The Second Most Important Religious Festival of Thailand

Thailand has a number of national holidays and religious festivals that are the most joyous occasions. If you are thinking about visiting Thailand you must plan your visit during a Buddhist festival. The purpose of many of these festivals is to celebrate the different events occurred in the Buddha’s life. So, they are perfect events for those who want to learn more about Buddha and Buddhism.

Makha Bucha

Makha Bucha is one of the three most important Buddhist festivals others being Visakha Bucha and Asahna Bucha. It was first celebrated in Thailand during the reign of the Thai King Rama IV, but only in the Grand Palace. After that, it became a national festival and is celebrated every year in Thailand.

When Makha Bucha is celebrated?

Makha is the third lunar month of the Thai traditional calendar whereas Bucha means to honor. So, Makha Bucha day is the full moon day of the 3rd lunar month which either falls in February or March. This year it was celebrated on the 19th of February.  The purpose of the festival is to commemorate the events that occurred after 9 months of Buddha’s enlightenment.

Fourfold Assembly Day

Makha Bucha is also called as the Fourfold Assembly Day due to the four special events that happened on this day:

  1. It was a full moon day
  2. 1250 Buddhist Sangha came to Veluvana temple to see Buddha without being invited.
  3. All those monks were enlightened disciples
  4.  All those monks were ordained by Buddha himself.

Buddha delivered his core teachings on this day called as Ovada Patimokkha which is basically a summary of Buddhism. In this sermon Buddha taught three basic principles:

  1. To refrain from doing evil
  2. Not to harm anyone
  3. To purify the mind

How Makha Bucha is celebrated in Thailand?

Makha Bucha day is a national holiday in Thailand but it doesn’t mean that the Buddhists stay at home. It is celebrated to its full by the Thai people and the whole day they take part in different activities. Buddhist devotees visit the temples and take part in different religious activities. One of the most important activities that Buddhists take part in this day is making merit. They make merits by giving food to the monks and giving money to the poor. They also make merit by listening to sermons about Buddha’s life and his teachings. Other merit-making activities include freeing birds and fish.

Another key feature of this day includes observing the five Buddhist precepts for the whole day. These include not telling lies and avoiding alcohol consumption.

In the evening people also take part in the special candle ceremony. They walk in the clockwise direction around the Ubosoft carrying candles, flowers, and incense sticks. They walk for the three times and each walk represents three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Sangha, and Dharma.

Alcohol Ban

On this sacred day, selling of alcohol is prohibited by the government of Thailand. Alcohol consumption on this day is not only against the religious teachings but is also considered a civil offense. Bars, supermarkets, restaurants and, departmental stores are banned from selling alcohol to the customers for the 24 hours. Violating this ban may result in 6-month imprisonment and a fine.

How visitors can celebrate this day?

If you are visiting Thailand you can be part of this joyous occasion by becoming a part of the rituals that take place at all temples around the country. Some activities including prayers and meditations begin at midnight or even before but you may only be allowed to be a part of the meditation if you are a Buddhist, but still, you can be a part of the candle processions.

If you are in Bangkok the best site to experience Makha Bucha is the Golden Mountain at Wat Saket. You will have to pay an entrance fee which is 50 baht, though Thailand’s citizens don’t have to pay this fee. You can buy flowers, candles, and incense sticks from outside the temple to be part of the candle ceremony.

You can also go to other temples like Wat Phra Dhammakaya located in the province of Pathum Thani and Wat Lat Phrao located in the Lat Phrao. Both these temple host two of the biggest ceremonies of this festival.

Things to keep in mind

Visitors need to be careful with their code of conduct and must maintain the sanctity of this day throughout the visit. When you go to a temple you need to follow some rules, you must keep your voice down and take permission before taking pictures. You will also have to follow a dress code especially if you are visiting the Grand Palace. Even though it’s a national holiday commercial centers and bank remain open. You will not be able to purchase alcohol from bars and stores other than hotel bars.

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Three worth attending traditional festivals of Philippines

The Republic of the Philippines is a beautiful, attractive and fascinating archipelagic country. It is a secular state but most of the people practice Christianity, hence, its culture, traditions, and festivals have the essence of the religion.  It is famous and renowned for its festivals which are unique and different in nature from those festivals which occur around the globe.

Are you planning to visit the Philippines? Are you searching for the festival which you would attend at the time of your trip? Need not to worry at all because it is the country where festivals are celebrated throughout the year. Festivals are celebrated in every nook and corner of the country.

The most unique thing about the Philippines’ fiestas is that performers and participants wear different costumes. Costumes cover their whole body i.e. from head to toe which gives very fascinating and charming effect, which cannot be found in any country of the world. Hence, it is famous for its unique and distinctive festivals all around the world.

Three distinctive festivals you must attend  

Though many events, fiestas and public holidays are celebrated in the country with their full zeal and zest yet, there are few which are more enticing and interesting to attend. Three of them are:

 Ati-Atihan

Ati-atihan is the most populous fiesta of Philippines. It is a religious event celebrated with full devotion. It is celebrated on the second Sunday usually in the third week of January. Ati-Atihan is Philippine’s lingual term, Ati means black Negro people particularly those who live in this region.

This country is under the influence of Spanish, so, it celebrates all the religious feasts. No matter, under what circumstances the country is going on, whether it is an economic decline or weather disaster, they will not compromise on events.

In this festival, people gather on the street with painted faces, dancing on the beat of drums. They manifest merriment by painting their bodies or face in different styles and ways. Painted face and colored customs are of much importance in such festivals.

Such themes, customs, and cultural music and songs make the festival mesmerizing and make it stand out from all other events.

People exult in a very unique and unusual way. Performances are made on the traditional, cultural or religious music or songs. It is a culturally enriched country, promotes its culture through these festivals not only within the country rather all over the world.

Sinulog- the grand event

Sinulog is centuries-old celebrated fiesta distinguished by its offering, prayers, and dances. The religious and cultural event celebrated in Cebu held on every 3rd Sunday of January. Like Ati-Atihan, it is also a Catholic religious festival.  Santo Niño Catholic celebrations are celebrated with full on devotions. Millions of people all around the Philippines come and join to rejoice this celebration. The themes, dress codes, color combinations all these ideas and inspiration are derived from their religion. Their festivals are a beautiful blend of culture and religion. Street parades, long night parties, and the performances try to connect the pagan’s history with the Catholic traditions. Due to the Spanish and Catholic influence, these festivals have a variety of performances and with the passage of time, performances and style of parades, dances and the ways of offerings are also revolutionized yet have the real essence as had earlier, these are worth seeing and attending festivals.

A lot of people from other countries come to the Philippines because of these festivals and due to its biodiversity and geographic beauty. This island is among the most beautiful island which appeals to the attention of the tourists.     

Pahiyas Festival

Creativity is at its peak that can be visualized in this festival that how people of Quezon celebrate and cherish the occasion of harvesting by making it an important and rejoicing ceremony. Annual celebrations are held in a very colorful way. It was basically a pagan festival which after so many revolutions transformed into grand colorful harvest fiesta. People of Lucban take part in this festival and put their contribution by their amazing and enticing creativity. Unlike other events, it does not constitute on the dances and street performances rather people decorate their streets and their houses in a very creative and unique way with handicrafts, fruits, vegetables, agricultural products, etc. Competitions are held among them and they are awarded the prizes. It is a fortunate opportunity for the tourists as they can have a feast for their eyes with splendid and grandeur event. There is a great opportunity for them as they can freely move around the decorated houses and can make photographs. This festival is renowned for its creativity and exceptional theme all around the world.

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6 Tips to Prepare for Your Festival Party

Successful festival planners will tell you repeatedly if you seek their advice that a great party experience does not begin on the D-Day. If you do not prepare well, you may get to the ground at the right time but start wondering whether you are in the right place. A memorable festival experience begins several days and weeks before the main event. So, you need to plan in advance. Here are the most significant ways you can prepare for your next party.

1.    Find the Equipment

If you are planning for an outdoor festival party of any kind, you will require lots of equipment. Get the most efficient public address system. And since your guest will likely expect a live music entertainment, it is best you put a lot of emphasis on building a suitable stage. Your lighting and sound equipment should also be efficient enough to meet their expectations. Give the technical side of the event a deep consideration in advance, and you will avoid many problems.

2.    Get the Permits

Check with your local government what they want you to do before your exact date. In most cases, you will be required to get the appropriate permit from the city to be able to hold the event. This way, if you fail to do the paperwork in time, your city may shut down your festival party at a time you least expect.

3. Get Rid of Bed Bugs

If you think bed bugs cannot interfere with your visitor’s comfort, think again. Since no one can say they are immune to the bites of these parasites, you need to be responsible. Check for the signs that the venue has the infestation to avoid the harm.

Beg bugs hardly come out their dark hiding places. So you may need an expert to help you. But you can do this yourself if you do a little due diligence. If you want to treat beg bugs, consider the top powder killers. You can also turn to the 10 best bed bug steamers to purchase for a quick solution. Sometimes, you can choose to use the steamers after the event as well. This way, you will be able to kill the bed bugs and eggs that your guest may have left behind. The planning does not end until you clear the venue, settle the bills, and begin to prepare for your next vital events.

4.   Guarantee Security

Hire a well-trained security company to ensure everyone feels safe on the day. You do not want to see people hopping fences to join your party. What’s more, you would not like any drunken person to ruin your party.

Another essential concern is the safety of the children. Prepare well in advance for the wandering young ones and any other related security issues. For you to be on the safe side, the best solution is to hire experienced security officers with an excellent reputation.                                                         

5.    Grant Yourself Adequate Time

Whether you want to attend a big festival party or you are one of the organizers, do yourself a favor. Have adequate planning time. It takes several months to book the right venue and the other essential services that you know. Coordinating with your friends, relatives, and other people that you want to play some roles in the party also may take a lot of time.

 So, since you are limited as a human being, do not push yourself too much. It might negatively affect your health and eventually prevent you from being part of the big day. I think you must avoid that as a matter of priority. Only be merciful to yourself.

6.   Never Ever Forget the Essentials

Every festival is unique. What is the exact type of party that you want to host? Ask yourself this question and use the answer to plan appropriately. Your response will determine the amount and type of food and drinks that the festival-goers will demand. For example, if you are in China, Hongkong, Myanmar, Singapore, or Malaysia and want to attend the annual Nine Emperor Gods Festival, you will likely be pleased if the organizers present many vegetables, which is the diet that the locals consider appropriate for cleansing the body. As you can see, not all festivals are the same. That is the reason you should ask yourself the tuff question before the festival day.

The Bottom Line

For a great festival experience, you have to plan your party several months or weeks to the correct date. Ensure you and your guests will enjoy the party by getting the right services and equipment in advance. If you want to treat bed bugs, consider using the top steamers.

 There are many things that you may need to do when preparing for your festival day. These tips are meant to help you start the planning journey.

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Tesagan Gin Je – Vegetarian Festival in Thailand

Anyone who doesn’t like to eat meat will be pleased to hear about The Nine Emperor Gods Festival which is observed by cleansing the body via vegetarianism, and celebrated across the whole of Thailand, as well as in China, Hong Kong, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore and Malaysia, for a full nine days. The date in the Western calendar that the festival falls on changes yearly, but in the traditional Chinese calendar it starts on the evening of the ninth lunar month. In the Western calendar this means it is usually late September or early October with this year’s festival starting on the 5th of October and ending on the 11th of the month.

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is known in Chinese pinyin as Jiǔ huáng yé, in Cantonese as Kow Wong Yeh and in Thai as Tesagan Gin Je. Despite Thailand being predominantly of the Buddhist faith (over 96% of Thai people identify themselves as Buddhist), the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is actually a Taoist celebration. We’ll see why a celebration of a different faith to the main national one is celebrated here a little later.

First, let’s go back to ancient Chinese mythology to take a look at who these nine emperor Gods actually are.

The Nine Emperor Gods (jiǔ huáng xīng jūn or jiǔ huáng da di in Chinese pinyin) are the nine sons of the Emperor Zhou Yu Dou Fu Yuan Jun and of the mother of the Big Dipper, Dou Mu Yuan Jun, who is the keeper of the Registrar of Life and Death.

Unfortunately for Dou Fu Yuan Jun, he is hardly worshipped these days as the stricter version of the Taoist teachings has been diluted somewhat and Taoism is not so widely followed in modern China. In fact it seems rather unfair to Dou Fu Yuan Jun as the majority of Nine Emperor God temples no longer even bother to acknowledge his existence. Dou Fu Yuan Jun is, however, still invoked along with Dou Mu Yuan Jun in a ceremony known as Li Dou which honours the Big Dipper. Taoist followers at these ceremonies believe that worshipping the Northern Dipper stars creates longevity, helps to avoid disasters, absolves all sins and frees one of his or her spiritual debts.

Popular Chinese folk lore tells the story of the Nine Emperor Gods actually being Ming dynasty pirates who collaborated together in a plot to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, many Taoist priests state that this story is not true and consider it an affront to the true Taoist beliefs which dictate that the Nine Emperor Gods are in fact high-ranking Star Lords who govern the movement of the planets and take charge of issues concerning the lives and deaths of us mere mortals. The seven stars of the Big Dipper in the North Ursa Major constellation, which are visible to the human eye, and their two assistant stars, which are generally not visible, represent the Nine Emperors Gods.

So, that’s the background but how and why did these nine gods inspire a vegetarian festival and why is a Taoist tradition celebrated so fervently in Thailand?

Thailand is actually home to a large Chinese population, and many Thai people are in fact ethnically Chinese, with a large number of people in their 30’s and 40’s today being second generation Chinese or having a Chinese grandparent. It is not at all unusual to see Chinese temples in Thailand, Chinese characters on decorative archways and on shop fronts, particularly on jewellery shops and shops selling gold. Chinese New Year is also celebrated in Thailand and in the weeks running up to that celebration, many towns and cities will be strung with red Chinese lanterns and banners.

Although celebrated across the Kingdom, the Nine Emperor Gods festival, or Tesagan Gin Je to give it its Thai name, is most famously observed on the island of Phuket, which lies in the Andaman sea just off the Southwest coast of Thailand. Phuket is the largest of Thailand’s many islands and is actually connected to the mainland by way of two bridges, making it easy to get to. The reason that Phuket holds Thailand’s biggest celebrations of a Chinese vegetarian festival is partly due to the fact that at least 35% of the population on the island is Chinese, making it a natural location for the nine day event. The other reason is that although the actual origins of how the festival started are not completely known, it is thought by many that the festival began in Phuket in the 19th century when a wandering Chinese opera group who were performing on the island fell sick with malaria. To try and combat the disease the performers decided to follow a strict vegetarian diet whilst offering prayers to the Nine Emperor Gods to ask for their minds and bodies to be purified.

Much to the amazement of the Phuket locals, all the members of the opera group made a full recovery, and to celebrate their survival of this once fatal disease, a celebration was thrown to honour the gods and to thank them for their divine intervention. From these humble beginnings the Nine Emperor Gods festival has grown in to a huge annual gathering that is attended by thousands of people, with many participants coming from China, as well as other countries in Asia.

Clearly, from its origins being in the beating of malaria, the whole point of the Tesagan Gin Je festival is to purify, cleanse and heal one’s mind, body and spirit. For worshippers, a lot of the activity takes place in the island’s temples where ritual cleansing and prayers are the main focus. Anyone taking part in the ceremonies and observing the nine days of purification will dress only in white and they will refrain from eating not only meat and poultry but seafood and dairy produce too. If they are offering vegetarian or vegan snacks or dishes, restaurants and street food vendors will hang yellow flags or bunting with red Chinese characters or Thai lettering on them, which indicates that je – vegetarian – food is being cooked and sold there.

To sample the purest of the pure foods however, one will need to eat dishes prepared during a special ritual in one of the Chinese temple’s sacred kitchens. This is the food that will offer the greatest powers of healing and purification.

There are a number of rules for anyone who is seriously taking part in the cleansing ritual: they must keep themselves clean at all times during the festival, they should not share kitchen ware or utensils with those who are not participating in the cleanse and they should conduct themselves in an appropriate manner, both physically and mentally. As well as abstaining from meat and dairy, alcohol is also to be avoided, as is engaging in any kind of sexual act. Besides this, there are a number of people who are not allowed to attend the festival or the rituals, namely anyone undergoing a period of mourning, expecting mothers and females that are menstruating.

But Tesagan Gin Je is about more than just giving up meat for a week and a half and it is the sacred rituals and aesthetic displays that are performed at the Chinese shrines and temples, particularly in Phuket that have garnered the innocuous sounding ‘Phuket Vegetarian Festive’ worldwide fame and attention.

Devotees known as Mah Song will walk barefoot over hot coals, climb ladders that have blades instead of rungs and pierce their cheeks and tongues with swords, skewers and other household items. This really is not something for the faint of heart, or needless to say, for young children so do consider carefully whether you think you want to watch – or indeed participate! – in this somewhat gruesome aspect of the vegetarian festival.

The Mah Song believe that the Chinese gods will protect them from lasting harm, and they invite the spirits to possess their bodies to protect them. It is believed that due to this possession and protection, little blood is shed and no large scarring is left by these acts of self mutilation. In recent years, injuries have taken place however, with one death being reported in Phuket during the 2011 festival. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, most of these injuries were not caused by skewers through the tongues, but by firecrackers being carelessly let off among the busy crowds. Again this is something to take care of and avoid if possible.

This being Thailand, parades are a big part of the celebrations in Phuket and you’ll be able to watch the Mah Song as they walk the streets in a trance like state, displaying their elaborate costumes and their incredible piercings. It is not just the devoted who participate however, as hundreds of the locals will also join in with the activities such as running across the beds of hot coals and even climbing the bladed ladder.

So if none of this has put you off and you’re still tempted to head for Phuket next October for some good vegetarian food, where can you expect to see the bulk of the activity? There are over 40 Chinese shrines and six Chinese temples dotted around the island and ceremonies and rituals will take place in and around all of them. The main temple, however, is in Phuket Town, near the fresh vegetable and meat market, and is called the Jui Tui Shrine. Four of the other big shrines, which are also actually the oldest in Phuket, are the Put Jaw, Bang Niew, Cherng Talay and Kathu shrines. They are also in Phuket Town with the exception of Cherng Talay which is in the island’s Thalang district, and the Kathu shrine, which is in Kathu district.

The festival’s opening event is the raising of the Lantern Pole which signifies to the nine emperor gods that the festival is about to start. Once this approximately ten meter tall pole is raised the participants believe that the Hindu god Shiva will descend upon the event imbuing the proceedings with spiritual power.

Over the next couple of days the Chinese Thai locals will take their household gods to their temple along with offerings of food and drink. This is believed to ‘recharge’ the gods and give them an injection of the extra spiritual energy that is floating around the temples at this special time of year. As a tourist, you will be able to watch these rituals and nobody should mind if you join in by lighting the incense sticks or candles that are placed around the household gods.

Of course, this is Thailand – the land where people love to eat! – and this being predominantly a food festival, means that you would be very unlucky to go hungry during your visit. If you like your meals to contain some meat and can’t envisage having green Thai chicken curry without the chicken, don’t worry as you’ll still be able to find your meaty favourites, however vegetarians and vegans will be delighted at the range of foods suddenly available to them. It is not actually very easy to tell which dishes are vegetarian and which are not, especially on street food carts, as soybean and protein substitutes are used to replicate the meat found in normal Thai dishes and they both look and taste almost identical to their carnivorous counterparts. All you need to do is look for the yellow and red flags though and you can be assured that the food on that stall or in that restaurant will be vegetarian.

So, you’ve watched some stomach churning acts of self flagellation and mutilation, you’ve followed that up, perhaps unwisely, with a traditional Thai vegetarian feast, you’ve strayed from the path of righteousness by not being able to resist the cold (and incredibly strong) local Chang beer and you’re looking for something else to do in Phuket. Well as luck would have it, Phuket has a wealth of things to do and is a beautiful island to explore by both scooter and bicycle. Bustling Phuket Town will either delight you with its heady mix of beach, bars, tattoo shops, souvenir shops and pirate DVD sellers, or, on the other hand, it might well exhaust you and make you want to jump on the first plane home. But don’t beat a hasty retreat just yet for Phuket, although heavily commercialized in places, still has some patches of solitude and some of those famously deserted, white sandy beaches that Thailand is justifiably famous for.

How about a day trip to Phang Nga Bay? This stunning, deep green bay with its sheer limestone cliffs that rise out of the water are a photographers dream. The bay was brought to prominence by a certain secret agent who shall only be referred to here as 007, but it is entirely possible you’ll experience a sense of de ja vu when your boat heads for the famous ‘James Bond Island’. Back on dry land, the 45 meter high, white Big Buddha, which is visible from most of the south of Phuket, sits on the top of the Nakkerd Hills looking benevolently down over the areas of Chalong, Kata and Rawai. The drive up takes you through leafy roads, past small wooden restaurant houses, groups of street dogs and even the odd elephant. It’s an interesting drive and you’ll no doubt end up stopping several times along the way to admire the coastal views from various points.

Finally, if you’ve spent your days lazing on the beach (and quite rightly so!) and feel the need for a spot of action, why not go and see a Muay Thai boxing match? Watching Muay Thai is an experience in itself and you’ll definitely feel the energy of both the crowd and the fighters. The traditions surrounding Muay Thai help make it an unforgettable night, with the boxers entering the ring to traditional Thai music, bowing to the corners and accepting garlands of flowers around their necks before the fight starts. You can watch a Thai boxing match at either Saphan Hin Stadium in Phuket Town, which holds regular matches, or at the camp at Patong Beach.

Whether you’re visiting Phuket specifically to participate in, or attend, the vegetarian festival or whether you just happen to find yourself on the island during the nine days that it runs for, it’s sure to make your trip to this varied, entertaining and very beautiful part of Thailand all the more memorable.

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The annual Monkey Buffet Festival in Thailand

For a fun festival with a difference, and one that is unique to Thailand, why not visit the ancient town of Lopburi in November when it holds the annual Monkey Buffet Festival? And yes, you’re quite right in what you’re thinking: a Monkey Buffet Festival is exactly what it sounds like!

Let’s start off with a little history about Lopburi before we get on to its most famous residents though. Lopburi is the capital of Lopburi province and is situated about 180 kilometers (approximately 111 miles) north east of the Thai capital, Bangkok. It is one of the oldest settlements in Thailand and it is said that the town was founded over 1000 years ago by King Kalavarnadish who came from a region in Northwest India – now modern day Pakistan. When the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was established in the fourteenth century Lopburi became a stronghold of Ayutthaya’s rulers and was designated the royal capital during the reign of King Narai the Great during the middle part of the 17th century. King Narai would thenceforth stay in Lopburi for around eight months of the year.

These days, however, Lopburi is not so much a royal capital but the home to hoards of monkeys – correctly known as Crab-Eating Macaques or Long Tailed Macaques. It probably comes as no great surprise to learn that this particular breed of monkey has both a long tail (typically longer than its body) and also likes crabs! A regular sized adult is 38 to 55cm long with comparatively short arms and legs however its tail is typically 40 to 65cm. The male macaques are a lot larger than the females, weighing in at around 5 to 9 kilograms whilst the females weigh approximately 3 to 6 kg.

Crab Eating Macaques are found across Southeast Asia where they live in groups of up to twenty female monkeys, their offspring, and any number of males, although each group normally contains less males than females: for these monkeys, the female is the boss! Despite the name, the monkeys do not live purely on a diet of crab, in fact it’s not even their main source of food and they exist by living on a range of different plants and animals. It seems that the Crab Eating Macaque is not a fussy eater as although 90% of their diet consists of seeds and fruit, they are also more than happy to eat virtually anything they can get their paws on including flowers, leaves, roots and even tree bark. They will also occasionally add some meat to their diet by feasting on baby birds, nesting female birds and their eggs plus lizards, frogs and fish.

Having said all that, the monkeys of Lopburi have co-existed alongside humans for so long now that they’re not afraid of, or averse to, snatching tuna sandwiches or a paw full of noodles from the plates of people dining al fresco either! The locals actually regard the monkeys as somewhat of a nuisance – there are over 3000 of them living downtown side by side with the town’s human residents – but they are undeniably a good source of income as they do bring in the tourist trade.

Although the Kingdom of Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist (around 95% of Thai people define themselves as Buddhists) the monkeys have a history which is rooted in Hinduism. In the 10th century the Khmer Dynasty built many Hindu temples, and if you have been to Cambodia and visited Angkor Wat you will recognize the style of architecture as being very similar. These temples are in the Old Town of Lopburi and make for some fascinating visits, as well as being excellent photo opportunities, particularly as this is where the Macaques have set up their headquarters, roaming the grounds and clambering over the ancient temples as is their want.

So why are the monkeys of Lopburi not driven out of town and tolerated by the locals? It all dates back to the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit tale which is attributed to the Hindu sage Valmiki. In this epic story, which is seen as one of the two great canons of India, a heroic monkey with human traits named Hanuman helped rescue a bride to be from a 10 headed demon and it is believed today that Hanuman founded Lopburi and that the monkey residents of the town are direct descendants of his bloodline. Whether it’s true or not or if it just makes for a quirky and interesting background to entice the tourists, we will never know. Having said that, even though the monks and practicing Buddhists of Lopburi are not, of course, followers of Hinduism, they do regard tending to and feeding the monkeys as a merit making activity and take care of them (or at least do their best not to be too angry with them when they have their mobile phones stolen by them!) accordingly.

So, this brings us to the Monkey Buffet Festival and it’s whys, what’s and wherefores. Despite the monkeys’ illustrious and ancient connections with the town, the Monkey Buffet is actually a pretty new tradition and one that was actually conjured up by a local business man with an eye on attracting tourists to the otherwise sleepy town. Lopburi’s convenient location in regards to Bangkok makes it ideal for a weekend or overnight stay either from the city, if passing through on the way to the Northeast region of Isan, or as a detour when heading to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in the North.

So, who is the genius behind the annual Monkey Buffet Festival? For this we have a man by the name of Yongyuth Kitwattananusont to thank. Back in 1989 Kitwattananusont, a hotelier by trade, gained sponsorship and assistance from TAT – the Tourism Authority of Thailand – to launch his inaugural festival for the benefit of the monkeys’ stomachs, the town’s peoples’ wallets and the tourists’ holiday memories. Now the festival pulls in thousands of visitors every year bringing in much welcome income for Lopburi’s restaurants and hotels.

Khun Yongyuth also takes great enjoyment from the festival and he attempts to make each year a bigger and better spectacle from the previous one. One year saw him dressing up in a monkey costume and floating into the festival by parachute while in 2013, he aims to increase the already magnificent buffet by offering those cheeky monkeys over 4,000 kilograms worth of food!

And boy do those monkeys make the most of their buffet; they don’t care whether it’s good for the town’s collective bank balances or if it gives the tourists great photos to take home and share with their friends and family on Facebook or Twitter – they’re just happy to be able to gorge themselves and fill their furry stomachs to such excess one day a year. They’re probably also quite fond of the added opportunity to be able to grab some extra cameras or bags from unsuspecting tourists too! You have to wonder what these kleptomaniac monkeys do with all the things that they steal; do they store them all somewhere? Do they use them to trade with other monkeys? Have they secretly mastered how to take photos of their babies and upload them to Instagram?!

Regardless, the annual Monkey Buffet Festival is something that is surely looked forward to by Lopburi’s simian residents all year long. The buffet takes place in November and although dates can change from year to year, in 2013 it will be held on the 25th, which is a Monday. So what happens at the festival and where are the best spots for monkey picnic watching?

The Monkey Buffet takes place in the overgrown and ruined Khmer temple of Pra Prang Sam Yot where the majority of the monkeys live. But this is not just any old animal feeding time with fruit scattered on the ground; the monkeys are treated with reverence and respect and are even cordially invited to attend their feast with invitations that are attached to cashew nuts and distributed to the guests of honour. In fact this is a banquet worthy of a five star hotel as actual chefs lovingly spend hours preparing the food (which will be devoured in no time at all by the ungrateful diners!) The buffet is vegetarian: no baby bird or frogs here, thank you very much, and consists of fruit salads, sticky white rice and a traditional Thai desert called Thong yod, which means golden teardrop, and is made from egg yolk. Thong yod is reputedly difficult to make as it is hard to create the teardrop shape required, and it is also served at auspicious ceremonies, indicating that no time or expense is spared when it comes to honouring Lopburi’s most revered residents.

Endless oceans of bananas, mangos, dragon fruits, apples, pineapples, durians and all the other tropical fruits you can think of are spread out for the Macaques to feast upon. Some fruit will be encased in blocks of ice which the monkeys will lick in frustration, not being able to contain themselves and wait for the ice to melt. A perfect picture opportunity if you can catch one in action.

The buffet is served on long tables covered with crisp red table cloths – which don’t stay clean for long. Once the meal has been laid out it doesn’t take too long for the monkeys to make themselves completely at home and these distinctly badly behaved hairy individuals waste no time in stuffing themselves senseless then dancing on the tables, throwing leftover food and drink at each other and the watching tourists, and generally indulging in the type of behavior that would see them being swiftly thrown out of, and handed a lifetime ban, from the Hilton! It’s all for the tourists though and the bad behavior of the monkeys is delighted in by the camera wielding masses.

It is precisely this bad attitude and over familiarity with humans that drives the people of Lopburi somewhat crazy however and visitors to the town, whether during the festival or not, should be warned that these furry fiends are not backwards when it comes to being forwards and making a nuisance of themselves is practically their raison d’etre! Just wandering around town can be a hazardous occupation and you will need to keep an eye on your belongings pretty much all the time. Daylight robbery is a common occurrence and the monkeys are always on the lookout for an opportunity to add to their collection of stolen swag, so keep a firm hold of mobile phones, cameras, handbags and purses and anything else you value and don’t particularly want to donate to Lopburi’s hairy community.

It’s not just criminal acts that can be a problem however; some of the monkeys’ behavior can be downright anti-social too. They hang out along roof tops and telegraph wires, occasionally defecating on unsuspecting pedestrians, jumping on the backs of passersby and pulling their hair and indulging in, let’s just call it extreme displays of public affection, if you catch my meaning! As mentioned, providing you aren’t a victim of monkey robbery, this can all be very amusing and does make for some great photos and tales to tell back home, but the (human) locals are not quite so enamored of their neighbours’ exploits, despite the money they are responsible for bringing into the town. It’s somewhat of a simian swings and roundabouts situation.

Once the Monkey Buffet Festival is over, if you’re looking for a quiet, chilled out place to stay for a day or two, Lopburi makes a pleasant enough, low key place to relax and, Monkey Buffet aside, one that’s not really on the tourist trail. It’s a small town and is easy to walk around and is fairly interesting from the vantage point of seeing a typical Thai town go about its day to day business, albeit it a town with a historic past. Anyone interested in the ancient empires of the Kingdom might find Lopburi interesting. Of course there are the Khmer temple ruins – Prang Khaek (Shiva Shrine), San Phra Kan (Kala Shrine), Prang Sam Yot (Three Spired Shrine) and the tower at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat to visit but the Dvaravati, Sukhothai and Ayuthaya empires all also established their administrative centres here at various points in the past.

If you’re tempted by the mixture of ancient ruins and appallingly behaved Macaques, Lopburi is quick and easy to get to from Bangkok and other points across the country. Here’s how:
Frequent buses leave Bangkok’s North and Northeastern (Mo Chit) bus station and take around three and a half hours to arrive at Lopburi’s bus station which is on Naresuan Road, approximately 2km outside of the Old Town.

It is also easy to take the train. Whether coming from the north and from the direction of Ayuthaya, or from the south and Bangkok, you’ll arrive at Lopburi’s train station on Na Phra Kan Road which is handily located within walking distance to the historic sites and to hotels and guest houses. If you only want to stop off for half a day or so, the station will let you store your baggage there.

In Thailand there are several choices of trains, ordinary, rapid and express, so make sure you know which one you’re getting if time is of the essence for you. Different trains cost different amounts, with the ordinary being the cheapest. If departing from Bangkok, take the train from the main Hualamphong station; there are a number of departures to Lopburi throughout the day and night. The rapid and express trains take approximately three hours and the ordinary trains about four and a half hours.

Whether you go to Lopburi to see the ancient ruins or especially for the Monkey Buffet Festival you’re sure to have unforgettable time in this laid back monkey paradise!

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Songkran Festival in Thailand

The start of the traditional Thai New Year – otherwise known as Songkran – is a riotous event enjoyed by young and old, rich and poor and Royalty and commoners alike all over the Kingdom of Thailand. Today if you mention ‘Thai New Year’ to someone who isn’t Thai, chances are they’ll say “Oh yes – the water throwing festival, right?” and whilst it’s true that Songkran these days is a lot of fun which involves buckets full of water and beauty queen parades, its origins lie way back in agricultural history.

So, before we get to the fun, splashy part, let’s take a look at where, why and how Songkran came to be the water festival that we know and love today.

The word Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word, Sankranti, which means movement or change, although in this situation it refers to the transmigration of the Sun from one Rāshi (a constellation of the zodiac in Indian astronomy) to the next. Therefore, there are 12 Sankrantis in a year and each Sankranti denotes the beginning of a month.

Back in ancient times the day that Songkran fell on was set on the day that the sun migrated into the sign of Aries which was seen as the beginning of the year, however these days, Songkran is always celebrated on the 13th of April – the official beginning of the Thai New Year. It is also celebrated in the other Theravada Buddhist countries of Cambodia, Lao and Burma/Myanmar and in the Thai homeland of Sipsong Panna in the South West Chinese province of Yunnan where the Dai minority live.

Another point to note is that in Thailand, the Buddhist calendar is used as opposed to the Western Gregorian one, so now, as I write this in 2013 here in Thailand it is actually 2556. Officially New Year in Thailand was changed to the 1st of January in 1940 to align with the West and to increase business and trade opportunities but Songkran is still the most beloved of Thai national holidays and is quite rightly still celebrated as Thai New Year.

Unlike Western New Year, Songkran lasts for 4 days, with each day given a name and defined by a meaning and actions. The first day is Maha Songkran which signifies the end of the old year. The following day, April the 14th, is Wan Nao and this is an in-between day stuck in a kind of calendar limbo between the old year and the new year which is yet to begin. This day is traditionally spent preparing offerings of food for the monks who reside in the local temples.

Day three is Wan Thaloeng Sok – the 15th of April and the actual start of the New Year whilst the final day of the celebrations, Wan Parg-bpee, is spent honouring one’s ancestors and elders.

Songkran falls at a similar time as Holi which is an ancient festival celebrated in India, and they do in fact share some similar customs, such as the releasing of small captured fish into streams and rivers. In Thailand birds may be released from their cages too. Similarly, Holi is celebrated by throwing coloured water, and as we already know, this is something that the Thai people enthusiastically embrace during their Songkran festivities too!

So where does all this water throwing come from, what’s it all about and has Songkran always been so wild?! Well, originally throwing water was a Spring Festival ritual that even pre-dates the Buddha. It was seen as a symbol of good luck and of hope for rain for the crops that had been planted that year. After Buddhism was introduced to the Thai Kingdom, its meaning morphed somewhat into a religious act and the water was instead used in an annual cleansing of statues of the Buddha.

The water is considered blessed after the statues have been washed and is then used to convey respect to ones elders by pouring a small amount of it over their shoulder and down their back, on the 4th day of Wan Parg-bpee. This water will be scented, often with Jasmine flowers, although these days, leaving the religious reasons aside, water will often be filled with talcum powder too so it leaves a sticky white paste all over the ‘victim’.

Whether the water is being sprinkled over a statue of the Buddha, gently poured over the shoulder of a respected elder or tipped over your head in a bucket filled with ice, it symbolizes purity and cleansing and the desire to rid oneself of any bad thoughts and deeds of the past year.

Water is the main thing that springs to mind when thinking about Thai New Year but there are other rituals attached to the holiday period too. In the past many Thais would take sand to their local temple to symbolically replace all the sand that they’ve ‘carried away’ on the soles of their shoes throughout the year. This sand would then be built into sand pagodas – known in Thai as Phrachedi Sai. Prachedi meaning pagoda and sai meaning sand.

These days Phrachedi Sai are still created in some places although the sand is more likely to be provided by the temple. Nowadays it is a family activity and it is mainly women and children who build the pagodas. Dressed in their best clothes they’ll gather at the temple, buy incense sticks, flowers, flags, banners and candles from the stalls set up and prepared by the monks and then, using silver bowls that they have brought with them, collect some sand from the piles also prepared by the monks.

A prachedi sai can be any size, big or small, and is created by mixing water with the sand. Inside, a coin and a fig leaf will be placed (the fig is a religious tree) and once finished the pagoda will be sprinkled with scented water. Then the decoration can begin, with flags and banners being placed in the pagoda’s ‘walls’. After that, the base will be covered with a small yellow or red cloth, candles and incense sticks are placed in the sand as offerings and a short prayer will be said. In many temples prachedi sai building has turned into a competition, with the builders of the most beautiful pagoda being awarded a prize.

Like most countries, this being New Year, Thailand also has a whole host more of rituals and traditions. Most of them a lot more symbolic than the Western ideal of just getting as drunk as possible on New Year’s Eve – although that’s not to say that the Thai’s don’t like to party because they do! In fact Thai people have a word sanuk which means fun, and they believe that everything in life should be done with a sense of sanuk, even if you’re at work. This must be why Thailand is known as ‘The Land of Smiles’.

If you’re in Thailand for Songkran and somebody wants to tie a string around your wrist, you should be very honoured. You should hold out your arm with your palm facing upwards and let them tie the string. Whilst doing so they will be reciting a short prayer or blessing to wish you good fortune throughout the coming year. You may see very fortunate (or popular!) people with as many as 30 strings on their wrists. One word of warning though, you should not untie the string but wait until it falls apart and drops off of its own accord.

At New Year, as is traditional in many cultures, the home will be thoroughly spring cleaned – again signifying a desire to enter the coming year cleansed of all one’s ‘dirt’ or ills and it is also important to make offerings to your local temple or wat, as it is called in Thai, and the monks that live there. It is customary to offer preserved food stuffs and cooked meals as well as new saffron robes for the monks.

Parades are also a big part of Songkran and if you’re in The Kingdom at this time of year, you’ll see brightly coloured floats festooned with flowers and carrying statues of the Buddha. Don’t be shocked if you see people throwing water at the images – this is all part of the cleansing ritual – albeit one that is a little more rigorous than the sprinkling of water that takes place in the temples!

Beauty pageants are also popular, with girls in every town or district vying to be crowned the Miss Songkran of their area. But just because they’re beautifully made-up and wearing traditional dress, it doesn’t exclude these beauties from getting a soaking too and it’s not unusual to see floats of pretty girls cowering behind their parasols in an attempt to dodge the buckets of water that are being enthusiastically hurled at them!

Which brings us nicely to the really fun part: the crazy water fights and the slippery sidewalks. As we’ve seen, water plays a huge part in the Songkran celebrations and if you’re in Thailand, unless you want to shut yourself in your hotel room for four days, chances are, you’re going to get wet. Very wet. Early in the morning open backed trucks will start doing the rounds, with music blaring and huge vats of water (usually icy!) in the back. People will set up tables with their weapons of choice – be it super soaker water gun or your common or garden bucket – or even, if they’re lucky enough to have an outside tap, a garden hose pipe.

As the day progresses things get wilder and chances of seeing someone in dry clothing are very small indeed! As a farang – a foreigner – you may venture out of your house or hotel only to find you remain fairly dry for the first little while; perhaps someone will dab some scented water on your face as a mark of respect and you’ll think you’ve got away with it, but once somebody takes a shine to you or decides you’re too dry, your number is up!

From morning to night the streets are packed with people shouting “Suk san wan Songkran!” – “Happy New Year “or “Happy Songkran”, tipping water over each other or shooting each other with water pistols. People line the roadsides waiting for trucks to pass so that they can embark upon a frenzy of bucket throwing and water shooting, with the truck eventually moving off in search of a new set of victims and the roadside crowd eagerly awaiting their next open-backed vehicle or motorcycle!

You may also bump into someone – usually an older person – carrying a small silver bowl filled with white powder or paste. This is one of the oldest Songkran traditions and the paste is actually to ward off evil and offer protection. The person with the bowl will gently dab some of the paste onto the receiver’s face, neck or other part of the body. Tradition dictates that you should leave the paste on until it naturally washes off itself – which let’s face it probably won’t be before too long! Just like the tying of the strings, you should feel honoured if someone approaches you and wants to dab paste on your face; it is an act of kindness and don’t worry as the paste is water soluble and won’t damage your clothes or skin.

Of course, just as the water pouring has turned into water throwing, the traditional paste dabbing has taken on a new life in this fun loving country and some of those buckets will also contain talc, which passers-by will delight in throwing over you if you look even remotely damp. Sticky!

It can’t be denied that Songkran is great fun and typically embodies the Thai people’s love of laughter and fun, however one thing to take extreme care of is if you’re riding a motorbike or scooter. Traffic accidents go through the roof at Songkran due to all the water being flung around and drivers being temporarily blinded or skidding on wet roads, and the emergency services and hospitals are inundated with casualties – and worse – at this time of year. If at all possible stick to foot power during the festivities and be extra careful when crossing Thailand’s already busy roads.

Another thing to note is that although Songkran lasts for four days, the length of celebrations differ around the country. For example in Hua Hin, the coastal town three hours south of Bangkok where the King has his summer palace, the water throwing only lasts for one day – the 13th – however in the Northern city of Chiang Mai, celebrations last for the whole four day period. If you’re thinking of visiting Thailand for Songkran, therefore, work out where you want to be and how much of the action you can take! Another word of warning; some parts of Bangkok are reputed to get extremely crazy and the water fights can take on battles of epic proportions and may not be suitable for children, the elderly or the faint of heart!

If you do want to see some of the most manic Bangkok action, head for the backpacker haven of Khao San Road in Banglampoo district, which will be insanely crowded, or hit the downtown areas of Sukhumvit Soi 4, Soi Cowboy and Silom as they should also be good, i.e. crazy, places to head for.

Another tip is to make sure everything, and I mean EVERYTHING – is made waterproof before you leave the safety of indoors. Trust me, you WILL get wet and I’m talking about taking a shower with your clothes on proportions of wetness. It’s so tempting to take a camera out to capture the action but ask yourself if it’s really worth ending up with an expensive casualty on your hands. If you do want to take photos, get yourself onto a balcony just above street level to get some good shots, otherwise don’t risk it if you’re heading into the thick of things. And even if you’re not, you never know when you might get a soaking!

On a similar note, stock up on plastic bags or even zip lock bags and ensure wallets, purses and phones are safely wrapped up and stored away, either in a pocket, or better still a waterproof backpack or shoulder bag.

One other thing to point out is that most shops and services will be closed for the four day period (apart from good old Seven Eleven) and transport is very likely to be booked up way in advance as migrant workers and students in the big cities head home to the countryside for the holidays.

From its humble beginnings as a way for farmers to ask for rain, by way of a sedate religious ceremony and all the way to an wild celebration that sees most of the population covered in water and talcum powder or flour, Songkran has come a long way. Come, enjoy it, have lots of sanuk and take it in the spirit that it’s intended and is famous for. And if you don’t like the sound of being drenched in water by complete strangers, I’ll be willing to bet that you’ll actually be glad of that icy cold bucket of water being thrown over you – it’s certainly a respite from the scorching temperatures that bake Thailand and her inhabitants in steamy, sweaty, sultry April!

Suk san wan Songkran!

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