Thailand’s annual masked festival is coming up in Loei. What better reason to look at the country’s unique celebrations?
Thailand loves a good party.
Make that a great party.
Whether the nation is engaging in the world’s biggest water fight for Songkran or watching entranced vegetarians drive swords into their faces at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, the wackier the affair the better.
Here are nine of the best Thai festivals, starting with one coming up later this month.
1. Phi Ta Khon
When: June 22-24, 2012
Where: Dan Sai, Loei, 500 kilometers north of Bangkok
Phi Ta Khon is an annual celebration based on an ancient tale about Buddha’s reincarnation.
Here’s the jist: Buddha took a long journey and was presumed dead by his followers. When he returned, the celebrations were so wild they woke the dead.
In a re-enactment of the story, the men of Dan Sai dress as masked spirits, wearing colorful, long-trailing costumes made from strips of cloth sewn together.
There’s a bit of naughtiness involved.
Many of the men also carry giant red wooden phalluses, which they aren’t shy about swinging around and pointing at bystanders — particularly ladies.
Soon, everyone is in on the action, pulling out their best thrusts as they dance around to the funky beats of the northeast. There’s lots of alcohol consumed so the whole thing turns into a pretty wild party by late afternoon on the first and second days.
2. Ubon Ratchatani Candle Festival
When: July 1-31, 2012
Where: Ubon Ratchatani, 600 kilometers northeast of Bangkok
The term “candle” is a bit of an understatement when you’re talking about the huge pieces of wax that are carved, sculpted and molded by Buddhist artisans during the annual Ubon Ratchatani Candle festival.
The event coincides with the beginning of Buddhist lent, when the country’s monks retreat to temples to get away from the seasonal monsoon.
Once the candles (molded to depict various religious symbols) are complete, they’re put on floats and shown off during a parade through the city center, accompanied by dancers, musicians and the candle creators.
3. Phuket Vegetarian Festival
When: October 15-23, 2012
Body-piercing urban hipsters have got nothing on devotees at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
During this annual religious event, when Phuket’s Thai-Chinese residents observe a 10-day vegetarian diet, entranced devotees known as “Ma Song” take part in aesthetic displays.
Some walk barefoot over hot coals, others cut open their faces and slide everything from swords to umbrellas through the holes in their cheeks.
A few just beat themselves bloody.
Why? It’s believed that the vegetarian festival and its accompanying sacred rituals bestow good fortune upon those who observe it.
4. Loy Kratong
When: November 28, 2012
The annual Loy Krathong festival is Thailand’s great release, a day to symbolically let worries and misdeeds float away.
All over the country, people head to the nearest body of water to launch floating floral arrangements, usually made of banana leaves and flowers. Some people make their own; most buy them from vendors.
Many of the rafts are topped with a little candle, incense sticks, a lock of hair to release accrued badness and a 10 to 20 baht bribe to the river goddess.
It’s an incredible photo opportunity for visitors.
Though celebrations are held all over the country, the best place to experience a traditional Loy Kratong is in the ancient Thai capital, Sukhothai.
5. Surin Elephant Roundup
When: November 17-18, 2012
Where: Surin, 450 kilometers northeast of Bangkok
Hundreds of elephants and thousands of people flood into Thailand’s northeastern Surin province every November for the annual Surin Elephant Roundup.
On each day of the festival there are special events, such as a giant elephant buffet, elephant races, an elephant football game, tug of war matches between elephants and humans and war re-enactments recalling the days when elephants were used in battle.
For more on the event, check out our video highlights from the 2009 Surin Elephant Roundup.
6. Monkey Buffet
When: November 25, 2012
Where: Lopburi, 150 kilometers north of Bangkok
Every year on the last Sunday of November, the monkey-infested town of Lopburi treats its small but fearless long-tailed macaques to a massive buffet of fruits, vegetables, soda and lollipops.
According to the Thai version of the Ramayana legend, Rama created the ancient city of Lopburi with the help of his friend Hanuman the Monkey King. Many of Lopburi’s residents consider the macaques descendants of Hanuman, so the buffet is held in the Hindu deity’s honor.
But “publicity stunt” might be a more accurate way to describe it, given all the media coverage this thing gets.
7. Sak Yant Tattoo festival
When: February, 2013 (dates TBA)
Where: Nakhon Chai Si, 60 kilometers west of Bangkok
Every February, Thailand’s famous Wat Bang Phra hosts the Sak Yant Festival to pay respect to the temple’s master tattooist monks.
Sak yant is the Thai term for the special tattoos that some claim bring spiritual and physical protection. It’s believed that the tattoos, given by Wat Bang Phra’s famous monks, have mystical powers.
The most famous person to receive a tattoo from a Wat Bang Phra monk? Angelina Jolie.
At the festival, those with the tattoos go into a trance and act out the characteristics of the sacred animals that have been inked onto their skin.
Click here to check out our photos from past Sak Yant festivals.
When: April 13-16, 2013
Easily the most famous Thai festival in terms of global notoriety, Songkran, the Thai new year, is traditionally held as a respite from the hottest period of the already scorching summer season.
Families and friends celebrate the nationwide holiday by visiting temples and splashing water on each other as an act of good will.
Sounds lovely, right? Well, it’s actually evolved into a no-holds-barred every man for himself street battle.
Some towns just celebrate with water splashing on one day; others extend it into a full week of various ceremonies, water fights, concerts and other festivities.
For Thailand’s wildest Songrkan celebrations, head north to Chiang Mai.
9. Bun Bangfai Rocket festival
When: May, 2013 (dates TBA)
Where: Yasothon, 531 kilometers northeast of Bangkok
Every May, rocket festivals are held across Northeast Thailand (Isaan) and Laos at the start of the rainy season as a fertility ritual.
But the Bun Bangfai celebration held in the town of Yasothon is by far the largest and craziest, with visitors and returning Isaan migrants streaming in from Bangkok and the rest of Thailand.
The party has music, concerts, harvest predictions and parades featuring decorated rockets, which are launched on the third day at the temple.