Festivals in Chiang Mai
Unlike in Bangkok and the beach resorts, in Chiang Mai you can still experience Thai and Lanna festivals in their traditional form. The people of Chiang Mai are as yet not so busy as to not take their ancient traditions very seriously.
The two festivals that create the most buzz are Songkran and Loy Krathong/Yee Peng. But in Chiang Mai there are a few more local festivals which are quieter, are held in temples three-quarters of a millenium old, and are more traditionally local, reflecting deep connection the people of Chiang Mai have with their traditions, their city, their soil, and their land.
The traditional Thai and Buddhist SE Asian New Year with an astrological (the sun moving from Aries to Taurus) Brahmin background (Songkran is derived from Sanskrit meaning "Astrological Transition") in addition to a plethora of lunar backgrounds which are again based on traditions related to the rice farming seasons.
The Thai people of today in general and the people of Chiang Mai in particular hardly care about these backgrounds, they just know what to do and enjoy this festival immensely. The same pragmatism has Songkran fixed for practical reasons to a core of three days from 13th to 15th of April.
Many long-term residents of Chiang Mai, especially the pious, leave the city during Songkran as it gets too "touristy", too busy, too wild, where the demure service workers they see every day are drinking and dancing in colorful shirts all day.
However, the city is abuzz with visitors, heat, excitement, water and fun as at no other time over the course of the year.
Last but not least it's seen as auspicious (for the stability of the relationship) to meet your significant other during the Songkran festival so young people of both sexes will be on the lookout.
A unique tradition in Northern Thai Buddhists is to carry small sacks of sand into the temples, returning the dust they have carried away on their feet over the course of the past year. This sand is then sculpted into small stupas and decorated with prayer flags in honor of the Buddha. Wat Lok Moli on the northern moat is a good place to observe this tradition.
The traditional schedule of the Songkran festival in Chiang Mai has been altered to fit in more with the schedule observed around Thailand:
The 13th of April is the day of the procession of Buddha images, along Thapae road and through Thapae gate. This is the highlight of Songkran and you should watch the procession if you can, if not directly at Thapae Gate:
In recent years the city administration has rented out the square in front of Thapae gate to multinational corporations for garish and insanely loud advertising displays,including scores of dancing "pretties", scantily clad young women.
These have been toned down a bit in recent years, but the traditional festival of Songkran at Thapae gate is somewhat spoiled by this blatant subordination of culture to the rule of money.
Anyway, here's the official Songkran schedule observed in recent years in Chiang Mai:
- 6 a.m.: Merit making and alms giving at Tha Pae Gate
- 8:09 a.m.: Grand opening ceremony at Tha Pae Gate
- 8:30-noon: Lanna offerings contest, performances at Tha Pae Gate
- 7 a.m. – noon: Parade of Mae Ying Kee Rod Theep Kaeng Jong, or Lanna girls on bicycles with umbrellas beauty contest, from the TAT office on the river to Tha Pae Gate.
- 9.09 – 9.39 a.m.: Invitation ceremony of Phra Buddha Sihing image on a special carriage at Wat Phra Sing.
- 1:00 p.m.: Invitation ceremony for Phra Buddha Sihing image, parade of Buddha images and Miss Songkran float in the procession from the Railway Station to Wat Phra Singh.
- 7 pm. to midnight: Miss and Mr. Songkran Contest, Lanna local arts competition at Tha Pae Gate
- 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. Buddhist procession from the Iron Bridge to Tha Pae Gate carrying holy sand and Buddhist relics
- 1:30 – 6 p.m. Blessings will be offered to the Chiang Mai Governor with participants starting from 3 Kings Monument to the Governor’s Residence on Nawarat Bridge.
Some Songkran tips
Foreigners should embrace the festival as a unique experience where rules are bent and sometimes broken. Songkran is a bit like carneval in catholic countries, where anything goes for a few days in an otherwise conservative society.
As a foreigner, you will be a primary target for water and talcum powder attacks, therefore:
Dress lightly and don't wear your best attire to avoid damage from the colored powder,
Wear sunglasses to avoid getting direct hits from water, ice cubes or worse to your eyes.
Wear a hat for extra sun and water protection. Always, always, wear a helmet when driving a motorbike on these days.
Most importantly: Never lose your temper even when splashed with icy water or smeered by drunk louts. In Thailand, even when you're right to get angry, DON'T. Always smile and play along.
When "fighting back", remember the basic rules: No spraying into the eyes and ears, no spraying of people obviously working or carrying expensive stuff like cameras, no spraying after sunset.
Driving is very dangerous during Songkran - All over town people will be drinking for days on end in the heat, and still take to the roads regularly. The roads are also more slippery from debris and talcum powder. Chiang Mai is Thailand's province with the most road death during Songkran year after year. Most of these deaths are motorbike riders in the countryside under the influence of alcohol. But the city area is also very dangerous due to the slippery roads and everyone being a bit tipsy, tired, and possibly with slight heatstroke.
To sum up: - Sonkgran in Chiang Mai is a festival steeped in tradition that is also a huge water fight where you can behold a procession of ancient Buddha images and young maidens in traditional garb. The nightlife is especially fun during these days too and clubs and pubs are open longer and are much busier.
Loy Krathong ลอยกระทง:
Far less touristy, far drier, much more picturesque, much quainter and less spoiled than Sonkran, this is the festival that every visitor to Thailand should witness if they have the chance, and especially if they're in Chiang Mai.
The festival takes place on the full mean of the 12th and last month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar. While Songkran is more frequently associated with "Thai New Year", Loy Krathong is the actual, ancient Siamese lunar New Year celebration.
Loy literally means "to float, to let float", while Krathong is the name of the float, the lotus-shaped receptacle of donations (flowers, betel nuts, joss sticks, candles, coins) to the river spirits. Traditionally, floats were slices of banana trunk, then there was an ominous phase when they were made of "high-tech" styrofoam, and now floats in Chiang Mai are universally made of the traditional banana trunk again. The intricately folded decorations of the floats are truly a sight to behold. This must be the best-preserved traditional craft in Thailand: Young children (girls and boys) learn folding banana leaves into these refined shapes from an early age.
Yi Peng ยี่เป็ง:
This festival coincides with Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, but it's actually a separate festival. Yi Peng takes place on the full moon of the 2nd month of the Lanna calendar. From this you can confer that the ancient Lanna calendar was ahead of the Siamese Thai calendar by two months (one of the few times something is faster in Chiang Mai than in central Thailand; or did they fall behind by ten months?;).
Yi means two, second and Peng means month in the language of Lanna. The festival is signified by an evening sky filled with Khom Loy โคมลอย, floating lanterns. There's hardly a person in Chiang Mai valley (including 1 year old children and 100 year old grannies) who will not let a Khom Loy fly. With about a million people you get about a million lanterns, a spectacular site, especially when the wind is calm and the sky is clear. Update: In recent years the government has limited the times that Khom Loy can be released, due to potential dangers to the ever increasing air traffic to Chiang Mai.
Houses and gardens and everything is additionally decorated with Khom Fai โคมไฟ in different forms while restaurants and larger establishments as well as inner city roads will have many Khom Kwaen โคมแขวน, large lanterns with long tassels.
As Yi Peng, the festival of lanterns coincides with Loy Krathong, the festival of lighted floats, Chiang Mai truly becomes the world's City of Light during these days.
Chiang Mai Flower Festival
The Chiang Mai Flower Festival is held yearly in early February in the area around the Suan Buak Haad Park at the Southwestern Corner of the moat. Many stalls display intersting flowers such as orchids and decorative flower arrangements. There is a parade of large, beautifully decorated flower floats starting from Nawarat Bridge through Thapae Road towards the Suan Buak Haad Park.
Every Thai festival has beauty pagents and in 2015 a Miss International Flower Blooming Beauty Contests will be held. It may be that foreign women will qualify to compete in this competition. Globalization at work.
Here are some panoramas showing the flower festival in 2013 and 2017:
Chiang Mai Flower Festival 2017 Panorama
The Chiang Mai Flower Festival takes place every February.
This year many flowers remembered Thailand's beloved and revered King Bhumiphol, who had sadly passed away in October 2016.
Large flower-bedecked floats are created by communities, temples, schools and companies. They are paraded through town and the usual sideshows like beauty pageants are held. The festival is centered around Suan Buak Had Park at the South-Western corner of the moat. There will be many stands selling food and trinkets as well as a traditional children's fun fair inside the park.
Chiang Mai Flower Festival February 2013
Another panorama showing the Chiang Mai Flower Festival in February 2013. Clearly visible here that it's not so much about the flowers, but rather about commerce and tourism. Update: In 2015 the volume has much increased and the Suan Prung Corner is clearly getting overwhelmed. It may be time to move the flower festival to another location in the future.