Because Thai Festivals About Cultural Diversity, Self-Mutilation and Rockets Also Deserve Some Recognition.
It goes without saying that Songkran, Lunar New Year and Loi Krathong are the biggest Thai festivals. Many travelers try to schedule their visit around those big celebrations and who can blame them? Who doesn’t want to engage in the greatest water fight in the world? Who doesn’t want to be mesmerized by thousands of lanterns lighting up the sky?
But whereas Songkran and Loi Krathong garner the most attention, we want to shine some light on the lesser-known festivals. Those are usually specific to a certain province or region in Thailand and thus don’t get the same attention.
So, here they are! Three Thai festivals (plus a couple of other ones for good measure) that you should totes visit when you are in good ol’ Siam.
#1 – Laanta Lanta Festival
Despite being one of the biggest islands in the Andaman Sea, Koh Lanta nevertheless manages to retain its natural charm and beauty. Most parts belong to the eponymous Mu Ko Lanta National Park, which ensures the survival of the local flora, wildlife, and marine life. As if this is not already reason enough to book your boat ticket, Koh Lanta also hosts one of our favorite lesser-known festivals – the Laanta Lanta Festival.
Taking place for three days in Koh Lantas’s Old Town during the first full moon in March, this festival celebrates the cultural diversity among the island’s inhabitants. Thai-Chinese, Thai-Muslim and the sea gypsies (called Chao Lay) call Koh Lanta their home. The latter were the first to arrive 500 years ago and one of their traditional musical performances, the Rong-Ngen, can be seen during this festival. Another ritual of the Chao Lay is the boat floating ceremony, where they wish for peace, prosperity, and safety for another year out on the sea.
For the ones among you who appreciate the creation of the fine arts, we recommend you to visit some of the exhibitions and demonstrations. But if all those customs are of no interest to you, then you can visit one of the many beach bars and enjoy some live reggae music (and maybe a Jeffrey…). Before you chill out a little too much though, you should walk through the transformed streets of Old Town. Here you can find – guess what – food. With such a cultural diversity, you can only imagine what this means for the selection of delicacies. You wouldn’t be the first person to fast throughout the day, only to indulge in the local cuisine during the evening.
Besides food, the many stalls in Old Town offer many traditional arts and crafts such as clothes, hammocks and little souvenirs. Especially the hammocks are the best to spend some lazy days in. We certainly do.
All the events and fun take place during the evenings, so you have the daytime to explore the national park area of Koh Lanta.
- Date: First full moon in March.
- Duration: 3 Days
- Location: Old Town, Koh Lanta
- Fun fact: Koh Lanta was also once a major port for merchants from Malaysia, Singapore, China and Arabic countries.
#2 – Phuket Vegetarian Festival (aka Nine Emperor Gods Festival)
Walking on hot coals, climbing on razor blade ladders, crossing nail bridges and piercing your face with God knows what – this is not the synopsis of a ‘Saw‘ movie, but the events you can see during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. But what does this have to do with Vegetarianism? One commonly accepted theory is that Chinese laborers in the early 19th century were once struck by a disease. So, they abstained from eating meat to get rid of the disease. This is an old Chinese tradition for purifying the body. Lo and behold, the laborers recovered and ever since then we have a festival celebrating this miraculous recovery.
The self-mutilation acts themselves could be influenced by the Indian Thaipusam Festival. In general, these acts are seen as a sign of devotion to their gods, ancestors, and beliefs. A devotion that is certainly not for the faint of heart. Trust me on this one. You can recognize the devotees by their white clothing and trance-like state. And by the objects that are pierced through their cheeks.
But let’s change the subject to something a little more uplifting, shall we? During the nine days of the festival, you should visit the areas close to the major Chinese temples. They are Put Jaw, Jui Tui, Bang Niew, Cherng Talay, and Kathu Shrine. These are the spots where most of the events and processions take place. We highly recommend bringing earplugs along, because the constant sound of firecrackers is ear deafening.
It certainly is a bizarre spectacle and, again, it is nothing for the faint of heart. If you are still hungry or choose to avoid the more extreme processions altogether, then the fantastic vegetarian food will surely lift your spirits. The Thai street food vendors can be found everywhere in the vicinity of the above-mentioned temples and are identifiable by a yellow flag with a red Chinese symbol.
But there is one procession that you should definitely attend and that is the last one on the final day. For this ceremony, all the participating shrines and temples come together to bid the Nine Emperor Gods farewell. It takes place late in the evening (from 9 pm to 12 am). Bring your camera along for some great Instagram-worthy shots! If you haven’t scared away all your followers with the extreme body-piercings, that is.
- Date: 8th – 17th October 2018 (The first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese Lunar calendar.)
- Duration: 9 Days
- Location: Phuket (To some extent also in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Kuala Lumpur)
- Fun fact: The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is the literal definition of a “carnival“. Nowadays we think of a carnival as a joyous event like a fair, but the literal translation means something different. It comes from Old Italian meaning “taking meat away“. Carne means “meat or flesh“, and levare “to lift“.
#3 – Yasothon Rocket Festival
We finish this list literally with a bang. The Rocket Festival in Isan (the North-Eastern region of Thailand) originally comes from Laos and has its roots in ancient fertility rites. Supposedly, these rites will bring the rain for the coming wet season. Locals used to celebrate it all over the Isan region, but nowadays the biggest one takes place in Yasothon, hence the name. The other provinces like Roi Et and Kalasin focus more on fairs and parades, leaving Yasothon with the loudest spectacles.
In my opinion, this is one of the most entertaining festivals in Thailand. It starts on a Friday with musical performances and dances, while everyone is getting hammered on a local spirit called Sura. One of the popular performances is Mor Lam Sing, which is a type of song from Laos about unrequited love. This may sound sappy, but it includes some dirty humor as well, which is a theme for the whole festival. In a way, this is the Thai or Lao way of making dick jokes. Speaking of dicks – you will see a lot of them. In the form of symbols and imagery. Don’t get freaked out now. Or maybe even excited?
Phallic ornaments symbolize fertility, that may remind some of you of the Princess Cave on Phranang Beach in Ao Nang.
You will see those “phallic ornaments” during the parades and festivities on Saturday. The participants will present huge decorated rockets, which, with a few exceptions, are not built for flight. You know why when you see them. It serves as a first impression of what’s to come on Sunday. Besides rockets and drunk people, cross-dressing is a big thing as well. Sounds like a normal day at Slumber Party, to be honest. In this case, however, it has a cultural background. It is supposed to anger the gods, who, in retaliation, send thunderstorms and rain. No, I’m not even kidding…
The climax of the festival (see what I did there?) happens on Sunday when the participants launch their rockets. People back in the day used to build their homemade projectiles out of bamboo. Nowadays the hobby engineers use glass and metal pipings. The sizes differ greatly from small bottle rockets to full-blown beasts that carry 120 kg of black powder! Sounds dangerous? Well, it definitely is. Not only because of the amount of gunpowder, but also because of the unpredictable flight direction. In 1999, for example, a rocket exploded above ground close to the crowd, killing four people and injuring eleven in the process. Today, there are better safety standards, but it’s still a risky business.
A special committee gives out points for the projectiles that do manage to take off. The end score is being determined by how long the rocket stays above ground, how high it flies
and how many people it kills among other criteria. The elaborate design of the rocket and even the team plays an important role as well. If the rocket doesn’t launch or it explodes before it leaves the ground, then the respective team is thrown into a mud pit. Because why the hell not?
From all the festivals mentioned, the Yasothon Rocket Festival is the one that is the hardest to get to. This is due to the reclusive and rural nature of the Isan region. Nonetheless, we think it is worth visiting, especially if you seek a little peace after the madness of the big cities.
- Date: 11th – 13th May 2018
- Duration: 3 Days
- Location: Isan region. Mainly in Yasothon (Duh), but also in provinces like Roi Et, Kalasin, Srisaket, and Mahasarakham.
- Fun fact: A great excuse to blast the song “Rocket Man” by Elton John.
Other Thai Festivals You Should Check Out:
- Krabi Boek Fa Andaman Festival: This sweet, little festival celebrates the beginning of the tourist season (aka high season) with boat races, kayak competitions, parades and musical performances. Krabi is always worth a visit, particularly in high season.
Date: 16th – 18th November (annually)
- Chonburi Buffalo Races: What horse races are for the western countries, that is buffalo races for Thailand. This tradition is over 140 years old and during the week-long festival, you can witness all sorts of competitions besides the races. Martial arts, beauty, amulet and fashion contests are all part of the festivities.
Date: 23th October – 29th October 2018
- Amazing Pattaya Seafood Festival: Pattaya is famous for their incredible seafood, but this festival takes it to a whole new level. Over 150 restaurants partake in this “street dining on the beach” with affordable, but delicious seafood cuisine. Concerts performed by popular Thai bands provide the evening entertainment.
Date: May. No date for 2018 yet.
Phew! That was a lot of excitement for one day! We celebrated the culture of sea gypsies, marveled at some questionable piercings and finished off with dangerous fireworks. Before you pass out in bed due to exhaustion, let us know which festival in Thailand your favorite is. Did we forget to mention yours? We probably did. After all, Thailand has a lot of different festivals and holidays, thanks to their diversity in cultures.
Sound off in the comments and until next time – Stay gold, Ponyboy.