Thailand's Festivals

Ghost Festival

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Ghost Festival, Thailand
Ghost Festival, Thailand
Ghost Festival, Thailand

Walking down the narrow, dusty road in the village center, I suddenly feel someone pinch my bottom. I spin around and am faced with a brightly-coloured demon. The demon grins and waves a large phallic weapon in my face.

At first, I am unsure whether to laugh or run as the stranger stares at me in silence, but then he advances, weapon waving and forcing me to take a step backwards. The feeling of menace intensifies and I find myself running away. Backwards; you NEVER turn your back on a demon!

Several other demons join in the pursuit and before I know it I am being chased down the road by more than a dozen demons. I suddenly trip on a stone and fall down as the group descends on me.

Then, all at once the crowd begins to laugh and someone reaches out a hand to help me up. Masks are removed to reveal friendly Thai villagers beneath.

I am in the tiny, picturesque village of Dan Sai in North-east Thailand to witness Phi Ta Khon, or the Ghost Festival. This unique celebration takes place over three days each year sometime between May and July, at an auspicious time divined by the town’s mediums, of which there are many.

During the festival of Phi Ta Khon, villagers dress in elaborate costumes made to look like ghosts and monsters. Emboldened by their disguises, the villagers embark on much mischief and merry making during the celebrations, and this is perhaps the area’s most lively and colourful event of the year.

The history of this spooky festival has strong roots in Buddhism. Legend tells that Lord Buddha’s mist recent reincarnation was a royal Prince. During this reincarnation, the Prince embarked on many long journeys. Whenever he even returned, the overjoyed villagers would celebrate so loudly that they woke the dead, who would then join in the festivities.

Phi Ta Khon is a way for the spirits to be remembered and let off some steam, before being laid to rest once more for another year.

The first day of the festival is known as Wan Ruam, or Assembly Day. Before dawn, the village elders and Jao Paw Guan – the head holy man – make their way to the Muan River. On the banks of the river, these men perform a sacrificial ritual to awaken Phra Ub-pa-kud, a highly revered monk who spends his time meditating beneath the flowing river waters. The water bubbles vigorously at the end of the ritual, signifying that Phra Ub-pa-kud has awakened once more.

The procession moves to Wat Ponchai in the village center, where food is offered to the many monks in attendance and worshippers say prayers as they wait for the spirits to appear.

First on the scene are the small spirits, children dressed in colourful clothing and wearing wooden masks and hats made from rice steamers and palm leaves. The small spirits prance gleefully through the crowd, posing for pictures and making mischief.

Later, when these small spirits have had their time in the spotlight, the entire village becomes possessed by demonic spirits and wreak havoc. Many of the demons carry large phallic weapons and other devices for casing chaos. The atmosphere is charged with excitement and expectation. Absolutely anything could happen at this time; all rules of behaviour have been abandoned for once.

The next two days are filled with madness, mayhem, drink and debauchery. There are demonic processions through the streets, singing, dancing and general merrymaking as ghosts and ghouls flock to the town from all over the province. Many have cowbells, known as mark-ka-lang attached to their elaborate costumes to maximize the noise levels.

Each costume is unique, cleverly crafted by the wearer. The costumes come in all shapes and sizes from large, menacing demons to cute little pixies.

And then there are the mud men. These pillars of dirt stumble through the crowds, coating all they come across in mud and grime. There is no escaping these determined demons as I soon discovered. Tired of running, I surrender and allow myself to be liberally coated in mud as the mud men cheer in triumph.

One of my favourite events takes place on the second day. In between sporting events and dance contests, a procession of giant bang fai bamboo rockets are launched. The festival takes place in the hottest and driest season and it is hoped that these rockets will bring the rain.

On the third and final day of the festival, Jao Paw Guan summons his powers and drives the naughty demons back to the underworld.
 
The ghost masks are thrown into the river and the rest of the day is filled with Buddhist sermons and merit making.
 
People who visit Dan Sai at any other time of the year describe the tiny village as picturesque and tranquil. Little are they aware of the demonic debauchery that bubbles just beneath the surface.
 
Getting There: To get to Dan Sai it is best to first travel to the province capital city of Loei, which is about 520 km from Bangkok. There is an airport at Loei with regular flights from Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Alternatively, there are regular buses from all over the country including Bangkok (10 hours), Nong Khai (6 hours) and Phitsanulok (5 hours). Buses run between Loei and Dan Sai from 5 a.m to 5 p.m and the journey takes about 1.5 hours.
 
Where to Stay: Dan Sai is generally a cheap place to stay, although prices can double during the festival. Phak Thanapho on Soi Thetsaban 4 has clean and basic rooms in a traditional Thai wooden house. Rooms cost around 200 baht per night. Tel: 04289 1702 There is a good selection of elegant hotels just out of town, so it is a good idea to hire your own transport to get around.

A top pick is Rangyen Resort on Route 23. Here you will find an extensive and well decorated resort with facilities including tennis and badminton courts, a swimming pool, good restaurants, satellite TV and a karaoke bar. Fan rooms cost around 1,000 baht, while a two bedroom bungalow with all the usual mod-cons costs around 4,000 baht. Tel: 04289 1089 fax 04289 1423.

About the author:

Kirsty Turner (Kay) is currently living in Bangkok where she she is a travel writer.

Water Water Everywhere – the Songkran Festival Explained

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Songkran Festival Thailand
Songkran Festival Thailand

If you’re traveling in Thailand during April, brace yourself for one of Southeast Asia’s most raucous holidays. For one joyful week, Thai people take to the streets for the Songkran festival, a waterlogged celebration of the Thai new year.

In the midst of parades and street parties, people customarily douse each other with buckets of water and handfuls of baby powder. In Thailand, this is the festival that people spends months looking forward to, and it’s a celebration that visitors are lucky to witness. Social decorum is thrown to the wayside, public revelry/drunkenness becomes a norm, and those conspicuous sweat stains on your T-shirts will no longer be a cause for embarrassment once the water start flying.

Celebrants take no exception, whether you’re a businessman or backpacker, every person on the street is a target for buckets of water or high-tech waterguns wielded by children. In most of Thailand, this holiday lasts for three or four days, but Chiang Mai becomes the Bourbon Street of the country, with festivities lasting up to nine days.

The custom of throwing water originated as a sign of respect. Traditionally, communities would pay respect to elders and children to parents by sprinkling water on their hands as a cleansing of bad fortune and gesture of good luck. However, people may sometimes bypass the traditions of the ritual as they get caught up in the fun. After all, Songkran takes place during the peak of Thailand’s dry season; the hottest time of the year. Though Songkran has fast become a nonstop party of Animal House proportion, the origins of the festival are rooted in the home. Traditionally, the holiday was about honouring parents and elders, with children coming home to see their families and offer gifts to them.

People also go to temples on this holiday, often bringing handfuls of sand to compensate for the dirt they carried away on their feet throughout the year. Visitors pray, offer food to monks, and help clean Buddha images in the wats. If you’re in a city like Chiang Mai for Songktran, don’t be surprised to see Buddha statues paraded through the streets. This allows people to throw water on the statues as they pass by, cleaning them in the middle of the festivities.

Despite the debaucherous atmosphere, one should bear in mind that as a visitor to Thailand, enthusiasm for local festivals is widely appreciated. Friendly, festive Thai people will encourage you to take part in the revelry, but remember that despite the free-flowing water (and whiskey), Songkran is still a family event, and the street parties should remain PG, at least during the daytime. Among Thai people, it goes without saying that daily drenchings are to be expected.

Tourists, however, may need reminding, and should take care to protect cameras, ipods, important tickets, and other non-soakables.
 
While the whole country participates in Songkran, you might find that the most active celebrations take place inland, where Thai people endure the most heat. Cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Bangkok will all offer good parties day and night. Tourists should be extra-cautious on the roads at this time, as many whiskey-loving celebrants might be driving trucks or motorbikes.
 
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Loy Krathong – of Light and Water


Loy Krathong - of Light and Water
Loy Krathong - of Light and Water
Loy Krathong - of Light and Water
Loy Krathong - of Light and Water
Loy Krathong - of Light and Water

“November full moon shines, Loy Krathong, Loy Krathong, And the water’s high in the river and local klong, Loy Loy Krathong, Loy Loy Krathong, Loy Krathong is here and everybody’s full of cheer, We’re together at the klong, Each one with his krathong, As we push away we pray, We can see a better day.”

This is an English translation of the song sung by Thai students to celebrate Loy Krathong.

Quite the opposite of Songkran, Loy Krathong is by far my favourite Thai festival. In Thai, Loy means “to float”, whilst krathong is the name of the small lotus-shaped rafts, which are specially constructed for the occasion. Loy Krathong is held on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the lunar calendar. This usually falls in November and is celebrated this year (2007) on November 24th. Loy Krathong is long anticipated all over Thailand and especially in Bangkok, where people gather in their thousands on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and take boat trips along the intricate canal network.

Last year, I took a small ferry boat across the Chao Phraya River after dark. The sun had only just set, yet there, near the Phra Pinklao Bridge, several hundreds of people had already gathered.

I walked around the small park area, where groups of people had gathered to celebrate together. Folding metal tables and chairs had been set up everywhere, the tabletops already covered with bottles of Sangsom whiskey, glasses and buckets of ice. All around, stalls were set up selling krathongs in every size and colour, fireworks, toys and even baby turtles as many people believe that it is good luck to release turtles into the river during festivals.

At around 8 pm the boat parade began. I found a spot on the river bank and watched in awe as about two dozen elaborately decorated barges glided down the river. Each barge was strewn with coloured lights and decorated in a certain theme. Of particular note was a barge bearing an enormous saxophone, a tribute to His Majesty the King’s musical talent.

There was a spectacular fireworks display at the end of the parade. Several children joined in by firing tubes containing small rockets into the air with reckless abandon.

Then it was time for me to launch my krathong. I patiently waited my turn at the water’s edge, then lit the candle and incense sticks in the center and lightly placed my krathong on the water, making a wish as I did so. Many people believe that their wish will come true if their candle continues burning until the krathong is out of sight.

I watched in wonder as my krathong drifted into the river and weaved amongst the hundreds of others already floating there. The flickering lights of the candles on the water created a magical atmosphere.

The Loy Krathong festival dates back about 700 years. Coinciding with the end of the rainy season and the rice harvest, it is a way of apologizing for polluting the water. Thai people float a krathong on the water to thank the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha. The act of floating away the candle raft sybolises letting go of anger and grudges so that a person can start life afresh.

Another symbol of Loy Krathong are the beautiful kom loy lanterns. As I wove my way across the park once more, I came across a group of students holding aloft one of these large paper lanterns and waiting for it to fill with air. When inflated, a candle was placed inside and the lantern was released, rising high into the air to become another flickering point of light.

Another interesting event during Loy Krathong are the beauty contests, known as “Noppamas Queen Contests” after the consort of the former king of Sukhothai, King Loethai. Noppamas is credited with starting the tradition of krathongs when her beautiful tribute caught the attention of the king as it drifted down the river. Loy Krathong is a great opportunity to experience a Thai festival. Whether you choose to do it simply as and onlooker or get fully involved, Thai people are extremely found of this festival and pleased to share the experience.

About the author:

Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for KhaoSanRoad.com and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!