From floating lanterns to epic water fights and monkey banquets, Thailand festivals are some of the most incredible in Southeast Asia. The Land of Smiles is widely known as a paradise of soft-sand beaches, elephant-filled jungles, glittering temples and frantic cities. However, it’s the country’s unique annual celebrations that really steal the show. Here are the top 6 Thailand festivals you have to experience.
The best Thailand Festivals are:
1. Songkran, the Thai New Year Festival
Do you like the idea of a giant, three-day water fight? Then you’ll love the most famous of Thailand festivals: Songkran. All over the country locals and tourists alike take to the streets to attack each other with water guns, hoses, and buckets of icy water. This is all to celebrate the start of the Thai New Year, which is thought of as a time of cleansing and renewal. This is symbolized by pouring water and smearing white talcum paste on people to bring luck and prosperity.
Songkran is a major event in the Buddhist calendar, making it the most important Thai festival. During Songkran, Buddhists visit temples to pray, light candles and make merit as well as cleanse each other with water. On the main day of celebrations, a procession of Buddha statues, monks and floats passes through the streets and Buddhists pour water over the statues. Tourists are welcome to take part in Songkran celebrations and are even singled out for special drenching by Thai locals.
When is Songkran?
The dates for Songkran were traditionally determined by the Thai lunar calendar. In Sanskrit, Songkran means ‘astrological passage’, the time when the sun passes from one sign of the zodiac to another. Nowadays, Songkran is always celebrated on the 13th – 15th April, which is the hottest month in Thailand and the end of the dry season. The perfect time for a water fight!
Where can you celebrate Songkran?
Songkran is one of the most popular Thailand festivals and is celebrated all over the country. Bangkok is a Songkran hotspot and the backpacker favourite, Khao San Road, becomes one big water fight zone. Celebrations are also huge in the beach resorts of Pattaya and Phuket and last for a week in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Want to know more about the history, how to celebrate and all the details of how to celebrate this festival? Check out our in-depth article about Songkran.
2. Yi Peng, the Lantern Festival
Imagine thousands of paper lanterns, lit by flickering candles, floating into the night sky against a full moon. This moving spectacle is the highlight of the Yi Peng festival and thousands of people flock to northern Thailand every November to witness it. However, the lantern release is just one part of the three-day Buddhist festival. Celebrations also include religious events, lantern displays, music, parades, fireworks and food, making Yi Peng one of the most exciting Thailand festivals.
Most importantly, Yi Peng is a time for Buddhists to release bad memories, make wishes for the future and pay respect to Buddha. The act of releasing a lantern symbolises letting go of the past and moving from darkness into light. It’s an ancient, sacred ritual which originated in the Lanna (northern Thai) kingdom. Traditionally, only monks released lanterns but today anyone can take part in the festivities, provided they are respectful.
Yi Peng is often confused with a completely separate, unrelated event which is held in a nearby town called Mae Jo. The Mae Jo lantern release used to be part of the traditional Khatina ceremony held in the town, whereby Thai Buddhists donate robes and money trees to monks as a way of making merit. When the ceremony became flooded with visitors, the event organisers set up a separate ticketed lantern release for tourists, which costs between $100 and $400 to attend. Alternatively, you can witness thousands of floating lanterns for free at the Yi Peng festival.
When is Yi Peng?
Yi Peng is another Thai festival which falls during the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai Lunar Calendar. This occurs in November but the exact date changes each year. In 2016 the dates are set from the 12th – 14th. Lanterns are mainly released anytime from dusk till early morning on Yi Peng night itself, which is on the 13th in 2019.
Where can you celebrate Yi Peng?
Yi Peng is celebrated throughout northern Thailand but the most famous festivities take place in Chiang Mai. The best areas to watch the lantern releases are around the city moat and the Ping River, as well as Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Dan Tao temples.
3. Loy Krathong, the Festival of Light
During Loy Krathong, people all over Thailand gather by the water after dark to release floating baskets (Krathongs) filled with burning candles. As the rafts drift away they carry with them a clipping of the owner’s hair or nails to symbolise letting go of bad luck and negative thoughts. Flowers and coins are also placed in the baskets to give thanks to the water goddesses for providing rain during the rice harvest season. The flickering candle itself pays respect to Lord Buddha.
Loy Krathong has evolved into one of the largest festivals in Thailand. The three-day event is filled with parades, beauty contests and firework displays. Krathongs are traditionally made from banana tree trunks or lilies. In Bangkok, there’s a river parade of large-scale Krathongs made by government offices and businesses, with a prize for the most creative design. Loy Krathong is closely tied to Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng festival as it occurs on the same night and focuses on the same Buddhist principles of releasing the past and making wishes for the future.
When is Loy Krathong?
Loy Krathong falls in November, during the 12th month of the lunar calendar on the night of a full moon. The dates vary each year, but in 2019, Loy Krathong is on the 13th of November with celebrations due to take place from 12th - 14th.
Where can you celebrate Loy Krathong?
Loy Krathong is one of the most celebrated Thailand festivals. In Bangkok there's a huge opening ceremony on the Chao Phraya River and the historic town of Sukhothai is also renowned for its festivities. In Trat, a small town near Myanmar, locals use coconut shells for Krathongs, which they string together to make beautiful chains. Since Loy Krathong falls on the same night as Yi Ping, in Chiang Mai you can experience both floating sky and water lanterns at once.
4. Phi Ta Khon - the Ghost Festival
During the ghost festival, the quiet farming village of Dan Sai is transformed by colourful, masked spirits who dance and parade through the streets. The three-day Thai festival is a re-enactment of a Buddhist story and a celebration of animist reincarnation beliefs. In this tale, Lord Buddha was living his final incarnation before enlightenment as a prince who had been banished from his kingdom. After a long exile, he returned to such a joyous homecoming that it woke the dead, who joined the celebrations.
Villagers dress in patchwork costumes and long-nosed, painted masks made from rice husks. They wear bells around their waists to announce the presence of spirits and wave swords and phallic charms as they parade through the streets. On the second day, rockets filled with good luck tokens are fired to pray for rain and there are traditional dancing and an award for the best-dressed ghost. On the third day, people gather to listen to monks recite 13 sermons about Lord Buddha.
When is Phi Ta Khon?
Phi Ta Khon is part of a bigger Buddhist festival called Bun Luang, which is celebrated in many parts of northern Thailand. The dates for Phi Ta Khon change every year, but fall in either June or July.
Where can you celebrate Phi Ta Khon
Phi Ta Khon takes place in Dan Sai, a farming village in the Loei province of Thailand. Many visitors stay in nearby Loei city because the village itself gets flooded with festival-goers.
5. Phuket Vegetarian Festival (the Nine Emperor Gods Festival)
Want to see people pushing knives through their cheeks, setting off firecrackers and walking over hot coals? Oh, and eat some tasty vegetarian food? Then visit one of the most unique Thailand festivals: the Nine Emperor Gods celebration in Phuket. The festival origins are unclear, but it’s thought that a Chinese opera group visited the island many years ago and fell sick with malaria. They miraculously recovered after observing a strict vegetarian diet and praying to the nine Emperor gods.
Nowadays, thousands of people from across Asia visit Phuket for the nine-day festival. Rituals include eating a vegetarian diet to cleanse the body and mind and taking offerings to temples to pray. The more gruesome aspects of the festival, like the body piercing, are practised by mediums to invoke the gods. At the start of the festival, a 10-metre pole is raised to alert the nine gods and participants descend into a trance-like state as they take part in a street procession.
When is the Phuket Vegetarian Festival?
The vegetarian festival takes place on the first nine days of the ninth month in the Chinese Lunar calendar. In 2019 the festival dates are set between the 28th September and the 7th of October.
Where can you celebrate the Vegetarian Festival?
The festival takes place on the island of Phuket. Although celebrations occur around all 40 of the island’s Chinese shrines, most of the action is around the main temples: Kathu Shrine, Cherng Talay, Jui Tui, Jaw and Bang Niew.
6. The Lopburi Monkey Buffet Festival
In the Thai city of Lopburi, monkeys rule. Local people revere the long-tailed macaques so much that every year they hold an extravagant feast for them in the crumbly ruins of an old Khmer temple. Over 3,000 macaques attend the banquet of fruit, vegetables and sticky rice, which is laid out on long tables. Before the banquet, Lopburi locals perform songs, speeches and monkey dances in honour of the macaques.
The Lopburi people believe that monkeys descend from Hanuman’s monkey army who, according to legend, saved the wife of Lord Ram from a demon. Since then, monkeys have been thought to bring good luck and are allowed to roam where they please in the city, even if they do cause chaos and tend to mug people. A local Lopburi inn owner, Yongyuth Kitwatananusont, held the first buffet for the monkeys in 1989 and the festival now draws thousands of tourists every year.
When is the Monkey Buffet Festival?
The Monkey Buffet has become known as one of the wackiest Thailand festivals and it takes place every year on the last Sunday in November.
Where can you celebrate the Monkey Buffet Festival?
The Monkey Buffet is held in Lopburi, which is 150 kilometres north of Bangkok. The celebrations start at 10 am at the Phra Prang Sam Yot Temple.
Visiting a local festival is one of the best ways to get an insight into a country’s culture. It can also be great fun, whether you’re taking part in a sacred lantern release or getting soaked in the streets. So, why not time your trip to coincide with one of these incredible Thailand festivals? If you can't plan your trip around one of the listed festivals, you can always check for upcoming events in Thailand promoted by TourismThailand.org.