The Thai Festivals You Don’t Want to Miss

Festival season is a great time to visit a new country, and Thailand is no exception. As we learned on the road there, some of our best—and most serendipitous—moments happened because we were on the hunt for what’s known as one of the best festivals in Thailand.

If you’re in Thailand mid-November, I emphatically recommend hitting up Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng lantern festival (even if, like us, you forget to buy advanced tickets and wind up in the peanut gallery with the other travellers attempting to aim your lantern away from the overhanging trees).

But even if you miss it, there are a couple of other celebrations you can enjoy. (I won’t bother with specific dates, since they vary annually, as they’re generally based on the lunar calendar.)

Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng festival is one of Thailand’s biggest. (Photo: Outpost/John Price)

Trang Underwater Wedding Ceremony (February)

I’ve always said that, if I were to ever get married (hey, stranger things have happened), I’d want to do it while scuba diving. Evidently, I’ve been beaten to it. Beginning in 2000, weddings have been performed underwater on Valentine’s Day in Trang. Traditional Thai elements include a khan maak procession with dancers and musicians on the boat, and the rod nam sang blessing ceremony wherein water is poured from a conch shell onto the hands of the couple. While newlyweds are presented with a certificate, all legal documents must be signed on land.

National Elephant Day (March)

Elephants are one of the most auspicious symbols in Thai culture due to their historically important role in warfare and the logging industry, as well as their spiritual significance in Buddhism (Buddha’s mother conceived after dreaming a white elephant entered her) and Hinduism (Ganesh is the famed Hindu deity with an elephant’s head). During National Elephant Day, festivities occur in sanctuaries and parks with some bequeathing their beasts with fruit and sugar cane, and Buddhist ceremonies are held to send luck to the animals and their mahouts.

Elephants are a big deal in Thailand, in case you couldn’t tell. (Photo: Salvatore Barbera/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Songkran New Year Water Festival (April)

Underwater weddings and a nationwide water fight? Sometimes I wonder why I’m still living in Vancouver. Armed with plastic buckets and squirt guns, Thais take to the streets and splash each other to represent washing away misfortunes of the previous year and “starting clean.” This water play also symbolizes rice cultivation (a bountiful harvest), fertility and courtship. Meanwhile, Buddhist statues are cleaned and adorned with fragrant water from silver bowls. Historically, the spiritual elements of Songkran were emphasized, and some conservative Thais call for the silver bowls to replace the water pistols—but gauging by the revelries, that doesn’t seem like it’ll happen anytime soon.

Songkran is technically a high holiday, but you wouldn’t know it by being there. (Photo: Madeleine Deaton/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Lopburi Monkey Festival (November)

Famed for its plethora of macaques, Lopburi began honouring its furrier residents in the 1980s with an annual monkey banquet—er, that’s a banquet for monkeys, not a banquet of monkey. Although the macaques typically live around the ancient Phra Prang Sam Yot Khmer temple, they can be found throughout the city, and have grown accustomed to humans (careful, Lena!). According to the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana, Lopburi was made by Rama and the monkey god, Hanuman—of which the monkeys are believed to be directly descended.