Colourful and vibrant festivals are one of Chiang Mai’s biggest draws. The Songkran water-throwing festival and Loy Krathong are the two major annual events and complemented by smaller themed festivals such as the Chinese Lunar New Year and a beautiful flower festival. The following articles give a brief outline of the when, where and what of Chiang Mai Festivals by month.
BO SANG UMBRELLA FESTIVAL
After the fireworks shows held to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, this handicraft festival is the first significant annual happening in Chiang Mai. It is a weekend event, which begins on the third Friday of January, and Bo Sang Village is the epicentre of it. Houses and shops in the village are festooned with lanterns and the village’s signature silk umbrellas while the festival itself is celebrated with craft-making exhibitions, parades, a beauty pageant and live shows.
CHINESE NEW YEAR
The city’s historic Chinatown District around Warorot Market is the venue for Chinese New Year celebrations. The date varies from year-to-year but is late January to mid-February. Householders and shopkeepers hang red lanterns on their premises. Pung Thao Kong Shrine is a focal point of the festivities and usually wreathed in the smoke of joss-sticks and candles. A definitive highlight is dragon-dances which are performed to the accompaniment of exploding firecrackers and drumming.
BAAN TAWAI WOOD CARVING FAIR
Baan Tawai is a village near Hang Dong and to the south of Chiang Mai. It is a hub for cottage industries which turn out high quality wood-carvings and furniture plus the other diverse portfolio of knick-knacks Chiang Mai is renowned for. In February, Baan Tawai honours its artisans with a small festival. The exact weekend it is staged is always announced a few weeks beforehand. A parade loaded up with wooden artefacts such as mythical kinaree birds, Buddha statues and elephants is staged in the main village where there are also craft-making exhibitions.
CHIANG MAI FLOWER FESTIVAL
Chiang Mai Flower Festival is held over the first weekend in February and a celebration of the local floral and plant industry. Growers head down to Suan Buak Haad Park and set up stalls to showcase their wares. These include orchids, bougainvillea, petunias and roses employing state-of-the-art Korean knowhow which changes the colour of their petals. On the Saturday, there is a parade which sets off from the city’s train station, crosses the Ping River at Nawarat Bridge, goes as far as Thapae Gate and then veers off to Suan Buak Haad. The parade comprises flower bedecked floats with beauty queens, traditional Thai dancers and musicians.
SAMOENG STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL
The Samoeng Strawberry Festival usually help in mid-February in Samoeng; a mountain district of Chiang Mai. The festival was originally launched to enable local farmers to showcase their strawberries and other products as well as to safeguard the cultural identities of Thais and ethnic hill-tribes living in the locality. The event features stalls selling strawberry products and other agricultural products, a market selling local food and cultural performances. The highlights are colourful parades and a beauty pageant contest. Samoeng is one of the most beautiful stops on the Samoeng Loop. This tourist trail links the adventure centres and tourism draws in the Mae Sa Valley to Samoeng.
Songkran is the biggie on Chiang Mai’s annual events calendar and is a three-day happening packed with fun and glee. It marks the passing of the olden Lanna New Year and is between the 13 and 15 April. Songkran is best known for the pitched water fights staged around koo muang, the moat around the Old City. Do not enter this arena if you don’t want to get wet. The temperature is usually way above the 35°C mark anyway and the soaking comes as a relief. A city parade on the 13 April, building sand pagodas on the 14 and pouring water on Buddha statues on the 15 are other inimitable facets to Songkran.
WALKING TO PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP TEMPLE
The 11km-long pilgrimage hike from the foot of the mountain to Phra That Doi Suthep Temple is an annual event staged to mark the eve of Visakha Bucha Day.
Visakha Bucha is one of the holiest days on the calendar for Buddhists and celebrates the birthday of Lord Buddha as well as his enlightenment and the day of his death. The chedi, or pagoda, at Phra That Doi Suthep Temple is said to contain a relic of Buddha.
The Visakha Bucha Day walk attracts large numbers of participants and the first set off at around 19:00. There is drinking water at designated points on the route up. The first walkers generally reach Phra That Doi Suthep Temple at about midnight. After arrival, the custom is to perform a ritual called wian tian at the golden chedi. This requires people to walk around the chedi three times while holding lit candles.
The walk is only one way and there are songthaew shared taxis on hand to transport walkers back to the bottom of the hill.
INTHAKIN CITY PILLAR FESTIVAL
A shrine on the grounds of Chedi Luang Temple is home to Sao Inthakin (the City Pillar). Legend has it that if Chiang Mai honours and takes care of Sao Inthakin, the pillar will in turn ensure good fortune for the city’s residents. Residents and tourists take care of their own well-being with several different traditions.
They achieve this by putting candles, joss-sticks and mini bunches of flowers on the Sao Inthakin shrine, the Statue of the 100,000 Rain Buddha and other stupas and monuments at Chedi Luang Temple. Another means of making merit, or tam boon in Thai, is to drop 25 and 50 satang coins in the 108 donation bowls for monks laid out on tables in the main viharn (prayer hall).
Hawkers set up stalls close to the temple’s front entrance on Prapokkloa Road in the evenings. They sell a full range of Thai snacks and drinks as well as some souvenirs.
LOY KRATHONG [YI PENG]
While Songkran tends to be raucous, Loy Krathong is more sedate and a true depiction of the traditions and customs of the Thailand of yesteryear. This festival was traditionally called Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, but has adopted Loy Krathong in recent decades. It is held some time between October and November and the exact day is dictated by the full moon on the Thai calendar’s twelfth month. The spectacle of hundreds of illuminated khom loy sky lanterns drifting across the moonlit sky is a sight not easily forgotten. The other main Loy Krathong activity is to launch a krathong on the Ping River, the lake at Suan Buak Haad Park or any other handy body of water. This act is said to be a symbolic apology to the goddess of water, Phra Mae Khongkha. Making a wish as the small craft and its flowers and candle gently float away cannot do any harm.