April brings one of the most important (and fun) Thai festivals of the year, Songkran, or Thai New Year. The entire country shuts down for several days to celebrate with family, make merit at the pagoda and participate in a water cleansing ceremony which quickly degenerates into the largest water fight on the planet. If you’re planning to be in Thailand between April 13-15, you’re in for a treat. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself tipsy drunk in the middle of the street having a water fight with an elephant ridden by a traffic cop.
If you miss Songkran, don’t despair. There’s a huge variety of weird and wonderful Thai festivals celebrated throughout the year, many of which have provided me the most wonderful memories. My heart starts racing when I recall the buffalo stampeding past me as I stood on the finish line of the Chon Buri Buffalo Races (October).
My mouth’s already watering recalling the smell of fresh squid on the BBQ (which I’d just caught myself following a jet ski ride out to a squid boat in the dead of night!) at the Ch’am Squid Festival (September). The hairs on my neck stand with the vivid memories of devotees in trance skewering themselves at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival (October).
And there’s so many more Thai Festivals I’m yet to see – hundreds of elephants on display at the annual Surin Elephant Festival (May), explosions galore at the home made Rocket Festival of Yasothon (May). The list goes on. Consult the Tourism Authority of Thailand website and ask around once you’re here – there’s always something unusual going on in Thailand.
When I was having a drink with a friend recently, he suggested the next morning I join him at an ‘unusual’ Thai festival, but wouldn’t give any further details. A mystery! How could I resist?
Early the next morning we set out on empty roads, chasing a rising sun. We were headed for Wat Bang Phra, a temple well known for the practice of receiving traditional Thai tattoo’s from monks. It was a special day – the Wai Kru Festival – an annual event to pay respect to the monks of the temple and recharge your ‘magical’ protective tattoos.
By the time we arrived at 8:00am, the temple grounds were covered in a colorful sea of seated locals. The temperature quickly began to rise, as vendors wandered the grounds selling cheap colorful woven bamboo fans and cool drinks. We were told to wait for the ceremony to begin at exactly 9:39am.
Suddenly the man beside me let out a piercing scream and started convulsing on the ground. I almost soiled my pants. As I took a step back, two men held him down and started pulling his ears. Eventually he calmed down. I didn’t, my heart was racing. What did I just witness?
You can imagine my dismay when minutes later a young man on my right started wildly shrieking and gesticulating like a monkey, almost bowling me over as he sprinted past. Suddenly dozens of men, teeth bared, grunting and screaming, started running towards me. It felt like the zombie apocalypse. I screamed and hid behind my friends.
As a young muscular stud shuffled past me, cackling with laughter, bent over like a crippled old man, I was told that these devotees had been temporarily possessed by the spirits of their tattoos, including tigers, crocodiles, monkeys and an old man. Once in the trance, they head for the central shrine where the monks are praying. Many don’t make it, plunging headfirst into the ground (or the crowd). The others are intercepted by burly soldiers, who, for some bizarre reason, rub their ears to bring them out of the trance.
Despite the possessed, screaming men coming from every direction (we’ve all been there, right?), everyone remained totally calm. An eerie silence suddenly fell, heads bowed and the monks began chanting a blessing. Immediately after the chant ended, everyone rushed the central shrine to be sprayed with holy water, thus completing the spiritual recharge.
And then the crowd of thousands simply wandered off. Truly one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen. In fact words can’t really do this unusual spectacle justice – better to see for yourself – here or here.
My friend suggested I stay and get a Thai tattoo. Fearing monkey possession, I politely declined. Instead I proposed an ear rub by a soldier – to try and remove the old man spirit which seems to have possessed me several years back. Didn’t happen.
We headed back to Bangkok to enjoy a leisurely lunch on the river followed by an afternoon of elephant polo! Ah….just another day in Thailand – mass possessions, delicious feasts and elephant polo. What a day! What a country! Go Thai, Be Free.