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 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 leave the city during Songkran as it gets too "touristy". 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 auspicious to meet your significant other during the Songkran festival so young people of both sexes will be on the lookout.
Foreigners should embrace the festival as a unique experience. They will be most welcome as targets for water play and talcum attacks. Dress lightly to avoid damage from the colored powder and never lose your temper even when splashed with icy water or smeered by drunk louts. Especially, be very careful driving as all over town people will be drinking for days on end in the heat, and still take to the roads regularly.
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.
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. 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. They have been toned down a bit in recent years, but the traditional festival of Songkran is somewhat spoiled by this blatant subordination of culture to the rule of money.
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 to Tha Pae Gate.
- 9.09 – 9.39 a.m.; Invitation ceremony of 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 Train Station to Wat Phra Sing.
- 7 pm. to midnight: Miss and Mr. Songkran Contest, Lanna local arts competition at Tha Pae Gate
April 14 - 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. Buddhist procession from Iron Bridge to Tha Pae Gate carrying holy sand and relics
April 15 - 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. - To sum up: Sonkgran in Chiang Mai is 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.
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.