Venue: Surin province
Surin is a rarely visited province in the northeast. But once a year, on the third weekend of November, the spotlight is very much directed at the province as the venue for one of the most exciting spectacles of the year-the annual Elephant Round-Up.
Surin has long been associated with elephants. The folks here are well recognized for their skill in capturing and rounding up wild elephants as well as training and taming them. Surin is often known as the 'province of elephants'.
Many of Surin's elephants and their mahouts travel to places like Bangkok to earn money for much of the year. But in November, they all head back to their native province for the big occasion.
Every year, more than 100 elephants take part in this event. The Elephant Round-up displays the amazing grace, strength and intelligence of this huge creature in games of soccer, log carrying, and the tug-of-war against human teams. The talent and playfulness of the pachyderms never fail to draw cheers from the spectators.
The highlight of the show is the mock battle, which best shows the talent and strength of this lovable animal. In times past, elephants played a key role in wars against invading armies.
Previously, the elephant round-up was a state ceremony presided over only by the King. Prayers and citations were devised for the ceremony and for the taming of the captured elephants afterwards.
The annual Elephant Round-up is by far and away the most popular festival of Surin and perhaps the whole of the northeastern region. Don't miss this unique opportunity to witness the incredible skill and intelligence of the elephant - Thailand's national symbol.
Khao Phansa (Candle Festival)
Venue: nationwide (with special highlights at Tung Si Muang, Ubon Ratchathani and Phra Phutthabat shrine, Saraburi)
With the arrival of the eighth lunar month in July, Thai Buddhists all over the kingdom celebrate Khao Phansa, one of the most important events in the religious calendar. Celebrations are held in Buddhist temples all over Thailand, but the most colorful can be found in Saraburi and Ubon Ratchathani.
'Khao Phansa', in Thai, refers to the beginning of the Buddhist Lent. During this time, Buddhist monks are restricted to their temples for a period of three months. Young men over 20 years, who have not yet ordained as monks, may take this opportunity to enter the monkhood to observe Buddhist teachings.
Stories of the Buddhist Rains Retreat can be traced back to the beginning of the Buddhist era. At that time, the Lord Buddha saw that monks wandering outside the temple compound might damage growing crops or accidentally kill insects, so he proclaimed that it would be better for the monks to observe the teachings and practice meditation at the monasteries instead.
Celebrations for the start of the Buddhist Lent take place all over Thailand but the most elaborate ceremonies are held in Saraburi where there is 'Tak Bat Dok Mai' (offerings of flowers to monks) and in Ubon Ratchathani, where the Candle Festival is held.
In Ubon Ratchathani, 629 km northeast of Bangkok, the Candle Festival is the province's most popular annual event. On the days before the event, the local authorities will be busy preparing the venue at Thung Si Muang, a public field, similar to Bangkok's Sanam Luang. At the same time, local artisans make ornately carved beeswax candles of various sizes and shapes. On the day of the festival, the fabulous candles are paraded around the town on colorful floats, accompanied by displays of religious devotion. After the procession, they are presented to local temples.
Saraburi, just 108 km from Bangkok, holds the 'Tak Bat Dok Mai' festival to mark the beginning of the Buddhist Lent. The event takes place at the shrine of the Buddha's Footprint (Phra Phuttabaht shrine). The event draws devout Buddhists from all parts of Thailand.
Long Boat Racing Festival
In September, when the rivers and waterways are in full spate, boat-racing festivals are held in several provinces of Thailand. The Pichit, Phitsanulok and Narathiwat festivals are best known, but other notable provinces include Nan, Angthong, Pathum Thani, Surat Thani and Ayutthaya.
Long-boat racing is a traditional event for the Thais who are used to living by the rivers. Although not restricted to any particular region, boat racing can be traced back to Ayutthaya, some 600 years ago. At that time, boat races were held to keep the young men physically and mentally fit in preparation for invasions by rival states. Today, boat racing is considered a national sport.
Usually, boats are hewn from a single large tree trunk. Each can accommodate as many as 60 oarsmen sitting in a double row. Oarsmen in the same team usually dress in the same brightly colored attire. The boats, built along the same lines as the original battle vessels, are brightly festooned with flower garlands and ribbons.Boat races are colorful and exciting spectacles that attract thousands of cheering spectators. The impromptu narration of the professional announcers makes the event even more boisterous and plenty of fun.
Date: On the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month (usually in November)
On the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month, the tide in the rivers is highest and the moon at its brightest, creating a romantic setting ideal for lovers. The Thai people choose this day to hold the 'Loy Kratong' festival, or the 'festival of light.' Loy Kratong is one of the two most recognized festivals in the country.
Loy Kratong is probably the most picturesque and beautiful of all Thai celebrations. 'Loy' literally means 'to float,' while 'kratong' refers to the lotus-shaped receptacle which can float on the water. Originally, the kratong was made of banana leaves or the layers of the trunk of a banana tree or a spider lily plant. A kratong contains food, betel nuts, flowers, joss sticks, candle and coins. The making of a kratong is much more creative these days as many more materials are available.
The Loy Kratong ritual is a simple one. One needs only to light the candles and the joss sticks, make one's wishes and let it float away with the current of a river or a canal.
On that day, thousands of people will gather beside the canals and rivers. With kratong in hands, they light the candle, put some coins in the kratong and silently make a wish, and carefully place their kratongs in the water and release them to the current.
They watch intently as the float drifts silently downstream, hoping that the candle will not go out. Its flame is said to signify longevity, fulfillment of wishes and release from sins. Altogether it is considered a romantic night for couples or lovers. Couples who make a wish together on Loy Kratong are thought to stay together in the future.
Different legends surround the origins of Loy Kratong. The most popular version is it was an expression of gratitude to the goddess of water 'Phra Mae Kongka' for having extensively used, and sometimes polluted, the water from the rivers and canals. It is also in part a thanksgiving for her bounty in providing water for the livelihood of the people.
Some believe the festival originates from Buddhism. They say the offering of flowers, candles and joss-sticks is a tribute of respect to the footprint of the Lord Buddha on the sandy beach of the Narmaha River in India, as well as to the great Serpent and dwellers of the underwater world, after the Lord Buddha's visit to their watery realm. It is possible that this is derived from a Hindu festival that pays tribute to the god Vishnu, who meditates at the center of the ocean.
Others believe that the floral kratong is offered to the pagoda containing the Lord Buddha's topknot, which was cut off at his self-ordination and is now in heaven. Another explanation is that it is a way to pay respect to one's ancestors.
Whatever the true origin, the practice of Loy Kratong first began in the ancient kingdom of Sukhothai in the 13th century. A young queen named Nang Noppamas was believed to be the one who made a small boat laden with candles and incense and floated it down the river. The name Nang Noppamas has been associated with Loy Kratong ever since.
Today, Loy Kratong offers a unique occasion to celebrate. It's a good time for people to make wishes and look to the future as they float their floral offerings along the waterways.
Where to celebrate
Although celebrated nationwide, Loy Kratong is particularly delightful in the provinces of Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya and Bangkok.
As the place of origin of the festival, Sukhothai rightly remains the focal point of the celebrations. The festival comes with a spectacular light-and-sound show held in the ancient and traditional setting of the Sukhothai historical park.
Chiang Mai is another prime site to celebrate Loy Kratong. The festival is known in northern dialect as 'Yi Peng.' The largest kratongs are decorated floats, paraded through the town on trucks. The colorfully lit floats form a long glittering parade as they make their way to the river.
Meanwhile, up above thousands of 'khom loy' (floating lanterns) drift into the night sky. These large balloon-like lanterns are released at temples and sometimes from private homes in the hope that misfortune flies away with them.
The Chao Phraya River is one of the main waterways to celebrate the Loy Kratong festival. In Bangkok, riverside hotels organize special celebrations for their guests. In some hotels, swimming pools are turned into a temporary river for the Loy Kratong celebration.
Although Loy Kratong is an old Thai tradition, celebrated continuously since ancient times, the use of modern foam materials to make the kratong has taken its toll on the environment.
Today, instead of synthetic foams, natural materials such as the original banana leaves or even bread have been used to make the floats. In addition, kratong are increasingly being released in small canals or swimming pools to prevent pollution in the rivers. In this way, the old tradition can still be preserved while our rivers and waterways remain in pristine condition for future generations.
Date: End of the Rains Retreat (October-November)
Venue: Nationwide with spectacular events in the northeast and south
After three months restricted to their temples, learning dharma and practicing meditation, the Buddhist monks once again return to their social duties. At the end of Buddhist Lent, it's also time for another big celebration, referred to as 'Ok Phansa.' Thai Buddhists celebrate this occasion by offering food and lavish gifts to monks.
The legend of Ok Phansa has it that the Lord Buddha retreated to heaven to deliver a sermon to his mother who had died seven days after his birth. After staying there for three months, the Lord Buddha completed his mission and returned to earth. People welcomed his return with great joy and excitement. Even the gods and goddesses joined in the ceremonies welcoming the Lord Buddha.
Descending from heaven on the triple stairways of gold, silver and precious gems were an escort of angels, the monks who followed Lord Buddha to heaven and the Lord Buddha himself at the center. The people made special offerings of foods, flowers and gifts to celebrate the return of the Lord Buddha.
From this legend, it became a tradition that Buddhist monks also need three months of retreat. During this time, they study the scriptures and practice meditation. They are forbidden from staying elsewhere outside the temples. After three months, the monks will once again adopt their social responsibilities that include preaching and teaching dharma to the people.
In many Ok Phansa ceremonies, a Buddha image is placed in a decorated cart and brought down from a hill, just like the legendary descent from heaven. People line up along the route and place offerings of food in large alms bowls before the image and also to the monks who follow.
In the succeeding days after lent, monks are offered new robes in a ceremony called 'Thod Kathin'. This merit-making ceremony lasts for a month and is practiced nationwide.
On this occasion, lavish celebrations are organized throughout the kingdom. In the central region, the ceremony is called 'Tak Bat Devo' which means "offering of food to the Buddhist monks.' The people in the south call the ceremony 'Chak Phra', which means the 'pulling of the Buddhist monks.'
Chak Phra is celebrated in southern provinces such as Nakhon Si Thammarat, Pattani, Phattalung, Songkhla and Yala. But the most impressive celebrations take place on the Tapi River in Surat Thani where the ceremony is organized both on land and in the river.
People in the northeastern region also celebrate this auspicious occasion. Outstanding ceremonies in the northeast include the Wax Castle festival in Sakon Nakhon and the Lai Rua Fai festival in Nakhon Phanom. Both are well-recognized Ok Phansa celebrations. The events are made all the more impressive with decorated traditional boat races, cultural performances, parades and regattas.
Phi Ta Khon Festival
Venue: Dan Sai district, Loei province
Everyone loves a good ghost story. The gruesome, the spiritual and the supernatural arouse an instinctive curiosity in all of us. In the west, ghostly fervor reaches a peak with Halloween on October 31. In Thailand, the spirit-world comes closest to us in June with the Phi Ta Khon festival, an event filled with fun, mischief and of course, a touch of the unknown.
The Phi Ta Khon Festival is quite unique to Thailand and unrivalled by any other ghost festival. Held in Dan Sai district of Loei province, about 450 km north of Bangkok, Phi Ta Khon is part of a Buddhist merit-making holiday known locally as 'Bun Pha Ves.' The precise origin of Phi Ta Khon is unclear. But it is believed that the roots of the festival revolve around an important tale of the Buddha's last life, before he reached nirvana.
According to Buddhist folklore, the Buddha-to-be was born as Prince Vessandorn, a generous man who gave freely to the people. One day, he gave away a white elephant, a royal creature, revered as a symbol of rain. The townspeople were so angry for fear of drought and famine, that they banished the prince into exile.
The prince left the village for a very long journey. Finally, the king and the people got over their anger and recalled him to the city. When he eventually returned, his people were overjoyed. They welcomed him back with a celebration so loud that even the dead were awakened from their slumbers to join in the festivities.
Phi Ta Khon is held with the arrival of the sixth or seventh lunar month. Young male villagers prepare their ghostly attire and masks, while children roam around town playing tricks. Sheets or blankets are sewn together to look like shrouds while traditional wooden bamboo containers used to store sticky rice (huad), are creatively fashioned into bizarre hats. The huge masks are carved from the bases of coconut trees. The spirit masks are the integral part of the celebrations, which last for three consecutive days.
The first day is marked by a masked procession, accompanied by rejoicing, music and dancing. On the second day, the villagers dance their way to the temple and fire off bamboo rockets to signal the end of the procession. Along the way, they tease onlookers as they accompany a sacred image of the Buddha through the village streets. Monks recite the story of the Buddha's last incarnation before attaining enlightenment.
The festival organizers also hold contests for the best masks, costumes and dancers, and plaques are awarded to the winners in each age group. The most popular event is the dancing contest among those dressed up as ghosts.
On the last day of the event, the villagers gather at the local temple, Wat Ponchai, to listen to the message of the thirteen sermons of the Lord Buddha, recited by the local monks. The ghost dancers then put away their ghostly masks and costumes for another year, return to the paddy fields and continue to earn their living with the onset of the new crop season.
Poi Sang Long Festival
Venue: Mae Hong Son
During the school break between late March to early April, the Tai Yai ethnic group in Mae Hong Son province hold a special religious ceremony called 'Poi Sang Long'.
Poi Sang Long is a Buddhist novice ordination ceremony, but unlike any other ceremony of its type in the country. Young boys aged between 7 and 14 are ordained as novices to learn the Buddhist doctrines. It's believed that they will gain merit ordaining for their parents.
The origins of this festival lie in Buddhist legend. It is believed that the tradition is probably following in the footsteps of Prince Rahula, the Buddha's own son, who gave up his worldly life to follow his father's spiritual teachings. Prince Rahula became the youngest ordained monk and the first novice in Buddhism. Subsequently it became a tradition that young boys should ordain to learn Buddhist teachings.
With such high reverence to the Buddhist religion, the people here consider that the celebrations should be as grand as possible.
The festival lasts for three days. On the first day, the boys have their heads shaved. Then, they are bathed and anointed with special waters and dressed up elegantly and colorfully while their faces are superbly embellished. By this time, the boys are known locally as 'Sang Long' or 'Look Kaew' (jewel sons).
On the second day, a colorful procession is held displaying offerings for the monks. On the third day, the procession once again proceeds through the town and the boys are taken to the temples for the formal ordination ceremony.
The colorful festival is one of the most delightful in the north, attracting people from far and wide. The local authorities and the Tourism Authority of Thailand consider this festival to be unique to Mae Hong Son, the so-called 'Province of the Three Mists.'
The majority of the Thai people are ardent Buddhists who celebrate the frequent Buddhist holidays with fervor. According to Buddhist belief, the most important days of the year are Makhabuja Day, Visakhabuja Day and Asarnhabuja Day. These major Buddhist holy days are also national holidays.
Makhabuja Day falls on the full moon of the third lunar month. It is to commemorate the day when 1,250 disciples, all ordained by the Lord Buddha himself, gathered together to hear the Buddha preach, all without prior arrangement.
Visakhabuja Day falls on the full moon of the sixth lunar month. It is to commemorate the day when the Lord Buddha was born, reached enlightenment, and entered nirvana. All happened on the same day of the year. Visakhabuja Day is considered the holiest day in the Buddhist calendar.
Asarnhabuja Day falls on the eighth lunar month. It commemorates the day when the Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon to the first five disciples.
These ceremonies were initiated by former monarchs. The ceremonies usually begin with offerings of food to monks in the morning, the strict observation of the Buddhist Canons among lay people, and a candle light ceremony in the evening.
Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival
Venue: Phya Thaen Park in the Northeastern province of Yasothon
The rocket festival, known in Thai as 'Bun Bang Fai,' is an ancient local festival that has been carried out continuously till modern times. It is popularly celebrated in Yasothon, a province in Thailand's northeast, and is usually held in the second week of May.
In Thailand, the month of May is the beginning of the rainy season and farmers are ready to begin planting their rice fields. The festival is associated with traditional beliefs in the supernatural powers that help promote the production of rice crops for the coming planting season.
The legend has it that once there was a rain god named Vassakan who loved to be worshipped with fire. The townspeople created a rocket or 'Bang Fai' to send to heaven, where the god resided. They believed that the god would hear their entreaties and bless them with plentiful rain for rice cultivation. So the celebration is entirely to the god of rain.
Like several other Thai festivals, Buddhist monks would be in attendance for the ceremony. The rockets, launch platforms and other decorations for this event are prepared for several weeks before the actual event. An average rocket is some nine metres in length and carries 20-25 kilograms of gunpowder
Originally the rockets were made out of natural materials, but these days, they are slightly more sophisticated. Rockets are packed with several kilos of gunpowder instead. In order to make the rocket festival much more fun, various competitions for the biggest and highest flying rocket are held, all conducted with the undying Thai spirit of 'sanook'.
On the festival day, rockets are paraded to the launch site. Villagers dress in colorful traditional costumes, playing, teasing and dancing, to accompany the procession.
The climax of the festival is the launch time. The rockets are fired from their launch platforms one by one. Noisy folk music and cheers can be heard for each liftoff. The rocket that reaches the greatest height is declared the winner. The owner of this rocket dances and pushes for rewards from the crowds. The owners of rockets that exploded or failed to fly are thrown in the mud.
Whether or not their wishes are granted as they believe, the festival helps strengthen and promote harmony among the villagers, which will be needed when the new crop season begins.
Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Date: Ninth Chinese lunar month (around late Sept to early Oct)
Venue: Phuket town
Phuket is recognized worldwide for its spectacular beaches and islands. But if you come to Phuket during September to October, you will be witnessing one of the most unusual and bizarre festivals in Thailand-the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
The period traditionally falls on the 9th Chinese lunar month. The celebration lasts for nine days from the first to the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. During that time, devout Buddhist Chinese descendants undertake a strict vegetarian diet, wear white clothes and observe ten rules in order to purify their minds and bodies. The event also attracts Chinese Buddhists from different parts of Thailand and from nearby countries.
The most impressive and perhaps shocking part of this event is the ritual procession of devotees performing remarkable acts of asceticism along the route. Those devotees, called 'the soldiers of the god,' perform unbelievable and often quite gruesome feats.
In preparing themselves for the event, it's a must for devotees to fast for several days beforehand. Besides, they must abstain from sexual intercourse, killing, quarrelling, telling lies and residing in hotels during the previous three weeks.
The most astonishing feats include walking barefoot across hot coals, climbing ladders with rungs made of knives, a ritual of bridge-crossing and a street procession in which the mediums, in a state of trance, have their cheeks pierced and bodies spiked with hooks, skewers and various other sharp objects.
The processions are accompanied by the long parade of the lion dance while on-lookers throw fire-crackers, making the entire atmosphere one of religious frenzy.
During the celebrations, the townspeople can find food at various shrines.
Besides, various rituals based on mythical beliefs are performed at Chinese temples.
You will never see such an incredible event in Phuket at any other time of the year. If you happened to be on the island in late September, don't miss this truly amazing event.
It's unclear how the vegetarian festival originated but it may have come from south-eastern China, near Fujian province.
Some say it was celebrated in Phuket for the first time in 1825. A troupe of actors enacted the rites as an offering to the gods and celestial beings to protect Phuket and its people. People also took this opportunity to make merit and save animals from being killed for food.
Article Source: http://www.discoverythailand.com