Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and although Christmas is not an official holiday, the country still manages to embrace the sanuk aspects of the festive period and give it a distinctly Thai twist. Don’t be surprised to see tuk-tuk drivers wearing Santa hats and coffee shops kitted out with sparkly decorations to accompany the Christmas songs on their playlist. While Christmas Day may be a normal working day in Thailand, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are both public holidays.
Christmas festivities in Thailand
Despite the fact that Christmas isn’t an official holiday in Thailand, many hotels and shopping malls do put up Christmas decorations. Thai people like a chance to celebrate and the colourful and kitsch aspects of Christmas have been embraced. If you’re on holiday in Thailand on December 25 and still want to enjoy a taste of home, there are plenty of hotels and restaurants in the main tourist areas where you can enjoy a traditional Christmas Day dinner. But don’t worry if you’ve come to Thailand to get away from the excesses of the festive period. Pull up a simple plastic chair at any local restaurant or food stall and tuck into tasty local food.
Christmas Day is a normal working day in Thailand, but there is a small Christian population in the country who do celebrate Christmas with religious services at churches. And in the north-east province of Sakon Nakhon, there is a beautiful Christmas Star Parade which celebrates the Christian heritage of the historic Ban Ta Rae community. Buildings are decorated with star-shaped lamps and giant illuminated stars are paraded through the streets on Christmas Eve.
The majority of people in Thailand are Buddhist, but Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city and retailers haven’t been slow to capitalise on the commercial opportunities Christmas provides. The impressive lights and decorations at Central World and other Bangkok shopping malls are always popular and draw in the crowds.
In previous years there have been special illuminations in Bangkok in December as part of the ‘Kingdom of Light’ art exhibition. These displays aren’t held every year, but look out for special displays in the central Ratchaprasong district and other areas of the Thai capital.
During the reign of King Rama IX, it became a tradition in Bangkok to light up the area around the Grand Palace in honour of his birthday on December 5. The illuminations usually remain in place for the whole of December with fairy lights strung up in trees lining the roads outside the Grand Palace and all along Ratchadamnoen Avenue.
New Year celebrations in Thailand
In Thailand, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are both public holidays and provide an opportunity for people to party at the various New Year Countdown events. From Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Pattaya to Phuket, music concerts and firework displays welcome in the New Year. In Chiang Mai and other areas of the North, it has been a tradition to release khom loy lanterns into the night sky on New Year’s Eve. According to local traditions this is a way of floating away the troubles of the old year and wishing for good luck in the year ahead. The sky lanterns also feature during the Yi Peng and Loy Krathong Festival in the north of Thailand.
Making merit for the New Year
If you don’t want to party, but still want a memorable way to see in the New Year, many temples hold special merit-making ceremonies on New Year’s Eve. You don’t need to be Buddhist to join in, but do dress respectfully and cover your knees and shoulders. Many people in attendance will wear a white top for these ceremonies with white denoting purity in Buddhism.
Ceremonial white thread, known as sai sin, is used during the New Year ceremonies. The thread is tied to a Buddha image and then passed through the hands of the monks leading the ceremony and then on to the congregation. As the monks chant, the associated merit is then symbolically passed along the thread so that it can reach everybody present. Ask at your hotel where the nearest such service will be. Temple fairs are also held in many provinces around Thailand at the end of the year and provide another way to make merit and raise funds for the upkeep of the local temple.
Why Thailand celebrates the New Year three times
If you can’t get enough of the New Year celebrations, then Thailand is definitely the place to be with the country able to welcome in the New Year on three separate occasions. December 31 sees parties and fireworks as the clock strikes midnight, but there are still two more New Year events to follow in the Thai festival calendar. The Chinese New Year, which usually falls in January or February, is also celebrated by many Thais. And in April, Thailand is in party mode again with the most eagerly anticipated holiday of the year, Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year.
Sawatdee Pii Mai
One essential phrase you may wish to learn for New Year is, ‘Sawatdee Pii Mai‘. This is the equivalent of saying, ‘Happy New Year’. To be extra polite, men should say, ‘Sawatdee Pii Mai khap‘ and women should say, ‘Sawatdee Pii Mai ka‘. The same greeting is also used during Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year in April.
Back to the future for New Year
If you are in Thailand for New Year’s Day on January 1, not only will you be 7 hours ahead of the folks back home in the UK or Ireland, but you’ll actually be years ahead of them too. That’s because although Thailand uses the Western calendar it does so alongside the traditional Thai calendar which is 543 years ahead of its Western equivalent. With Thailand being a majority Buddhist country, the calendar is based on the year in which Buddha died and entered Nirvana. That year is believed to be 543 BC. This means that the year 2020, for example, may also be shown as 2563 BE (Buddhist Era).
Good to know
Just as it is in the UK and Ireland, the New Year holiday period is a busy time for travel in Thailand. This is the peak of the tourist high season and there is also extra demand on transport and accommodation with local people taking advantage of the New Year holidays. If you’re planning a holiday in Thailand for Christmas and New Year it’s advisable to book travel and hotels in advance.
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