Thais love to celebrate, and so the yearly calendar is full of festivals, holidays and other reasons to make merry. The end of rainy season marks the advent of tourist season, with many wonderful festivals for travellers to take part in. If you’re travelling in Thailand during the autumn, check out three of the celebrations that make the Land of Smiles a truly amazing place to visit.
Naga Fireball Festival, late October
On the full moon of the 11thlunar month, which coincides with the end of Buddhist Lent and the rainy season, a serpent swims in the Mekong, shooting balls of fire from its jaws. The Naga, as the serpent is called, appears in Nong Khai Province, where hundreds of thousands of spectators congregate along the banks of the river to watch for the phenomena. Non-believers posit two theories on the cause of the fireballs. One is that methane gas is released from the river bottom and is ignited upon emergence from the water. The other is that Lao residents across the river shoot tracer fire into the air. Neither explanation, however, has held any ground with Thai believers, who rioted when a Thai TV program 'exposed' Lao tracer fire.
The town of Nong Khai sees the fewest fireballs (head to Phon Phisai or Rattanawapi, 50 and 80 km, respectively, east of Nong Khai for a more consistent show) but has the largest festival, with boat races, alms-giving, and cultural performances. Food vendors line the riverside walkway, selling all manners of treats and northern Thai specialties.
Monkey Buffet, last Sunday in November
The town of Lopburi is nearly overrun with monkeys, who scamper around temples making mischief in the form of snatching food, purses, cameras, and whatever else they can grab from unsuspecting people. As a way to thank the monkeys for the tourist business they draw in, the residents of Lopburi hold a feast for the animals each November.
Lavishly decorated tables are set out on the grounds of Prang Sam Yot, where the monkeys can gorge on sausages, dessert, fruit and other dishes prepared by local chefs. Some of the fruit is even encased in ice to add a little variety and challenge for the monkeys. The banquet is staggered into four different meal times, affording plenty of camera time for the thousands of visitors who come to witness the spectacle. Besides the feeding frenzy there is also a parade, cultural dancing, and the usual line-up of street food vendors.
Surin Elephant Round-Up, third weekend in November
The elephant has always held a special place in Thai culture, most notably due to the creature’s invaluable participation in labour and war. The residents of Surin, in northeast Thailand, were known for their ability to capture and train elephants. These days, elephants are no longer used in battle and are rarely used for labour, but the animals’ importance is commemorated each year in the Surin Elephant Round-up. This ten-day festival showcases the skills and talents of several hundred elephants, who are dressed to the nines for the event. Pachyderm activities include a breakfast buffet, elephant talent competitions, and battle re-enactments.
Loi Kratong, late November
Possibly Thailand’s most beautiful holiday, Loi Krathong pays respect to the river goddess at the end of the rainy season. On the full moon of the 12th lunar month, Thais set afloat small krathongs (floats) on rivers and canals. The krathongs are made from banana stems wrapped in leaves, and then adorned with flowers, candles, incense and coins. After sunset, the Thais set the krathongs afloat, releasing grudges from the past year and making wishes for the new one. In the sky, hundreds of floating lanterns are also released, so the sky and water are lit with flickering, floating stars. Street vendors sell elaborately-decorated krathongs for as little as 20 baht (about 60 cents US).
Loi Krathong originated in Sukhothai, which remains one of the most popular places to celebrate the holiday. Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya are two other excellent spots. The festivities start days before the actual holiday, with beauty contests, parades, and nightly fireworks.
This article was first published in November 2012 and was republished in May 2013.