Songkran: 13th – 15th Beginning on the 13th of April Thai people all over the country celebrate the Thai New Year, the most important holiday on the Thai calendar. The holiday is best known for revellers playfully splashing water on each other and dabing scented powder on each others faces as a new year blessing. Over the years this has escalated into a huge water fight where anyone is fair game. People roam the streets armed with high pressure water pistols or stand by the side of the road with buckets and hoses, ready to drench any passer-by. If you venture out during this period, the 13th in particular, expect to get soaked!
Traditionally, however, Songkran is a time of cleaning and renewal. During Songkran Thais perform religious rituals such as cleaning Buddha images, giving alms to the monks and going to the temple to pray. Songkran is also a time for families. Many people return home over the Songkran holiday and pay respect to their elders by sprinkling scented water over their hands. The festival is a 3-day public holiday.
Phuket Vegetarian Festival A colourful event held over a nine day period in late September/early October, this celebrates the Chinese community’s belief that abstinence from meat and various stimulants during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar will help them obtain good health and peace of mind. Though the origins of the festival are unclear, it is thought that perhaps the festival was bought to Phuket by a wandering Chinese opera group who fell ill with malaria while performing on the island. They decided to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and pray to the Nine Emperor Gods who would ensure purification of the mind and body. On recovery, the people celebrated by holding a festival that was meant to honour the gods as well as express the people’s happiness at surviving what was, in the nineteenth century, a fatal illness. The festival always falls on the first days of the ninth Chinese lunar month, and for nine days participants observe the following commitments:
One of the most exciting aspects of the festival is the various, (and sometimes gruesome) ceremonies which are held to invoke the gods. Firewalking, body piercing and other acts of self mortification undertaken by participants acting as mediums of the gods, have become more spectacular and daring as each year goes by. Men and women puncture their cheeks with various items including knives, skewers and other household items. It is believed that the Chinese gods will protect such persons from harm, and little blood or scarring results from such mutilation acts. This is definitely not recommended for the feint hearted to witness. The ceremonies of the festival take place in the vicinity of the six Chinese temples scattered throughout Phuket. The main temple is Jui Tui Shrine not far from the Fresh Market in Phuket Town. The first event is the raising of the Lantern Pole, an act that notifies the nine Chinese gods that the festival is about to begin. The pole is at least ten metres tall and once erected, celebrants believe that the Hindu god, Shiva, descends bringing spiritual power to the event.
For the next few days, the local Chinese/Thai community brings their household gods to the temple, along with offerings of food and drink. It is assumed that the household gods will benefit from an annual injection of spiritual energy that fills the temple. Visitors can observe and even participate in the lighting of joss sticks and candles that are placed around the various gods. Usually street processions take place, where visitors can see participants walking in a trance. Other events include hundreds of local residents running across a bed of burning coals, or climbing an eight metre ladder of sharp blades while in trance. Apart from the visual spectacle of this festival, visitors can partake in specially prepared vegetarian cuisine made available at street stalls and markets around the island during this time. The vegetarian dishes are not easily distinguished from regular dishes – soybean and protein substitute products are used to replace meat in standard Thai fare and look and taste uncannily like meat. Look for the yellow flags with red Chinese or Thai characters to find vegetarian food stalls – and keep your camera handy!!
Loy Krathong Is held on the full moon of the 12th month in thetraditional Thai lunar calendar. In the western calendar this usually falls in November. “Loi” means “to float”. “Krathong” is a raft about a handspan in diameter traditionally made from a section of banana tree trunk (although modern-day versions use specially made bread ‘flowers’ and may use styrofoam), decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, flowers, candles, incense sticks etc. During the night of the full moon, many people will release a small raft like this on a river.
Governmental offices, corporations and other organizations also build much bigger and more elaborate rafts, and these are often judged in contests. In addition, fireworks and beauty contests take place during the festival. The festival probably originated in India as a Hindu festival similar to Deepavali as thanksgiving to the deity of the Ganges with floating lanterns for giving life throughout the year. Krathong floats in the shape of lotus blossoms are most popular and are made from materials easily found in each locality. Loi Krathong customs and traditions reflect local beliefs and cultural evolution and interesting regional variations can be seen.
In Tak province, the banana-leaf floats are replaced by coconut shells which are threaded together and launched simultaneously so they appear as long chains of hundreds of glittering lights on the River and the sea, hence the origin of its name, “Loi Krathong Sai”.There are various accounts about the origins of Loi Krathong. However given the river-based culture that forms the foundation of the traditional Thai way of life. Many also believe that by setting adrift the krathong, one symbollically casts away one’s grief, misery and ill-fortunes. Coins are also placed in the krathong as offerings. For the romantic at heart and young couples, Loi Krathong is the time to make wishes for happiness together and success in love.