The 11 Thailand festivals to plan your trip around

Find out about Thailand’s many vibrant festivals - celebrating everything from elephants to umbrellas.

By Saga team

Published 13 May 2024

The combination of Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese traditions with tourist marketing has given Thailand a wealth of festivals throughout the year. Many Thai festivals are unique to a certain district or town, but there are also more than a dozen public holidays.

The dates of many festivals vary with the lunar calendar, and any that fall on a weekend will spill over into the next working day.

Where: Bo Sang, northern Thailand

When: January

The umbrella festival is among the many modern festivals created for tourism, which also include events such as the Lopburi Monkey Buffet (see below), Bangkok Motorbike Festival and the Hua Hin Jazz Festival.

Despite these festivals’ recent origins, they’re all good fun and Bo Sang’s offering is no exception. Umbrellas can be very useful in the hot Thai sun – or in the rains – and this festival near Chiang Mai allows local artisans to showcase their very best work.

Traditionally handmade with mulberry-bark paper, they are hand-painted in glorious designs. A highlight is the Beauty Pageant Bike Parade: a beauty contest on bicycles with the entrants all bearing parasols.

Where: Chiang Mai, northern Thailand

When: February

Held on the first complete Friday, Saturday and Sunday in February, this festival dates back only to 1977.

Its flower-laden floats, high school marching bands, vintage cars, concerts and ‘Miss Chiang Mai Flower Festival’ competition may also owe more to western ideas than traditional concepts, but Thais have warmly embraced it.

The floats reflect local themes such as scenes from Thai history or the life of Buddha. Chiang Mai’s high altitude encourages the growth of chrysanthemums and roses, including the local Damask Rose variety, which you will see in abundance.

Where: Nationwide

When: 13 March

With about 3,500 elephants remaining in Thailand, most in captivity, this day was created to honour an animal that has deep significance in Thai culture. It also helps raise awareness of the abuse present in some animal training.

Many elephant centres will parade their elephants with flower garlands, and lay out a buffet of special treats.

Where: Nationwide

When: April 13

The most important festival in the Thai calendar comes at the height of the hot season, a perfect time for a mass public water fight.

Traditionally, this was a chance to wash away bad spirits, ritually bathe a statue of Buddha and visit a Buddhist monk, who would use chalk to apply a blessing.

These two elements have evolved into water and talcum powder that is thrown on revellers on an industrial scale. It’s also a time to make New Year’s resolutions and spring clean the house, throwing out anything old or broken.

The tradition of drinking a toast to the royal family also sees alcohol being consumed liberally and makes it a dangerous time to drive on the country’s roads.

It’s also worth remembering that you will get soaked – being a foreigner makes you a target, rather than immune – so join in the fun and leave delicate electronic gear such as a camera or mobile phone behind.

Where: Yasothon, north-east Thailand

When: May

Three days of people letting off homemade rockets – the bigger, the better – accompanied by liberal use of the local firewater, rice whisky. What could possibly go wrong?

The festival’s origins are in Laos, where it was part of a Buddhist ritual to encourage the coming of the rains. Fertility plays a large part in the symbolism and many of the rockets are phallic-shaped to drive that point home.

The north-eastern provinces are the natural home of the festival, with Yasothon being a major centre. Its three-day event includes a carnival parade and lots of bawdy humour.

The finale is a competition for the biggest and best rockets, judged on appearance, distance and height. Any misfire leads to the competitor being given a mud bath (sometimes a necessity for burns). A lot of fun, as long as you stand well back.

Where: Ubon Ratchathani, lower north-eastern Thailand

When: July

During the monsoon season, monks remain in their temple grounds. Known as Khao Phansa, and similar to the Christian Lent, this three-month-long period is a time of retreat and prayer.

But, just as Christian nations have their carnival beforehand, so too do Buddhists have their own celebrations.

The festival has grown from a tradition of presenting monks with candles to light their night-time studies to more elaborate offerings and massive waxworks, usually scenes from Buddhist scripture.

These floats are paraded through the streets, with lots of music and traditional costumes on show. It’s well worth arriving a day or two earlier to see these impressive works of art being carved in the various temples around town.

Where: Nationwide, especially Bangkok and Phuket

When: September

An important festival for those of Chinese descent, this festival has its roots in Taoism. The nine-day festival is a time to fast by not eating meat, and many adherents also walk on coals or get piercings to show their devotion and cleanse impurities.

The festival is known for its parades, dance and music, and the streets are decorated with colourful yellow flags signposting where vegetarian food is being sold.

Bangkok and Phuket, with their large Thai-Chinese population, are major centres for the event. The parade in Phuket, where piercings with bizarre objects such as swords, chains and even spanners are common, is not for the squeamish.

Where: Mekong River between Vientiane in Laos and Nong Khai in Thailand

When: Between mid-October and early November

The Naga Fireball Festival sees crowds of people head to a 250km stretch of riverbank along the Mekong in the hopes of spotting mysterious glowing red 'fireballs' as they shoot up into the sky around a full moon at the end of Buddhist Lent.

Attributed to the mythical 'Phaya Nak', a giant serpent said to have made the river its home, the fireballs have no proven scientific reason given for their existence. So as far as anyone knows, the Phaya Nak theory is as sound as any!

Where: Nationwide

When: 12th full moon of the Thai year (usually November)

Loy Krathong and Yee Peng are similar but different festivals held on the same date: the full moon of the 12th month on the Thai Lunar Calendar, which is usually in November.

Loy Krathong is a floating lantern festival celebrated throughout Thailand and other parts of the region, particularly Laos and southeast China.

It is considered the second most important event in the Thai Calendar. Yee Peng involves releasing paper lanterns into the air and is found only in northern Thailand, with Chiang Mai being the centre.

However, since Loy Krathong is celebrated everywhere in the country, you will also see floating lanterns there at the same time. This has led many foreigners – and some Thais – to merge the two festivals into one they call the Festival of Lights.

The origins of Loy Krathong are obscure, but its thought it may have come about as a way of thanking the Thai water goddess for a good harvest (the full moon marks the end of the rice harvest). Yi Peng is more rooted in Buddhist beliefs and celebrates the idea of rebirth, letting go of negative thoughts and regrets for sins in the past year.

The krathong raft, made from banana leaves or wood carved to resemble a lotus flower, is loaded with small offerings as well as its candle.

Couples will release their krathong at the same time in the hope they float together, an auspicious sign. Fireworks have become part of the festivities in recent years, and the Royal Barge Procession is a highlight in Bangkok, while Loy Krathong’s beauty contests are among the country’s most prestigious.

No matter where you are, and whether it’s candlelit lanterns on the water or in the air - or both – it’s a photographer’s dream and hence extremely popular.

Where: Lopburi, central Thailand

When: November

The hundreds of crab-eating macaques here originally gathered around the town’s historic Khmer temple and shrine to snap up offerings left by worshippers.

They are now mischievous enough to grab cameras, glasses, hairbands or any loose object from unwary tourists. Visitors are warned not to give them food so they can instead be controlled at a few feeding sites.

Out of this has grown an annual party for our primate friends, held on the last Sunday in November since 1989. Thousands of macaques, considered sacred in Thai religious culture, now arrive for free bananas and other treats such as sticky rice and frozen fruit.

The monkeys are usually surprisingly well behaved during the festival. However, while it is rare for them to bite, any broken skin may need a rabies shot and a clinic is set up during the festival for this.

Where: Kanchanaburi, west Thailand

When: November/December

Kanchanaburi commemorates its famous bridge with a week-long festival of events that includes a chance to ride the tracks on a vintage train.

The highlight is a sound and light show involving a simulated attack and demolition of the bridge. More serious historical exhibitions recall the 60,000 prisoners of war and some 180,000 Asian peoples who worked on the Thailand–Burma Railway.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery holds the graves of 3,585 British personnel, a tiny fraction of those from all nations who died, including at least 100,000 Asian workers.

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