Saturday, May 10, 2008

Travel - Festivel Thailand

In 1940, Thailand moved its New Year's Day from April 13th to January 1st. The old New Year is still a holiday called Songkran. Years are counted as the Buddhist era (B.E.) which started 543 years earlier than the Christian, era, therefore 2002 AD is the year 2545 BE.

Festivals in Thailand are either Buddhist, Chinese, animist, or associated with the monarchy. Buddhist and Chinese festivals are lunar and generally fall on a full moon, animist festivals such as Songkran or Loi Krathong can be solar or lunar, while royal holidays fall on special historical days such as the founding of the current Chakri dynasty or the birthdays of the reigning monarchs.

The most deeply spiritual of the Thai holidays is Visakha Bucha held on a full moon night in May. It commemorates the date on which the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and died.

Visakha Bucha day is marked with sermons and alms-giving culminating in an evening candlelit procession known as wien thien in which celebrants circle the temple three times in honour of the triple gem of Buddhism - the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (community of monks).

Songkran, the most vigorous of Thailand's festivals, was the official Thai New Year until 1941. Formerly tied to the movement of the sun, modern Songkran takes place from 13-15th April.

Songkran began as a ceremonial bathing of Buddha images as part of a new year's spring cleaning ritual. However, it has degenerated over the years into a free-for-all water fight in which the streets are filled with revellers armed with water guns, jars and buckets.

Though Songkran is celebrated nationwide, it's probably done with most gusto in Bangkok’s tourist centre of Khaosan Road and in the northern capital of Chiangmai.

The southern island of Phuket with its large Chinese population is the scene of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival held during the ninth lunar month each year. The event lasts ten days and other than participants observing a vegetarian diet, involves ceremonies at Chinese shrines and temples along with firewalking and other acts of self-mutilations carried out by devotees known as Ma Song. These Ma Song are in ecstatic trances and oblivious to pain as they clamber up ladders with bladed rungs, walk barefoot over hot coals, and plunge skewers through their cheeks.

The event Phuket Vegetarian Festival dates back to 1825. At that time, many immigrant Chinese worked in Phuket's tin mines. A visiting Chinese opera troupe cured their sickness with a vegetarian diet. This much impressed the local population who started the vegetarian festival.

The afternoon before the festival, celebrants raise a high pole (the Go Teng pole) at each temple. This is to invite the gods to descend. Then at midnight, they adorn the pole with nine lanterns to mark the opening of the festival.

Over the next ten days, ceremonies such as invocation of the gods Lam Tao and Pak Tao, processions of images of the deities, and the feats of the Ma Song. The festival ends with merit making ceremonies at the temples and the send-off of the gods.

Thailand is a land rich in culture and tradition and the best and most moving way to experience the delights of this eastern kingdom is to attend one of the many festivals and ceremonies that adorn the calendar.

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Author: Daniel Jowssey


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