mid so late July
Candle Festival - in the northeast they celebrate Khao Phansaa by carving huge candles and parading them on floats in the streets. This festival is best celebrated in Ubon.

12 August
Queen's birthday - this is a public holiday. Ratchadamnoen Avenue and the Grand Palace are festooned with coloured lights.

September
Thailand International Swan-Boat Races - takes place on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok near the Rama IX Bridge.

September
Narathiwat Fair - an annual weeklong festival celebrating local culture with boat races, dove-singing contests, handicraft displays, traditional southern Thai music and dance. The King and Queen almost always attend.

Late September to early October
Vegetarian Festival - a nine-day celebration in Trang and Phuket during which devout Chinese Buddhists eat only vegetarian food. There are also various ceremonies at Chinese temples and merit-making processions that bring to mind Hindu Thaipusam in its exhibition of self-mortification.

October
chonburi buffalo racing Buffalo Racing Festival - is one of the oldest traditional festivals of Chonburi, usually taken place in October of each year. Similar occasions are also organized in the nearby towns such as Ban Bung and Nong Yai. Farmers decorate their buffaloes with different coloured robes for a competition gathering on the front ground of the Municipal offices. Activities taking place after this gathering is the buffalo running competition, animal's health competition, etc.

Mid-October to mid-November
Thawt Kathin - a one-month period at the end of 'lent' during which new monastic robes and requisites are offered to the Sangha.

The Kathin ceremony, in which the monks are presented with new robes and daily necessities after the rainy season and their three-month confinement for study and meditation in the monasteries, is an occasion in which everybody within walking distance participates.

As a matter of fact, the Kathin Ceremony dates back to Buddha's time. One time Buddha had taken up residence at the Jetavana Grove in Savathy City and 30 monks were trekking trying to reach Jetavana in time for observing the Lent along with the Buddha. Due to bad weather these 30 monks were forced to spend Lent at the place they did not intend to; and finally they reached Jetavana about one month after the end of Lent.

Buddha, upon seeing that the itinerants whose garments were well soaked and worn out by the effect of the rain, announced to the Holy Brother hood of monks the forgiveness to the 30 monks for their unavoidable undoing, and also made mention that these monks may be allowed to accept new garments if offered by the people. Consequently a beautiful lady of repute by the name of Viskha gladly made the offering. Since then the ceremony of presenting the Kathin robe to the monk at the end of Lent has been in existence.

The custom of presenting Kathin robes at the end of the rainy season is observed throughout the whole kingdom from the King to the common people, and is looked upon as an excellent way of making merit. Devout Buddhists in a company of relatives, friends, and acquaintances flock to the wat to present monastic robes to a monk who is unanimously chosen from the wat for his good deeds during Lent. The holy Kathin robe given to the chosen monk is in four pieces.

When the abbot of the wat with the holy monastic robe is ceremoniously presented, he addresses the sponsoring Kathin party as follows.

'The Kathin robe has been given to us by the faithful sponsoring Buddhists, who being endued with exceeding goodness and righteousness, have condescended to come here themselves to present this garment to us, these sponsors do not designate any particular person by whom this garment shall be worn but leave it to us decide who among us is most in need, and who has attained the fifth degree of Anisamas (fruitfulness in holy living) and practiced the eight rule of Matika (priestly etiquette).'

The ceremony ends with the monks chanting a short form of Paritta in Pali, translated as follows:

'May you live over 100 years in the fullness of vigour, free disease; may all your wishes be fulfilled, all your works accomplished, all advantages accrue to you; may you always triumph and succeed.'

Kathin time is not only merit making but also time for rejoicing. After the ceremony in the wat's Convocation Hall, the people, mostly in the rural areas, take to the water for boat racing. This is a happy occasion and romance is in the air as young maidens and men dressed in their best clothes intermingle. Due to age-old custom such opportunities are rare in areas, and so the young welcome Kathin time joyously.

The Kathin, lasting a month, finished on the full moon of the 12th lunar month, with the 'Loy Krathong' festival.

Awk Phansa - or the end of Buddhist Lent month means that all Buddhist monks can now travel freely with the suspension of the rule forbidding them to spend a night outside their own monasteries.

Another relaxation all the priests can enjoy is in not having to adhere to the compulsory fortnightly recitation of the Patimokha, one of the rules of the Order or the Code of Discipline, which significantly unifies the Holy Order of the Sangha. This day is of particular significance to 'short-term' priests who traditionally enter the monk hood during Lent. They assemble in the Convocation Hall of the wat, and humbly submit themselves to the admonition of the elders. They solicit forgiveness for any faults and shortcomings, unintentionally committed by them during the retreat.

23 October
Chulalongkorn Day - a public holiday in commemoration of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).

November
Loi Krathong Loi Krathong - on the proper full-moon night, small lotus-shaped baskets or boats made of banana leaves containing flowers, incense, candles and a coin are floated on Thai rivers, lakes and canals. This is a peculiarly Thai festival that probably originated in Sukhothai and is best celebrated in the north. In Chiang Mai, residents also launch hot-air paper balloons into the sky. At the National Historical Park in Sukhothai, there is an impressive sound and light show.

Loy Krathong, one of the most picturesque festivals in Thailand, dating back to the region of King Ramakhamhaeng of Sukhothai over 700 years ago. This charming and festive ceremony is observed in the countryside and in the cities.

The celebration is held on a full moon night of the twelfth lunar month (usually November) and turns rivers, canals, ponds and pools into fairy gardens. The meaning of 'Loy' itself means 'To Float' white 'Krathong' means 'Leaf Cup,' a lotus like blossom made of banana leaves. It is not a public holiday; it doesn't even start until it gets dark. But infallibly that evening everyone who has made a krathong proceeds to the nearest body of water, usually accompanied by members of the family or friends.

The Loy Krathong Festival is said to have been originated by Nang Nophamas. She was one of the King Ramakhamhaeng's ladies-in-waiting and later became a principal minor wife. To please the King during his river cruises, Nang Nophamas, who was well versed in all the arts and sciences, prepared a lantern of rare beauty and originality in the form of a lotus flower adorned with birds carved out of fruit, and a candle. She floats it away on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month when the water rose high.

King Ramakhamhaeng viewed the lanterns for the contest and was especially impressed by the lotus lantern by Nang Nophamas. He was so pleased by her explanation of the design that he decreed that from that day forward the Buddhist Holy Day on the night of the full moon of the Lantern Festival - lantern should be made in the shape of the lotus and floated on the river to pay homage of the Lord Buddha. The Lantern Festival became the Loy Krathong Festival from then on.

Though it was not clear as to why the festival was originated, it was theorized that lanterns, made in the shape of lotus, were originally floated on the river to pay homage to the Lord Buddha. Buddhism had much in common with Brahmanism in those days and it happened that this night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar calendar month was celebrated in Thailand as in India. As spiritual as well as temporal head of the nation, the King made a journey by boat with all his court, calling at temples alongside the river for religious ceremonies.

The most common explanation given today of the meaning of Loy Krathong is that it is a time for the floating away of one's sins of the past year and for a yearly offering to the water spirits. There is a Thai legend that the ancient goddess Mae Khongkha (the Mother of Water) provides man with life giving water during the year, but man makes the water impure and must, therefore, atone for his sins once a year. Thus, small coins are often placed in the krathong as a token of appreciation and a humble apology for offending the bountiful goddess. The affair is a Thai gesture to give thanks to the life-giving waters. It is also a time for lovers who - under the spell of the full moon - traditionally pledge their everlasting love.

The simplest krathong is a fragile structure of banana leaves and paper made in the form of a lotus flower. More elaborate models are made out of all types of material, to resemble house, boats, ships, temples and forts, etc. It carries a candle and a joss stick, both of which are lighted before it is launched. It also carries a wish. Setting it down gently in the water, the owner gives it a gentle shove. On rivers and canals the krathong float away, moved by the current or by evening breeze. Each person closely watches his krathong drift out of sight for, according to an old Thai proverb, the longer the twinkling flame of the candle can be seen the luckier the coming year will be.

Third weekend in November
Surin Annual Elephant Round up - pretty touristy these days, but no more so than the 'running of the bulls' in Pamplona, Spain.

Late November to early December
River Kwai Bridge Week - sound and light shows every night at the Death Railway Bridge in Kanchanaburi, plus historical exhibitions and vintage train rides.

5 December
King's birthday - this is a public holiday, which is celebrated with some fervour in Bangkok.

31 December & 1 January
New Year's - a rather recent public holiday in deference to the western calendar.

Thai New Year. Modern Thailand now celebrates the New Year on 1 January the same as Europeans and Americans For it was in 1941 that the Government declared 1 January to be regarded as the beginning of any new year.

Until then, for exactly 52 years, the Thai New Year was on the first of April, following the decision by King Rama V in 1889. Before that time, the Thais used to have two New Year's days in a year. One on the first waning moon the first Thai lunar month which normally falls on late November or December; and the other on the first waxing moon of the fifth lunar month which falls roughly in the middle of April.

The Thais had for centuries regarded the first day of the first lunar month as the beginning of the year. There were many reasons for this, one of which being that is the time when weather in the country is at its best - the lovely milder weather of the cool season is coming in to replace the dampness of the rainy season, leaving behind the intense heat and humidity. The cool season, for people living in this part of the world, had always been compared to the dawn of the day, while summer is like noontime and the rainy season dusk. That was why the Thai lunar year begins in the cool season. There were evidences that in the time of early Sukhothai period, the New Year was celebrated on the first lunar month. Pomp and ceremonies were held on this very day to mark the occasion. And the people in the whole kingdom joined hands in welcoming of the arrival of the New Year.

But gradually as time went on, the influence of Brahmanism, which spread to various countries in Southeast Asia, began to be felt. In many countries Brahmanism became an integral part of the customs and traditions of the place. Originated in India where winter is regarded as a harsh and unpleasant time, Brahmin practice was more in favour of celebrating its New Year in spring than in winter. Spring in northern India, is certainly the best time of the year. It is the time when everything is coming back to life after a long sleep during winter. The beginning of spring or vernal equinox usually falls on March 21.

The Brahmin New Year should have begun on that very day. But the reason why it was delayed for nearly 25 days - until the middle of April was due to what is called equinoctial - a term used in astronomy - resulting in the Songkran Day being some time from 13-15 April. With the growing influence of Brahmanism, many countries in Asia including Thailand began to adopt the Songkran Day as their New Year's Day. Some of Thailand's neighbouring countries such as Burma and Kampuchea still have traces of this tradition. Other countries, which escaped the wake of Brahmanism such as Vietnam still retains its old way. In Vietnam's case, because of its closeness both geographically and culturally to China, its New Year's Day or Tet is similar to the Chinese New Year.

In Thailand, for several hundred years, two New Year's days were therefore celebrated. But it was the latter - that was after the Songkran Day - which the New Year began. A French envoy that came to Ayutthaya in 1685 had witnessed the way that the Thai populace celebrated its New Year's Day on the first night of the lunar month, which in that year fell on November 27. He said candles and flowers were used abundantly to decorate the house; people wore brand-new costumes and rejoiced in the festivities. The young ones went out in search of blessings from the old ones. It was quite a scene to behold, signifying the auspiciousness of the occasion.

However, the Thais would not yet start their New Year until April when the old calendar would be thrown away to be replaced by a new one. This meant that the Thais had been celebrating two New Year's days for a long, long time.

And although the country for sometime had been using a different kind of era, for instance the Ratanakosin Era following the establishment of Bangkok as the capital still the new era begins in the middle of April. This was later on considered rather confusing. So in 1889 it was decided that the year should begin at the beginning of the month, not in the middle.

This new system had been in use for about fifty years but result was not completely satisfactory. In the same year World II broke out and immediately after it was agreed that the name of the country should be Thailand instead of Siam, the Government, in consultation with a national committee agreed to change the New Year day from April 1 to January 1 after considering the pros and cons of the matter. The main factor for the change seems to be to keep out calendar in line with other countries.

At that time, even Japan and China had already resorted to using this Western calendar. There was no reason why we should not. Also it would be like going back to our old traditional way of celebrating a Thai new year because the first lunar month also begins some where near January. The Brahmin practice was therefore superseded with this new practice.

However, many Thai still celebrate two New Year's days a year. Some even have time to celebrate three, including the old Thai New Year on the first lunar month. But it was on January 1 that the era moves into a new one.

Note: The official year in Thailand is reckoned from 543 B.C., the beginning of the Buddhist Era, so that 2000 A.D. is 2543 B.E.

Chinese Festivals

Chinese New Year - Each year the Chinese celebrate their New Year. Weeks before the New Year, homes, business buildings and shops have their annual cleaning and washing. As with other traditions around the world, the belief among the Chinese is that the New Year must begin with a clean start. In keeping with this age-old custom housewives clean and polish their homes while shopkeepers give their premises the annual spring cleaning, dusting away the cobwebs and dirt from the signboards. Many premises also get a new coat of paint especially the front gates, which usually get new facelift.

Business entrepreneurs, industrialists and other employers have paid their annual bonuses to workers. A roaring trade is done in Chinese type sausages, preserved duck, other preservatives, canned goods and liquor, which are either for the homes or to be given as presents to friends and relatives. Stationers also do a brisk trade in Chinese New Year greeting cards and red money envelopes.

On New Year's Eve Chinese pay respects to their ancestors with offerings of alcohol, fowl and fruits. The ceremony also includes the burning of gold and silver-coloured paper for the late ancestors as superstition has it that those who are dead also need money to spend in the 'other world.'

On New Year's Day the usually quiet Chinese homes turn noisy. From early morning relatives begin to arrive - bringing along all their junior family members - to offer New Year wishes and blessings to their elders, relatives and friends. This is usually the time for annual family reunions. Chinese parents will as a traditions give out cash gifts in red packets or envelopes called 'Ang Pow' to their children and their friends' children on New Year's day. This is an age-old custom, which is considered to be a family blessing and a gesture of good will and affinity, which brings luck in the coming year.

Oranges are regarded as a 'lucky fruit' and when people visit each other's homes it is common for them to present and exchange oranges. Normally during the orange-swapping ceremony they exchange greetings, wishes and blessings. Some of the common phrases used are - 'wish you may grow rice in the New Year; May wealth be showered on you' - and so forth.

It is a traditional belief that the first day of the New Year should be lived the way you should live in the coming 12 months. Because they do not want any things to cause bad luck on the first few days of the year, all shops and offices are closed to allow employees a chance to enjoy the festival. Swearing and the use of bad language is not allowed on New Year's day when only pleasantries are exchanged which are considered appropriate and correct. In addition, no broom is used on New Year's day for it is considered that to sweep with the broom is to sweep away all the good luck, and riches for the coming year. Therefore the night before, the family usually cleans and sweeps all the floors.

Lions and dragons are both good luck symbols and they dance rollickingly and fiercely on the New Year to bring peace and prosperity and to frighten away bad luck. The origin of these customs is lost in the ancient past in an era of mythical monsters and fascinating legends. One legend has it that in a particular area of ancient China, on a winter's night thousand of years ago, a strange monster attacked a village, killing and maiming a number of the people. It appeared from nowhere and, having reeked terrible havoc disappeared without trace.

The villages held a meeting to decide how they would deal with any future attack, but as the months went past with no further sign of the monster, their courage returned and life resumed its regular pattern.

Three hundred and sixty-five days later the same monster suddenly reappeared catching the villagers unawares. More of the villages were killed and many of the houses destroyed. After this, the terrifying visits cams regularly at intervals of 365 days until the remaining villagers were at their wits end to know how to deal with the menace. One of them finally suggested that as the beast appeared once a year the residents should stay indoors on this particular day, lock their gates and leave their weapons outside as a gesture of defiance in order to be safe.

As the monster had been making regular raids every 365 days it had become known as 'Nyen' (Chinese of one year), and each year the villagers came to celebrate the eve of the monster's visit as 'Kuo Nyen' (passing the New Year's barrier). As a further precaution against the monster's murderous activities, it was suggested that on New Year's Eve villagers should stay awake until the New Year had arrived safely.

It was later though that the beast might only be looking for food, and to cater for this possibility one village elder suggested that each family should prepare a meal to leave outside their home to satisfy the monster's hunger. In time a belief grew up that the 'Nyen' was scared of loud noises, fire and anything coloured red. Accordingly the inhabitants built a bonfire outside their homes. Placed burning candles on their doorsteps and strips of red paper around their doors.

Having taken these precautions, they were not troubled again, and the New Year became an occasion for annual rejoicing.

Festival of the Moon - The moon is the queen of Heaven; and on the fifteenth day of the Eighth Moon, when she gracefully rises full and at her brightest immediately after sunset, great celebrations among the Chinese population take place in her honour. During the gay festivities and happy picnics given under the light of the harvest moon, refreshments, sweets, and round moon cakes, garnished sometimes with the shapes of pagodas, rabbits, and frogs, are served. Cakes may be filled with sweetened bean paste or whatever the baker's taste dictates. They are rich more or less tasty and increasingly expensive. Moon cakes are a political rather than a gastronomic creation.

The Mongols of the Yuan dynasty ruled China some 800 years ago. Message calling for a midnight revolution were concealed in cakes and distributed from house. Mongols were overthrown and Chinese emperors returned to the throne in the Ming dynasty.

Many ancient legends present varying tales regarding the habitants of this serene heavenly abode. Some say that a rabbit under the shade of a Cassia tree spends his time pounding and grinding the ingredients of gold, jade, and cinnabar into what goes to make up the precious Elixir of Immortality. Other says that once upon a time, around 2500 B.C., a fairy queen of the West, Suy Wong Mo, gave the Elixir of Immortality to a handsome chieftain by the name of Hao Len. His wife, Sheung Aw, however, stole it and drank it; and in order to escape her husband's ire, fled to the moon for safety. Ones here, the merciful gods of the heavens took pity and changed and her into a three-legged toad, the symbol of un-attainability. During 'Moon Yut' as the Chinese call this festival, it is that her outline may be traced as its very best upon the surface of the cool silvery luminary.

Astronauts might have landed on the Moon but the belief that the Moon plays a great part in the lives of mortal people is still there. There are couples that are romantic when the Moon is at her brightest. More pledges of love are made on the 15th night of each Moon than on any other nights.

Around the fifteenth of the Eighth Moon, Chinese sweet shops, caterers and Chinese restaurants are filled with little moon cakes. These moon cakes are seldom made at home, for the genuine type are difficult to make and require a long list of hard-to-prepare ingredients as well as special wooden forms and cooking implements. On the night of the festival children light their lanterns and housewives burn joss sticks and candles and offer moon cakes and prayers to the full moon.

Moon Festival is a holiday and an occasion for reunions, thanksgiving and evening of romance all wrapped into one.

Cheng Meng - On the third day of the Third Moon, or exactly one hundred and six days after the winter solstice, Cheng Meng the festival of the Tombs is celebrated among the Chinese in Thailand and elsewhere. It is the time when all the Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors, clean or repair and put them in order, and present food and other offerings to the departed.

The Chinese believe that the world of spirits is likened to the world of men, and that souls cannot possibly rest in peace and ease unless they also possess the comforts of earthly men. So, paper images of all necessary comforts, such as money, a two-story mansion filled with servants, a big junk, superbly built cars with chauffeurs, mahjong sets and other luxurious things are burned. Through the alchemy of fire they would find their way into the other world to be used by the deceased in the new existence.

In ancient China, human sacrifices were buried alive in the tombs of the deceased as it was considered to give a dead man's spirit all the comforts that had been enjoyed in this world. As such, servants who knew the personal habits and tastes of the deceased, his favourite pony, and his books, were all buried together with his body.

Later on this inhuman practice was stopped and pottery figurines came into use instead.

With the invention of paper in the early Han Dynasty, paper images were then substituted and burnt as offerings.

Filial piety, which is great asset of any people, is preserved strongly through Ancestral Worship and respect. For three days prior to Cheng Meng, no fires may be lit in the homes; and so, for this reason, this period is sometimes called the 'Festival of the Cold Food'. However, after the graves have been put in order, and proper honour has been given the ancestors, fires may be rekindled, and festivals may take place.

Hindu Festivals

Deepavali - or the Festival of Lights is perhaps the most popular festival celebrated by all people of Hindu origin in Southeast Asia including Thailand. Although it is observed basically in the same way everywhere, there are minor variations depending on their cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Deepa means a lamp and vali a row or line - thus a line of light in homes, on house-fronts and along street to banish darkness. One of the most popular of the Deepavali legends ascribes its beginning to the triumphant return of Rama to his city of Ayutthaya to rule his country after 14 years of exile in the jungle. The story is in the great Hindu epic of the Ramayana and it tells of how the people filled their city with lights to welcome their lord after his defeat of Ravana, the Evil One - symbolizing the triumph of light and righteousness. Linked with the festival also is the victory of Lord Krishna (or Vishnu) over the wicked King Narakasura, who is said to have a harem of 16,000 maidens and to have been so powerful that the daughters of the gods were safe from him. As he lay dying, Narakasura is reputed to have asked Krishna for a boon - that the people bathe and put on new clothes - to celebrate the event each year.

For centuries Deepavali has been a time of rejoicing, especially for children, even in the humblest of Hindu homes. Despite the fact that many Hindu families in Thailand do not strictly observe in celebrating Deepavali, a great majority, however, maintain at least part of the tradition in celebrating this day which includes spring cleaning of the house, cooking traditional Indian cakes, mostly fried in oil, the essential oil bath and, of course, lighting up their house with candles - symbolizing the day when good triumphed over evil. Special prayers are held in all Hindu temples, which are brightly lit. The shrines are decorated with garlands and yellow and orange lights, altar tables are heavy with offering of fruit and flowers, and the temple deity is carried round the grounds in grand procession.

One week before Deepavali, a special day is set aside to pray for the souls of the departed who return to earth as this time. Favourite delicacies of the departed are spread out before their photographs and the whole family prays.

Navaratri Festival - This festival is celebrated in most Hindu temples all over Southeast Asia. Navaratri means nine nights of puja and marks the triumph of Goddess Sri Maha Umadevi over the bad spirits. Lord Subramaniam is her son who helped her conquer the forces of evil. It is climaxed by the celebration of Vijai Lakhsmi on the ninth day. This festival is celebrated annually depending on the movement of the stars.

During the first 3 days, offerings are made to the Goddess Parvathi, the consort of the mighty Siva (the Destroyer). The next 3 days are devoted to the Goddess Lakhsmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity and consort of Lord Vishnu (the Protector). The last 3 days are devoted to Saraswathi, Goddess of education and consort of Lord Brahma (the Creator). Siva, Vishnu and Brahma make up the Hindu Trinity.

The Sri Maha Umadevi Temple in Bangkok aglow with lights and colourful banners as the Hindu community culminated the Navaratri festival. Inside their homes, Hindus arranged decorated platforms covered with toys and clay figures representing gods, goddesses and animals. Gifts are exchanged and, in wealthy homes, there's music and feasting. On the tenth day, a procession marks the end of the festivals.

Thaipusam - celebrated by many Hindus in Thailand, Singapore and throughout Malaysia, is a day of prayer and penance. The festival falls either in January or February (subject to alteration), takes its name from Thai, the month of the Hindu lunar-solar calendar and pusam, the name of the full moon day in the zodiacal period. It is the festival of Lord Subramaniam who represents virtue valour, youth, beauty and power.

Fasting and prayer begin many days before Thaipusam. Worshippers take offering to the Hindu temples, including coconuts, cow's milk and honey in brass pots and several kinds of fruit. Coconuts are broken before the image of Subramaniam to signify the fulfillment of prayers and vows. Here the Hindu priest waves the lamp with five wicks, sounds a bell and a conch shell is blown. Sacred ash is solemnly distributed, with sandal-paste, reddish kum-kum and holy water. Devotees draw three lines on the forehead with the sacred ash signifying the Hindu Trinity while the kum-kum is placed between the eyebrows, representing the 'third eye of wisdom', to be opened by the grace of God, purity of heart and meditation.

At the end of the great day there are the processions. The silver chariot, drawn by two oxen and carrying the images of the deity, Lord Subramaniam, will be taken around the town in a procession to receive offerings from the devotees in the capital. The ever-youthful Subramaniam is depicted with six heads and 12 arms, representing various divine aspects and powers. He is the wielder of the lance of victory and has 37 names. On this day Hindu devotees, doing penance for their sins and those who have made pledges during serious illness, carry kavadis through the streets. Kavadis are semicircular steel frames decorated with fruit, flower, peacock feathers (the peacock being the vehicle of Lord Subramaniam) and steel spikes driven into the carrier's body. They bear on their shoulders a bow-shaped piece of wood, sometimes carrying the peer-shaped lance, or vel, the instrument of chastisement or salvation. This represents Subramaniam's energy of wisdom. The devotees are decorated with tiny balls and peacock feathers that are attached to their bodies, back, front and sides by steel pins piercing their flesh. Some devotees have a silver spear piercing the tongue and going through both cheeks. Although kavadi carriers can have as many as 100 spears piercing his flesh, he apparently loses little blood and in a trance-like state his faith sustains him against the agony.

The devotees who are possessed by the spirits go through a period of 'purification' for nine days during which time they eat only vegetables and usually live in the temple. They lose consciousness as soon as the spirit leaves their bodies.

At Thaipusam the poor are fed with rice, fruit and cakes and are given alms by charitable worshippers at the temple, which, with its ceremonies, becomes a place of wonder for all, particularly the children.


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