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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National Day – Malaysia

National Day is celebrated every year in Malaysia on the 31st of August to commemorate the momentous occasion when the Federation of Malaya achieved independence from British rule in 1957. On the 30th of August, Malaysia’s then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman took to the Royal Selangor Club Padang, now known as the Merdeka square at 11.58pm and observed two minutes of darkness. At the stroke of midnight, the Union Jack was lowered and raised with the Flag of Malaya. The morning after, Tunku Abdul Rahman read aloud the Proclaimation of Independence, followed by seven chants of Merdeka, with the crown at the square joining following each chant. The moment is considered to be one of Malaysia’s most memorable and significant points in history.

National Day shouldn’t be confused with Malaysia Day, which is celebrated on September 16 and declared an official public holiday since 2010. Malaysia Day marks the day where Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya had joined together to form the federation of Malaysia, although Singapore has since become its own country.

This year would be the 55th year that Malaysia celebrates her independence from British rule. However, times have changed Malaysia into a newer, more politically aware and conscious young nation. It can certainly be argued that the patriotic spirit has dwindled especially in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, partly due to increased dissatisfaction and racial discrimination felt by a growing number of young Malaysian Chinese and Indians. Unity among races and a greater patriotic spirit among Malaysians are certainly stronger now than two decades or three decades ago. Nevertheless, Malaysian citizens would be quick to proclaim their love for their country, despite their misgivings for the country’s current administration.

Government buildings and corporations would start decorating the buildings with the colours of the national flag in the weeks before National Day. Decorations with themes of red, blue, yellow and white along with the national and state flags would hang off almost every window and building in the city. Malaysia’s national flag is proudly known as the “Jalur Gemilang” and the flag is usually the central theme and pride of the nation and her people. Old and torn flags are frowned upon and will usually be replaced by newer and brightly coloured flags. Vehicles are not to be missed out, and during the month leading to the celebrations, it will not be unusual to see vehicles decked out as colourful as buildings in the colours of the Jalur Gemilang.

In the past decade or so, to young urban Malaysians, National Day usually means looking forward to commercials from Petronas, an oil and gas company which is solely owned by the Government of Malaysia. Around this time, Petronas-commissioned commercials with themes centralized around unity and love among the three biggest races in Malaysia are aired. These commercials were originally the brainchild of the late Yasmin Ahmad, a very much loved and veered figure in the entertainment industry, until her untimely death in 2009.

Public schools usually have class-decorating, essay writing and poetry competitions, all with National Day themes. The more creative classes would be completely decked out in red, blue, yellow and white decorations and poems and essays about unity and tolerance are usually written. There will also be nationwide competitions held by many corporate and government bodies to commemorate the glorious event.

On the eve of National Day, fireworks will light up the sky at the stroke of midnight, usually set off in Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur. In recent years, the fireworks have been moved to Putrajaya where they are equally, and if not more beautiful, dazzling the crowd who would stop their cars on the highway and people who would gather at the parks in Putrajaya to witness this few minutes of splendor. It is truly a sight to behold. In 2008, the fireworks were moved to Titiwangsa lake in Kuala Lumpur, where a giant ferris wheel named the Eye of Malaysia had been set up a year before. The fireworks and the lights from the city and the ferris wheel added a touch of scenic splendor to the entire patriotic affair.

The National Day Parade

The highlight of National Day is the National Day parade organized every year. Every year, there will be an official theme and slogan for National Day and this year will be no different. The slogans usually resonate with the country’s current prime minister and his policies. Since Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is known for his policies to transform and change the country ever since he took office in 2008, the themes for National Day have been about transformation and the catchphrase “1 Malaysia” signifying unity and tolerance among different races. In 2011, the theme was “1 Malaysia, Transformasi Berjaya, dan Rakyat Sejahtera” (1 Malaysia, A Successful Transformation, Peace among the People). This year’s theme is yet to be announced but there is no doubt it will again be centered on transformation. One of the more famous slogans and themes was the recurrent theme from 2000-2006 which was “Keranamu Malaysia” or “Because of you, Malaysia”. The inaugural guest of honour presiding over the National Day parade will be the Yang di Pertuan Agong (King) of Malaysia along with government dignitaries and other VIPs.

The parade is slightly different every year depending on the circumstances and decisions made by the federal government. The parade is usually held in the streets of the city culminating in Merdeka Square, where it all began in 1957. However, since 1985, the celebrations have been moved to other states in the country so that citizens all around the country have a chance to participate and revel in the celebrations as well. In the year 2009, it was a smaller scale celebration limited to only 4000 people as there was the H1N1 flu pandemic at the time. In 2010, the parade only lasted for 40 minutes as it was in the midst of Ramadan month where Muslims have to observe fasting rites during the day. Of recent years, the national parade has been held in Putrajaya three times seeing that it was the main administrative capital of the country.

Every year, a human graphic display of the Jalur Gemilang will be readied by members of Soka Gakkai Malaysia, and will usually be formed on the parade grounds or on the streets where the celebrations are held. The Royal Malay Regiment or another military unit of the three services of the Malaysian Armed Forces will form the Guard of Honor Company, usually joined with a military band. When the Yang di Pertuan Agong and the Raja Permaisuri Agong (Queen) arrives at the venue, the Guards of Honor render the Royal Salute to His Majesty and Her Majesty, and the national anthem, Negaraku is played by the military band. Immediately after this, the Guards of Honor order arms, readying for inspection by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

The Royal Inspection

When the inspection starts, the military band plays “Menungjung Duli March”. After the inspection, the national anthem is played again, and the human graphic display will then arrange itself to show the words, “Daulat Tuanku” (Long Live the King). The Guards of Honor will then perform a march past after the display.

A 21-gun salute will also be performed by members of the Royal Artillery Regiment after the flag has been raised to the national anthem. The Rukunegara (National Principles) will then be recited by the emcee and is usually started with a pledge, Maka Kami (translated into ‘And therefore, we…’), the left hand at shoulder level. Following the reciting of the Rukunegara, seven shouts of Merdeka! (translated into ‘Independence!’) will follow with the left hand raised.

The Rukunegara

The Rukunegara was proclaimed in the year 1970, a year after the deathly riots between the races that make up Malaysia’s population on May 13, 1969. The government of Malaysia at the time sought to resolve the tension and instill unity among the races in the aftermath of the riots. As a result of these efforts, the Rukunegara is a declaration of national philosophy for the people to follow and live by these principles. The pledge is recited at every official function and weekly at assemblies in schools around the country.

The literal Malay verse of the Rukunegara is as follows:

BAHAWASANYA NEGARA KITA MALAYSIA mendukung cita-cita hendak:

  • mencapai perpaduan yang lebih erat di kalangan seluruh masyarakatnya;
  • memelihara satu cara hidup demokratik;
  • mencipta satu masyarakat adil di mana kemakmuran Negara akan dapat dinikmati bersama secara adil dan saksama;
  • menjamin satu cara liberal terhadap tradisi-tradisi kebudayaannya yang kaya dan berbagai corak; dan
  • membina satu masyarakat progresif yang akan menggunakan sains dan teknologi moden.

MAKA KAMI, rakyat Malaysia, berikrar akan menumpukan seluruh tenaga dan usaha kami untuk mencapai cita-cita tersebut berdasarkan atas prinsip-prinsip yang berikut:

  • KEPERCAYAAN KEPADA TUHAN
  • KESETIAAN KEPADA RAJA DAN NEGARA
  • KELUHURAN PERLEMBAGAAN
  • KEDAULATAN UNDANG-UNDANG
  • KESOPANAN DAN KESUSILAAN

And when translated into English, it is as follows:

Our nation, Malaysia, is being dedicated to:

  • Achieving a greater unity of all her people;
  • Maintaining a democratic way of life;
  • Creating a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably shared;
  • Ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural tradition;
  • Building a progressive society which shall be oriented to modern science and technology.

We, the people of Malaysia, pledge our united efforts to attain these ends, guided by these principles:

  • BELIEF IN GOD
  • LOYALTY TO KING AND COUNTRY
  • UPHOLDING THE CONSTITUTION
  • SOVEREIGNTY OF THE LAW, and
  • GOOD BEHAVIOUR AND MORALITY

The Rukunegara has become an important and integral part of the nation as it is beyond politics. It talks about a democratic nation founded on a steadfast faith in God, honor and love for the King and Country, and a wholly just and democratic society which upholds the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

The parade

The fun starts after the formal and solemn proceedings have ended. Patriotic songs accompanied by members of the ethnic percussion group will be sung, and the stage will be filled with young dancers dressed in the many colourful costumes that make up the various races and ethnic groups of the country. Every year, there will be a new theme song and this song will be sung as well.

The skies would not be missed out in the celebrations as well, and planes of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, the Malaysian Army Air Force and the Royal Malaysian Navy will take to the skies in a salute to the nation. The fleet is led by military helicopters flying the Malaysian flag, the flags of the Armed Forces and the flags of the 13 states of Malaysia and the flags of its 3 federal territories, with the rest of the military aircraft following behind.

The march past then begins with the three divisions of the Armed Forces, the Royal Malaysian Police, civilian and business organizations. Each contingent will march past the parade stage where the Royal Highnesses preside over the celebrations and give a royal salute. There will also be floats, representing their organization and is decorated with intricate designs and decorations which symbolizes the heart of their organization.

Where to be and what to do

Tourists should be sure not to miss out the exciting parade every year and join the crowd at Dataran Merdeka to watch the parade on the morning of National Day and partake in the festivities. The roads in and around Dataran Merdeka will usually be closed in preparation for the festivities but due to the prominence of the location, Dataran Merdeka is easily accessible via public transport as it is in the vicinity of KTM stations and LRT stations nearby as well as a bus station. In other states such as Penang and Sabah which are also known as tourist hotspots in Malaysia, other Merdeka Day festivities will be held as well. An annual regatta organized by the Kinabalu Yacht Club will take place in Sabah from the 31st August until 2nd of September to commemorate the occasion. In Penang, a parade will usually also be held in the city centre with a considerably higher number of tourist turn out due to the island being a popular holiday destination.

For every patriotic Malaysian, no matter how they celebrate, each year brings a special meaning to National Day. This year will surely be no different and perhaps even more important and relevant to the people as the country’s national elections will be declared this year as well.

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Celebrating Mahal na Araw – “Holy Week” in the Philippines

The Philippines is known to be the only predominantly Christian country in the whole of Asia, with its roots of the religion tracing back from circa. 1500. It was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who, by mistake, landed on the island of Cebu during his travels along the spice route. In search of trade materials and foreign lands to colonize, he bargained with Chief Humabon, leader of Cebu, which ended with around 800 newly-baptized Filipino Christians.

The story now lives on in the Philippine’s version of the Holy Week celebration, wherein the foundations of Christianity, namely the life and passion of Jesus Christ, is re-lived and celebrated in one of the grandest, holiest, and most spiritual time in the Philippine calendar.

The Philippine Holy Week celebration is a period of wherein devotees reenact the significant moments of Jesus Christ’s life, from the time of his preaching, going through the time of his death, and until his resurrection. Christians all over the Philippines also use this opportune time in the calendar to reflect what it really means to become a Christian, and to grasp a deeper understanding of one’s significance in the saving from sins done by Christ himself.

Practices done in the Philippines

Despite being called the holy week, the celebration is not just encompassed within 7 days, rather it goes back 40 days prior the first week of April, which starts exactly on Ash Wednesday. This day is the signal of the start of the Lenten Season, wherein Christians devote their time and effort to fasting, abstinence, contemplation, and repentance. This is the time when most Filipinos, including tourists who wish to join in the celebration of Holy Week, reflect on their lives the past years and try to live the upcoming days with a renewed since of gratitude to God, and a self-made promise to revert their sinful lives.

Ash Wednesday is usually celebrated with hearing the Holy Mass for the day, with millions of people going to churches to receive black ashes on their foreheads. These marks are in the shape of a crucifix, and remind devotees that from dust we were made, and to dust we shall return. The ashes used on the foreheads of the devotees are made up of no ordinary ashes; the ashes come from the burnt palm leaves used during the prior year’s Palm Sunday celebration. This is to mark the contemplation of last year’s life and assess whether life was a life full of sin, or a life full of God’s grace.

The next 40 days will now be the official start of the Lenten Season, wherein Filipinos and tourists alike will start the journey of preparation for the coming rebirth of Jesus Christ. The weeks following Ash Wednesday will be devoted for fasting and abstinence, although the fasting is now commonly observed by just the absolute devotees to the religion, where only minimal food and water intake is to be allowed. Now in contemporary Philippine culture, most Christians do not observe the fasting ritual as much anymore. This is because a lot of the devotees are also part of the working-class people, and not working for a couple of days due to hunger and thirst brought about by the fasting could result to huge financial losses for themselves and for their families. Nowadays, Filipino Christians observe their own “personal” fasting; this kind of fasting involves selecting one habit/object that the person is willing to give up as a sign of Lenten sacrifice. The common fasts of the today’s Christian youth involve giving up certain bad habits during the Lenten season like smoking or drinking alcohol, while others give up eating or drinking their favorite food items like hamburgers or soft drinks, all for the sake of sacrificing for the celebration of Christ’s rebirth. Abstinence though, is still very much observed by a lot of people. It is the habit of not eating meat during Fridays of the Lenten season.

One of the more common practices of Filipino Christians is the panata or strictly translating, the vow. It is the process by which a devotee would increase his or her efforts in achieving a particular goal or mission that of which constitutes their panata. Most people who are not that religious tend to make their panata more career-oriented, like increasing the effort they exert on their jobs, or personal vows like being a good friend to someone, and also civic duties which include community service. Still, there are still true-blooded Christians who make sure that their panata remain religion-oriented, like going to various churches all around the country, praying set-prayers at set times of the day, and so on and so forth. These are the kinds of religious sacrifices that a true Christian undergoes, not just for the celebration of Christ’s life, but also for the improvement, reflection, and reformation of one’s own life in a kind that befits the word “Christian”.

Days of Holy Week

The official start of the Holy Week is the 6th Sunday, which is Palm Sunday. It is a festive event within the churches all over the Philippines, contrary to the Lenten sacrifices celebrated before the 6th Sunday. This celebration commemorates Jesus’ re-entry into Jerusalem, albeit knowing that the Jewish officials at the time were already scheming against His downfall from grace. The people welcomed Jesus and His disciples into Jerusalem by means of waving large palm leaves as he entered the town proper. The bigger the church being visited, the more spectacular the display gets, as hundreds or even thousands of palm leaves get raised into the air, waiting to be blessed by the presiding priest. After the mass, the people take their newly-blessed palm leaves and attach them onto window sills and roofs, with the Filipino belief that the blessed palm would bring good luck to the family and household, as well as removing any negativity that might accumulate within the house.

The next days that would come would be Holy Monday and Tuesday, where these days are just reserved for people to relax, de-stress, and reflect for the coming important days of Holy Week. Usually the business establishments and government offices remain open during these days. Wednesday is known as Spy Wednesday, which is to commemorate the time when Judas Iscariot spied on Jesus while he was praying at the garden of Gethsemane, just before Judas decided to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Thursday would then be known as Maundy Thursday, which is to commemorate the celebration of the Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples, on the day before he died. The Last Supper is also recognized as the point when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which was when he decided to impart onto His disciples his own body and blood in the form of the bread and wine.

The day that most business establishments and government offices give a holiday is when Good Friday comes. This is the day when Jesus was tortured, made to walk up to Golgotha, which was the place where He was crucified and where He died at approximately 3pm. This is a time of mourning for the entire Roman Catholic Church, where the statues of saints, of Mary, and of Jesus in churches are covered with cloth as a sign of grief. This lasts until after the following day, Black Saturday, where Jesus is already laid inside his tomb and is still considered dead.

The highlight of Holy Week would definitely be Easter Sunday, where we celebrate the rebirth of Jesus Christ and his triumph against sin. Filipinos celebrate the time when the disciples came to visit the tomb of Jesus, only to find out that the big boulder that was used to cover the tomb’s entrance was moved aside by a powerful force. The disciples then just see torn up sheets of cloth, with an angel sitting where Jesus was supposed to be lying down.

There is a buzz all over the country, especially the most Catholic parts of the archipelago. There is a joyful celebration after the mass, and all the cloths covering the statues are all lifted. The priest also wears bright colored robes to signify that the time of mourning and repentance is done, and the time of rejoicing and the starting of a life anew have come. The various malls in the Metro also cook up a lot of activities for people come Easter Sunday, like Easter egg hunts, egg paintings, and various performances. Fasting and abstinence practices also come to a close, thereby permitting people to make merry by eating again the food that they could not eat during Lent.

The next days that would come would be Holy Monday and Tuesday, where these days are just reserved for people to relax, de-stress, and reflect for the coming important days of Holy Week. Usually the business establishments and government offices remain open during these days. Wednesday is known as Spy Wednesday, which is to commemorate the time when Judas Iscariot spied on Jesus while he was praying at the garden of Gethsemane, just before Judas decided to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Thursday would then be known as Maundy Thursday, which is to commemorate the celebration of the Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples, on the day before he died. The Last Supper is also recognized as the point when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which was when he decided to impart onto His disciples his own body and blood in the form of the bread and wine.

The day that most business establishments and government offices give a holiday is when Good Friday comes. This is the day when Jesus was tortured, made to walk up to Golgotha, which was the place where He was crucified and where He died at approximately 3pm. This is a time of mourning for the entire Roman Catholic Church, where the statues of saints, of Mary, and of Jesus in churches are covered with cloth as a sign of grief. This lasts until after the following day, Black Saturday, where Jesus is already laid inside his tomb and is still considered dead.

The highlight of Holy Week would definitely be Easter Sunday, where we celebrate the rebirth of Jesus Christ and his triumph against sin. Filipinos celebrate the time when the disciples came to visit the tomb of Jesus, only to find out that the big boulder that was used to cover the tomb’s entrance was moved aside by a powerful force. The disciples then just see torn up sheets of cloth, with an angel sitting where Jesus was supposed to be lying down.

There is a buzz all over the country, especially the most Catholic parts of the archipelago. There is a joyful celebration after the mass, and all the cloths covering the statues are all lifted. The priest also wears bright colored robes to signify that the time of mourning and repentance is done, and the time of rejoicing and the starting of a life anew have come. The various malls in the Metro also cook up a lot of activities for people come Easter Sunday, like Easter egg hunts, egg paintings, and various performances. Fasting and abstinence practices also come to a close, thereby permitting people to make merry by eating again the food that they could not eat during Lent.

Philippine Holy Week Traditions

The pabasa is the recitation of the life and sufferings of Jesus Christ by ways of verse, which comes directly from the Roman Catholic Bible. A group of people are designated to sing parts of the verse, while being accompanied by music in the background. This is a family-style tradition, wherein most families of a particular community or barangay participate in the singing. If a particular family is not yet designated to be the ones to host the singing, they would help contribute in the fixing of food for the guests or will help in the cleaning of the image/statue of Jesus Christ which they would worship upon. The most loyal of devotees would even start their pabasa at Thursday and do not stop up until Friday.

Senakulo is another well-known tradition of Filipino Christians during Holy Week. If the pabasa was the recital of Jesus Christ’s life and suffering in verse, then the Senakulo is the dramatization of his life and sufferings. These plays are most commonly performed in the streets of the barangays or at the compound of the churches themselves. Back in the olden days, people would really dress-up in well-made costumes depicting roman soldiers and officials complete with body armor and robes. Nowadays, with the advent of technology and communication, the presentation of the Senakulo can now be prepared digitally, with LCD projectors being used to present the scenes on a large white screen so that more people can see the performances of the actors.

In the provinces of Pampanga and Rizal, they take Senakulo performances to a whole new level. The true devotees in these provinces would resort to publicly lashing themselves with nails and letting themselves get crucified in public, to show the world their penance and resentment towards a sinful life. These people allow themselves to get whipped repeatedly in the back until they start bleeding, all the while wearing just jeans and a mask around their head. The locals also say that they do this as part of their panata, or their vow to God as a way of thanking Him for the countless blessings He has given them.

The Bisita Iglesia is also another tradition that most Christians observe, since a lot of devotees who are in the younger generation find this tradition fun and exciting. This is also one of the easiest rituals that one can perform. From the name itself, this involves visiting numerous churches all around the neighboring area. This is the time when there is not much traffic on the road, and the staff of the churches just leave minimal lighting turned on to accommodate visitors even at late hours of the night. It is said that if you complete the Bisita Iglesia rounds will have a lucky year ahead of him/her.

Along with the Bisita Iglesia, the practice of the Stations of the Cross accompanies the visiting of the various churches. This is the scene-by-scene reenactment of the events leading up to the crucifixion and ultimately, the rebirth of Jesus Christ. This is done with literal stations, with each one having a picture of the scene being depicted. A short narrative is then said, followed afterwards by short prayers or praying of the rosary. Sometimes, the various stations are found just within the same complex, like a church compound. Other instances involve stations that are far away from each other, sometimes totaling a couple of kilometers worth of walking from the first station to the last station. During these kinds of rituals, the holy rosary is recited along the way onto the next station.

Another modern tradition that Filipino Christians now observe is the showing of religious movies on television. Television networks have taken it up upon themselves to make sure that all people, even those who do not have the time or effort to go out of the house, can at least still manage to watch various television shows and movies depicting the life of Jesus Christ.

A solemn time for everyone

Amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a lot of people tend to become burned out with the things that they are doing and sometimes ask God if they are doing the right thing or if there really is a plan for their existence. Ang Mahal Na Araw is an event not just in the Filipino calendar, but in the Roman Catholic calendar as well, that provides people with the breather that they rightfully deserve.

The Philippine celebration of Holy Week is a time of contemplation and self-assessment, where introspection plays a vital part of the process of changing one’s sinful past. Remembering the life and suffering of Jesus Christ is something that both Filipinos and tourists alike can agree on, that the trials and hardships of one man can serve as an example to a kind of life that leads to personal salvation and redemption. The solemnity of the Filipino Holy Week is something unique—since a lot of the country’s population has its roots deeply set in its religion. This only strengthens the fact that a lot of tourists come to the Philippines for Holy Week; it is here that they can truly appreciate what is good, what is the meaning of suffering, and what is the meaning of salvation. Changing society always demands a change of oneself first, and the kind of atmosphere that Holy Week brings is enough to induce that change within people.

The Mahal na Araw is definitely an event worth celebrating, along with the hospitality that comes along with being Filipino and being a Christian, this time of the year marks the start of change for people—change that is both beneficial to themselves and to the people around them.

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Visually Mesmerizing Festival of Loi Krathong in Thailand

The festival of Loi Krathong (also sometimes spelt as Loy Krathong) is arguably the most beautiful festival in Thailand – and Thailand has a lot of festivals! Taking place once a year on the evening of the full moon in the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, or known to you and me as November in the Western calendar, Loi Krathong is a picturesque celebration that is celebrated across the whole of Thailand as well as in parts of the neighbouring countries of Burma (Myanmar) and Laos.

But what is Loi Krathong and what does it mean? Loi is the literal spelling in the Western alphabet of the Thai word ‘to float’ and a krathong is a word used only for the floating rafts or containers that are used for this festival; it is not used to refer to anything else in the Thai language. The main part of the Loi Krathong festival involves floating these rafts, or krathongs, down rivers and canals, on ponds and lakes and even in the ocean.

A krathong is normally around 20cm in diameter and was traditionally made from spider lily plants or from layers taken from the trunk of a banana tree. Nowadays, to make it easier to create a krathong, they are either made from bread, which of course is eco-friendly and will disintegrate in the water and be eaten by fish, or from Styrofoam, which is often banned as it takes years to decompose leaving the rivers and canals polluted and clogged. Coconut can also be used. The krathong will be beautifully decorated with folded banana leaves, a candle, flowers and sticks of incense. Some people also place a coin on their krathong as a monetary offering to the river spirits.

There are a number of reasons behind the festival and for launching a krathong. Letting go of the raft symbolizes letting go of negative thoughts, grudges and anger and some people also place nail clippings or a lock their hair on the float to further symbolize this feeling of ‘letting go’ of the past. When launching their krathong, people will also make a wish for good fortune, good luck or some other personal reason or aim. Loi krathong is also about paying respect and giving thanks to the goddess of water, Phra Mae Khongkha , who is the Thai version of Ganga the Hindu goddess of the holy River Ganges. The candle on the krathong is lit to offer respect to and honour the Buddha.So when did Loi Krathong originate and who is responsible for coming up with the idea of creating these beautiful floats ? Well, this is where it gets tricky because there are two different theories as to the whys and whens of how Loi Krathong came to be celebrated. One version believes that it is an ancient Brahmanic or Indic ceremony which was originally held for people to pay their respects to three gods: Phra I-Suan (Shiva), Phra Narai (Vishnu) and Phra Phrom (Brahma). Thai civilians would make paper lanterns which were lit by candles and then given to the royal family, high-ranking government officials and other wealthy people to display in their homes (or palaces!) Since Thailand is now a deeply Buddhist country, one hundred and fifty years ago the ruling king at the time, King Mongkut (Rama IV), urged the people of the Thai Kingdom to change Loi Krathong into a Buddhist ceremony and to pay their respects to the Buddha instead.In this later Buddhist version of the festival, paper lanterns were still created but this time they would be distributed to the local temples and given to the monks instead of to the rich and powerful.

In the second version of how Loi Krathong came to be it used to be claimed that the festival originated from the period of the ancient Sukhothai Kingdom, which lasted from 1238 to 1438. A lady of the court named Nang Nopphamat, who was a consort of King Loethai, was said to have created the very first Krathong from banana leaves which she made in the shape of a lotus flower and presented to the king. However in more recent times it has emerged that this was a novel written sometime during the first half of the 19th century, in around 1850, and Nang Nopphamat (sometimes also spelt Noppamas) was actually the main character and was created as a means of offering behavioural guidelines to women who wanted to become civil servants. To further discredit this version of events, in 1863 His Majesty King Rama IV wrote that Loi Krathong was a Brahmanical festival that had been subsequently adapted by Buddhists in Thailand as a ceremony to honour the Buddha.

Nopphamat has leant her name to some of the festivities however, and these days, as with many Thai festivals and celebrations, beauty pageants are a big part of Loi Krathong day. Known as a ‘Nopphamat Queen Contest’, local beauties (or locals who think they’re beautiful!) will compete whilst wearing stunning traditional Thai dresses, to be crowned the most beautiful of that year’s festival.

In many cities the local government, large business corporations and other organizations or clubs construct much bigger krathongs that can actually hold people. These spectacularly sized krathongs can be admired floating down the mighty Chao Phraya River which runs through Bangkok. All over the Kingdom, town and cities and even villages will also set up stages where local performers will showcase traditional Thai dancing, as well as holding the beauty contests.

Harking back to the days when Loi Krathong first began as a paper lantern festival, these days it is also common practice to release paper sky lanterns. These lanterns, known as khoom fay, or khoom loi (floating lanterns), are made from thin paper with a bamboo frame and have a small candle or fuel cell inside. When the candle is lit the hot air trapped inside the paper casing creates lift which rises inside the lantern and lifts it into the air.

One reason why khoom fay lanterns are so widely synonymous with Loi Krathing now is because the Northern Thai people, the Lanna, light khoom fay lanterns all the year round when celebrating a festival or special event. In the North of the country a festival called Yi Peng is celebrated on the full moon of the second month in the traditional Lanna calendar. The Lanna calendar and the traditional Thai lunar calendar are different and Yi Peng actually falls on the same date as Loi Krathong, therefore in the North, particularly in the city of Chiang Mai, Yi Peng celebrations and Loi Krathong traditions have somewhat merged into one. Khoom fay lanterns have also grown in popularity in the rest of the country and are now an integral part of Loi Krathong.

Releasing a khoom fay sky lantern is a symbol of good luck – and again, just like setting your krathong afloat on a river or canal is to rid oneself of misfortune and past ills – releasing a khoom fay lantern into the night skies also means you’re letting go of your woes and anger. Of course, don’t forget to make a wish too!

So what exactly can you expect if you book a holiday to Thailand at this time of year? Firstly, the weather in late November is great for a vacation. The rainy season has finished and the hot months of March, April and May have yet to begin. In fact November through February is considered to be the ‘cool’ season, although for anyone visiting from Europe or anywhere that has a cold winter will still find the weather delightfully warm. In fact in general the best time to visit the Kingdom is during these four months. In Bangkok the temperature can be anything from 18ºC to 32ºC though it normally hovers around the late 20’s. If you’re heading to the North or Northeast you can expect a cooler climate with temperatures going as low as 8ºC to 12ºC first thing in the morning and the days sometimes being around the 20ºC mark. In this part of the country nights can be quite chilly and up in the mountains the temperature can even drop below freezing. In the Southwest, for examples on the islands of Koh Samui and Phuket temperatures will be warm – usually around 26ºC or 27ºC, although in some parts of the Southwest, November can be rather wet and rainy too. Further up the Gulf of Thailand, coastal towns such as Hua Hin and Cha-am will be both warm and dry with no rainfall and temperatures somewhere around the late 20’s or even 31ºC or 32ºC.

So, taking into account the weather in different parts of the country may have a bearing on where you want to go to experience Loi Krathong. Another thing to keep in mind is that it is celebrated slightly differently in different areas. In 2013 the festival officially falls on the 27th of November, the night of the full moon, but in some places, for example in the Northern city of Chiang Mai, the celebrations last for 3 full days and run from the 26th to the 28th of the month.

If you’re in Bangkok not only will the weather be warm and dry but If you want to experience a neighbourhood style Loi Krathong head to one of the local districts where the canals (called ‘Khlong in Thai’) meander through and watch the festivities there. Or if you want to join in with the crowds and see the most spectacular celebrations, head for a spot along the Chao Phraya River.

A good place to enjoy Loi Krathong in Bangkok is the river front in the Banglamphu (also spelt Banglampoo) district, not far from the backpacker area of Khao San Road. Head for the small, green Santichaiprakan Park which sits on the corner of Phra Sumen and Phra Athit and runs right down to the water’s edge. You can’t miss the park – look for the white 18th century Phra Sumen fort which is one of the last two stone watchtowers remaining in the city: there used to be 14 of the forts all placed at strategic points along the old city wall, acting as look out towers to guard against foreign invaders arriving by river.

During the Loi Krathong festival crowds of locals (and quite a few tourists) flock to this pleasant little park. Stalls selling krathongs will be set up along the pavements and the stall owners will be making more krathongs as fast as they can sell them! One nice thing is that even though this is an ancient Thai tradition and one that honours not only the Buddha but the Thai water goddess, the Thai people are friendly and don’t mind in the least if you purchase a krathong and join in.

Take your krathong through the park and down to the water’s edge and here you’ll find a small sectioned off area of the river where ancient trees are partially submerged in the water. Dropping your krathong directly over the edge into the Chao Phraya will most likely end in it sinking or being swept away by the current or in the wake of a boat, but placing it here gives it chance to float safely away, taking your bad memories of the year and any grudges you might be harbouring with it. Don’t forget to light your candle and incense first though.

Be careful when placing your krathong into the water here as it will be dark and can be muddy and slippery. If you don’t want to risk it find one of the entrepreneurial youngsters – local boys of around 10 years old – who’ll be standing knee deep in the water as they will be more than happy to float your krathong for you for a small fee of around 10 baht!

After you’ve made your wish and watched your krathong jostle for space among the hundreds of others, wander down to the main river edge to admire the passing giant krathongs and colourfully lit boats. Also in the immediate area will be a stage for traditional dance performances and perhaps a Nopphamat Queen Contest too if you’re lucky. The park itself is also nice to wander around on Loi Krathong evening as it’s decorated with lanterns and fairy lights, adding to the festive atmosphere. This is also a good opportunity to people watch and mingle with the Thai people on their special evening. After you’re finished soaking up the atmosphere here, leave the park and turn left onto Phra Athit Road. Walk along it for about 5 minutes untill you reach the end of the street and a cross roads. Turn left onto the bridge that crosses the river and you’ll be amongst more people lighting and releasing their khoom fay sky lanterns. As they lift off into the air the lanterns make a beautiful sight and a look up into the night sky will reveal hundreds of tiny points of light getting further and further away as people all across Banglamphu (and indeed the rest of the city) let their woes and their wishes fly away.

There are plenty of restaurants and quirky bars where the local cool Thais hang out along Phra Athit and Phra Sumen roads too and you’ll be spoiled for choice if you want to go and grab a bite to eat or a cold drink afterwards. And if you want to party, head towards Khao San Road where the music pumps until the small hours and tourists and locals alike will be spilling out of the bars and into the streets, drinks in hand.

If you choose to come to Thailand at this time of the year and get to witness Loi Krathong, you won’t be disappointed. Not only is it the prettiest of celebrations but it encompasses the best of Thai culture and the Thai people’s love of fun and enjoyment too. You’re sure to have an unforgettable time and some wonderful memories of your Thai Loi Krathong.

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