Thailand knows how to party in style. Whether it’s celebrating the start of the rainy season, a new year or just the size of the moon, there’s a festival for nearly every occasion. And the festivals themselves are some of the wildest, weirdest and sometimes wettest on the planet, involving everything from home-made rockets to buffalo races.
Marking the start of the lunar new year, Songkran involves the entire country throwing water at each other. Thais and tourists alike grab buckets and water pistols and spend the day drenching anyone in sight – a welcome relief from the searing April temperatures. As well as hurling water, locals love to plant coloured paint on visitors’ faces and wish them a happy new year.Of course the light-hearted mayhem has a more serious side – the water represents cleanliness and a chance to forgive and forget any problems in the previous year. Khao San Road in Bangkok is where most foreigners head for, but every town will have its own water-throwing fun.
Bun Bang Fai
Farmers take a swig of local moonshine, light a fuse and step back. Seconds later their 6m (20ft) homemade rockets are blasting skywards. Welcome to Bun Bang Fai, which takes place in the northeastern town of Yasothon every May. The festival’s official aim is to awaken the spirits in the sky and make sure they send plenty of rain for the crops, but unofficially it is an excuse for the entire town to party in the street. The fun lasts several days, starting with a raucous parade and ending, in a remote field, with the release of the giant rockets.
Phi Ta Khon
A surreal mix of Halloween and carnival, the Phi Ta Khon festival sees locals don brightly coloured ghost masks and take to the streets of Dan Sai, a village in the northeastern province of Loei. The three-day event begins by invoking the spirits with incantations and the tying of ‘protective’ white string around everyone’s wrists. Villagers then hit the streets wearing their famous masks, singing and dancing and inevitably sweeping visitors up in the action. As well as spirits of an ethereal nature, rice wine also makes an appearance, but things sober up on the third day, when Thais listen to Buddhist sermons.Phi Ta Khon is normally held in June, though the exact date is determined by local soothsayers. It re-enacts a tale of Buddha’s return to his home town before he attained enlightenment. His arrival was said to have caused such joyous celebrations that they woke the dead, who then joined in the festivities.
It’s not quite Ascot, but every October in the eastern province of Chonburi buffalo races are the big draw in town. Riders cling bareback to the beasts as they thunder down a muddy track, cheered on by thousands of spectators. The festival also features muay thai (Thai boxing) and traditional Thai games, for example, climbing up a slippery pole to grab money pinned to the top. There is even a Miss Buffalo content for the prettiest-looking animal.
The Vegetarian Festival is Phuket’s most famous festival and sees the islanders perform gruesome acts of self-mortification. Cheeks, ears and even tongues are pierced with skewers and swords as participants display their religious zeal. Other highlights include fire-walking, climbing ladders that have razor-sharp knives for rungs and letting off firecrackers. As the name suggests, participants abstain from eating meat, and do so in the belief that it will help them live a happier life. The festival is Chinese in origin, and is held annually from late September to early October.
Loi Krathong takes place in November and is one of the most serene and peaceful festivals on the Thai calendar. Krathong are small floating vessels made from banana leaves and adorned with candles, incense sticks and flowers. During the festival, Thais take their krathong down to the water’s edge and release them, making a small prayer and letting go of any past grudges. Look skywards and you’ll see dozens of kom loi (mini hot-air balloons), which cast a golden glow over the night sky. Loi Krathong is held throughout the country but the best places to experience it are in Bangkok, Ayuthaya or Sukhothai.
Welcome to party central! The legendary full-moon parties of Thailand are held on the island of Ko Pha-Ngan in the country’s south. What started as a simple affair with a few dreadlocked backpackers now attracts thousands of visitors keen to sip buckets of booze on the beach and listen to the booming sound systems and DJs. There’s no religious or profound purpose behind the event – it’s simply a hedonistic beach gathering full of fireworks, cocktails and dancing.
Surin Elephant Round-up
Elephants are the kingdom’s national animal (they were even on the flag once), and they get their very own festival each November in the northeastern province of Surin. The festival showcases the strength and skills of the creatures, and includes elephant football, tug-of-war and mock battles, in which around 300 elephants take part. Some pachyderms can even turn their trunks to painting and produce remarkably good pieces.
River Kwai Bridge Week
Held from late November to early December, this festival remembers the fierce fighting that took place on the River Kwai during WWII. The famous Death Railway Bridge in the western province of Kanchanaburi acts as a backdrop to a nightly sound and light show, which tells the story of the Thai-Burma railway and the infamous Hellfire Pass, where Allied prisoners of war were forced to work in brutal conditions. Rooms fill up quickly during this spectacular festival, so be sure to book ahead.