Thailand is a land of festivals and celebrations that reflect Thai traditions and cultural values. Most Thai festivals derive from the Buddhist and Brahman beliefs, with many being originated from local traditions, folklore and the way of life. Many have taken place over the course of a year for centuries.
Two internationally known festivals are Songkran or the Thai New Year with its water-based fun and the charming full moon festival of Loi Krathong. And among many religious events tourists are encouraged to witness include the ‘Khao Phansa’ and ‘Ok Phansa’ festivals that respectively mark the beginning and the end of Buddhist Lent.
Each Thai festival has its own outstanding features, which differ from region to region, and here are just some of the many events and festivals celebrated annually in Thailand.
World Wai Kru Muay Thai Ceremony
17 March, Ayutthaya
The annual World Wai Kru Muay Thai Ceremony, held annually at the Ayutthaya Historical Park, allows the opportunity for hundreds of Muay Thai practitioners from around the world to express their gratitude to their masters in the time-honoured tradition known as the Wai Kru ceremony, as well as to celebrate the aged-old martial art of Muay Thai.
The event begins with an afternoon Muay Thai fair featuring unique Thai traditions including sword-making, Thai tattooing and calligraphy and Thai martial art shows. Taking place thereafter is the highlight: the ceremony to pay respect to ancient Thai kings and warriors who protected the sovereignty of the land; namely, King Naresuan the Great, Phrachao Suea, and Phraya Phichai Dap Hak, with a Wai Kru dance performed by all participating Muay Thai boxers.
Hundreds of Muay Thai practitioners from around the world perform dance in the time-honoured tradition known as the Wai Kru ceremony
Poi Sang Long Festival
March-April, Mae Hong Son
The annual Poi Sang Long Festival is an aged-old ordination ceremony undergone by boys between seven and 14 years of age of the Tai Yai ethic group in Northern Thailand, but mostly synonymous with Mae Hong Son province. Usually, a large group of boys are ordained as novice monks at the same time. The three-day ritual is believed to help gain more merit than an ordinary ordination.
On the first day, the boys enter a tonsure ceremony and dress up in the Sang Long dress. On the second day, the boys are carried on the shoulders of their male relatives or mentors, as their feet are not allowed to touch the ground except at home and in the temple. On the last day, the novice monks enter the temple for a period, which can vary from a week to many months or more.
The Sang Long or novice monks getting ready for the aged-old ordination ceremony
13-15 April, nationwide
Songkran Festival is an event where boisterous fun and ancient traditions go hand-in-hand. For tourists, the event offers a chance to enjoy a huge celebration where water parties break out in the streets of Thailand’s towns and villages. For locals, it is a time when they can spend precious moments with their families and visit the temples to observe ancient rites and make merit.
Some of the best locations to celebrate the Songkran Festival, region-by-region, are: Central and Eastern Region: Bangkok and Pattaya; Northern Region: Chiang Mai; Northeastern Region: Khon Kaen; and Southern Region: Hat Yai.
Locals and visiting tourists sprinkle water onto Phra Phutthasihing during the Songkran Festival at Tha Phae Gate, Chiang Mai
Bun Bung Fai (Rocket) Festival
May or June, some provinces in the Northeast and South
Among the most spectacular festivals to be experienced in the Thailand is the annual rocket festival, which takes place in the Northeast as the rainy season begins. Known as Bun Bung Fai, the festival is seen as a way of encouraging the rains to fall and to help the local rice crops to grow. It also allows people to have a fun and festive break before the hard work of planting and harvesting begins.
The celebrations differ from province to province, but mostly involve the firing of homemade rockets up into the sky with teams competing against each other to send their rockets the highest. There are also parades with floats and displays of traditional costume and dancing.
The Festival can be enjoyed in many provinces of Isan including Roi Et, Yasothon and Kalasin. There is also a rocket festival in Sukhirin district in the southern province of Narathiwat, initiated by people who moved south from Isan.
An elaborate ‘Bung Fai (rocket)’ float during the Bun Bung Fai parade in Yasothon
Bun Luang and Phi Ta Khon Festival
One of the most vibrant, and distinctly unique festivals in Thailand’s Northeastern Region is the Bun Luang and Phi Ta Khon Festival in Dan Sai district, Loei. The three-day event normally takes place during the first week after the sixth full moon of the year (in June or July).
The entire event is traditionally called Bun Luang, a mass merit-making ceremony organised with the aim to celebrate the return of Prince Vessandorn (the last incarnation of Lord Buddha) and to worship Phra That Si Song Rak, the highly-revered Buddha stupa for both Thai and Lao people.
But the highlight is the Phi Ta Khon masked-dance procession. Villagers, mostly male, dress in ghost costumes and wear huge masks made from carved coconut-tree trunks, topped with wickerwork and sticky rice steamers, dance and strike amusing poses to the cheerful crowds as they parade around town. Other activities include Phi Ta Khon costume competition and the firing of Bung Fai (rocket).
Phi Ta Khon Festival, Loei
Khao Phansa or Buddhist Lent Day
On the day after the full moon of the eighth lunar month (normally in July), nationwide
One of the most charming festivals celebrated in Thailand is Khao Phansa, or Buddhist Lent Day, which marks the start of the rainy season and the period when monks traditionally retreat to their temples for a three-month period. Traditionally, candles were donated to temples enabling monks to continue their studies into the evenings. Nowadays, these offerings take the form of huge wax effigies, which are shown off in local parades accompanied by folk dances, displays of local crafts, and sound and light performances.
Khao Phansa day itself is a day of special celebration and is held on the day after the full moon of the eighth lunar month (normally in July). But many of the celebrations to mark the festival will take place over several days during the week. Some of the best locations to witness spectacular candle parades are Ubon Ratchathani, Saraburi (Tak Bat Dok Mai or flower offering), Ayutthaya and Nakhon Phanom.
Ubon Ratchathani International Wax Candle Festival and Wax Candle Procession
OK Phansa or End of Buddhist Lent Day
On the full moon of the 11th lunar month (normally in October), nationwide
The Ok Phansa festival is celebrated on the full moon of the 11th lunar month and marks the end of the Buddhist Lent. It is a time of celebration and merit-making with provinces nationwide set to celebrate the occasion on different days and in distinctive styles, depending on their locality and tradition.
Among the notable Ok Phansa celebrations include Nakhon Phanom Illuminated Boat Procession, Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival, Naga Fireball Festivals in Nong Khai and Bueng Kan, Chaiyaphum ‘Ti Khli (fireball croquet)’ competition, Samut Prakan Rap Bua (receiving lotus) Festival, Uthai Thani ‘Tak Bat Devo’ Ceremony, and Mae Hong Son ‘Chong Phara’ procession of the Tai Yai ethnic group.
In the Southern region, several provinces including Surat Thani, Phatthalung and Trang are famous for their unique Chak Phra, Lark Phra or Hae Phra ceremony, where a highly-revered Buddha image is carried on beautifully decorated floats and hauled in the river or on the road, allowing Buddhist devotees to join in making merit.
The locally famous ‘Tak Bat Devo’ Ceremony at Sangkat Rattanakhiri Temple or Sakaekrang Temple, Uthai Thani
Long-boat Racing Festivals
Normally held coinciding with the Ok Phansa Festival at selected locations nationwide
There are many long-boat racing festivals organised in Thai provinces where big rivers pass; such as, Phichit, Phitsanulok, Ayutthaya, Ang Thong, Saraburi, Pathum Thani, Nan and Surat Thani.
The Phichit Traditional Long-boat Races is the first type of such festival held in Thailand as well as one of the oldest. It is also regarded as one of the grandest and most spectacular boat races in the country. Meanwhile, the Nan Boat Races, initially organised to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent, has become a fixture on Thailand’s annual festival calendar, having the most numbers of boats entering the races or about 200 boats from over 100 communities. In the South, the annual Surat Thani Long-boat Races is held alongside the Chak Phra Festival.
The long-boats are in preparation for the race of the year
Normally held for nine days during the period of the ninth lunar month (around October), nationwide
One of Thailand’s most unique and lively events, the Vegetarian Festival has its origins in Chinese culture. It is believed that abstinence from meat and stimulants will bring about good health and peace of mind to individuals and the community. Thus, a lot of Thai people, especially those of Chinese lineage, will restrict themselves to only a vegetarian diet for nine days and nine nights as a form of purification of a person’s body, mind and spirit.
Phuket boasts Thailand’s most famous Vegetarian Festival celebration, also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, with notable ceremonies including the processions of god images and of celebrants in a trance-like state displaying awe-inspiring supernatural power. Other locations with unique celebrations have included Krabi, Trang, Phang Nga, Hat Yai, Surat Thani, Chumphon, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nakhon Sawan, Chon Buri (Pattaya) and Samut Sakhon.
Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Loi Krathong Festival
On the full moon night of the 12th lunar month (normally in November), nationwide
Nearly all visitors to Thailand agree that in this land of festivals, it is Loi Krathong that stands out as the most charming.
The annual ceremony is a time of special celebration in Thailand. The rains have mostly ended, and the weather is cool, so people take the chance to get out for the evening, socialise and enjoy many fun activities as well as making and floating krathongs. These are candlelit floats, traditionally made from banana stalk and leaf or coconut shell and decorated with incense, offerings, flowers and candles. They are then floated out onto the water as a way of paying respect to the water spirits to thank them for their bounty as well as to apologise to rivers and streams for pollution and for their use of water over the year.
Some of the best locations to see Thai people at their most fun loving while enjoying a genuinely beautiful spectacle include Bangkok, Samut Songkhram (Loi Krathong Kap Kluai), Tak (Loi Krathong Sai), Sukhothai (Candle Festival), Chiang Mai (Yi Peng Festival) and Roi Et (Somma Nam Khuen Pheng Seng Prathip).
Floating out krathongs onto the water
River Kwai Bridge Week
The River Kwai Bridge is one Thailand’s more recent historical attractions. It commemorates the sacrifice of British, American, Australian, Dutch, and New Zealand prisoners of war, in addition to the many Thai, Burmese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Malays, and Indians, who were part of the estimated 61,700 people who died there.
The River Kwai Bridge Week pays respect to their memory while also balancing the freedom all who attend enjoy. It is known for staging one of Thailand’s most spectacular sound and light shows that tells the stories of the World War II in honour of the prisoners of war who built the infamous Death Railway, the Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass. The event normally takes place for 10 days around November and December.
A scene from the spectacular sound and light shows during the River Kwai Bridge Week
For more information on other events and festivals in Thailand, call the TAT Contact Centre on 1672 or log on to www.tourismthailand.org.
To the northwest of Chiang Mai and nestled along the border with Myanmar, the mountainous and largely forested province of Mae Hong Son offers plenty of scenic natural beauty and outdoor activities to go with it, a captivating rural charm blended with a refreshing laidback vibe, and the fascinating culture of its ethnically diverse people.
While Mae Hong Son can of course be visited year-round, the best time to visit is during the cooler months of November to January. Many people will visit Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai, on an excursion of a couple of days or longer. While daily flights and bus services are available from Chiang Mai, a popular option is to travel the Mae Hong Son Loop tour route by rented car or motorbike.
The TAT’s ‘Cruising through the Cave’ picture of Tham Lot in Mae Hong Son won a 2018 PATA Gold Award in the Travel Journalism – Travel Photograph category.
The Mae Hong Son Loop is a journey of some 600 kilometres that starts and finishes in Chiang Mai, and it can be taken in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. The Loop can be done in three or four days. It passes through picturesque countryside, taking in places like Mae Chaem on Thailand’s highest mountain Doi Inthanon, the riverside town of Mae Sariang, the market town of Khun Yuam and the popular town of Pai along the way.
In earlier days a sleepy and somewhat remote Shan town, Pai lies on the banks of the Pai River and is today known for its fun and chilled-out new-age scene, often being compared somewhat to Bangkok’s backpack mecca of Khao San Road. There are guesthouses and fancier hotels, restaurants, cafes, handicraft shops, bars and a choice of activities on offer like rafting, tubing, trekking and cycling as well as hot springs to enjoy.
Among local sights to visit around Pai is the Memorial Bridge across the Pai River which was built by the Japanese during World War II and is a ‘must-see’ photo op for mostly Thai visitors. This is located about nine kilometres from town and is near Pai Canyon, another attraction and an area of eroded red sandstone with gullies and ochre-coloured ridges dotted with pines. As well as the main viewing area, side trails lead off into the Canyon and surrounding woodlands which can be good for birdwatching.
Memorial Bridge, Pai
About five kilometres from town is Ban Santichon, offering a traditional Chinese village experience complete with clay houses, eateries serving Yunnan cuisine like pork hocks with buns and steamed black chicken with Chinese herbs, Chinese tea tasting, pony riding and the chance to dress up in traditional Yunnan attire.
For early risers, the nearby Yun Lai Viewpoint is a spot from which to watch the sun rise.
Yun Lai Viewpoint
A sight in Pai that is not so well known to tourists but is worth the visit is the bamboo bridge, namely Kho Ku So, which translates into the Bridge of Merit. Around eight kilometres out of town, this bamboo bridge pathway stretches for over 800 metres across rice fields and leads to the bamboo temple. It was built by locals for the monks who previously had to walk for some six kilometres to the village to get food.
Kho Ku So, the Bridge of Merit
On the section of the Mae Hong Soon Loop between Pai and Mae Hong Son town, Tham Lot makes for an interesting side visit. About 10 kilometres off the route, this is a huge cave system once inhabited by prehistoric man and where ancient clay pottery and carved wooden coffins have been found. The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s ‘Cruising through the Cave’ picture of Tham Lot won a 2018 PATA Gold Award in the Travel Journalism – Travel Photograph category.
If bamboo bridges happen to be your thing, there is another one to see between Pai and Mae Hong Son town. This one being the picturesque Su Tong Pae, the Bamboo Bridge of Faith and Success in the village of Kung Mai Sak, some 13 kilometres north of the city. This 500-metre-long bridge crosses the Sa-Nga Stream and a rice field to link the village and a hillside temple thus allowing the monks to go out for morning alms.
Su Tong Pae, the Bamboo Bridge of Faith and Success
Ban Rak Thai
While in the area, the border village of Ban Rak Thai (literally meaning ‘the love Thailand village’) can be visited as well. The village was settled by former Kuo Min Tang fighters from Yunnan province in China, after the communist takeover of that country, and there is Yunnanese Chinese food to enjoy as well as Chinese tea shops, as well as the enchanting scenery of the surrounding valley and hills.
Nearby is the Pang Ung, Pang Tong Royal Development Project where the picturesque scenery has earned the area the nickname of the ‘Switzerland of Thailand’. Pang Ung used to be an illegal opium planting area until an initiative of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej saw the area, and its people transformed into a place that now grows various types of produce like avocado, persimmon, Chinese pear and Chinese bayberry.
Wat Phrathat Doi Kong Mu
Just outside of Mae Hong Son town is Wat Phrathat Doi Kong Mu, a hilltop temple affording panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside, while in town itself is Wat Chong Kham, which has appeared in advertising campaigns for the province. Wat Chong Kham is close to the location of the nightly Mae Hong Son Walking Street market that operates from October to February and which is worth exploring for some great local food and locally-inspired gifts to take back home.
Wat Chong Kham, Mae Hong Son
For those visiting in November and early December, the Bua Tong Blossom Festival in Mae Hong Son’s Khun Yuam district is a chance to see the mesmerising sight of the area’s hills and valleys blaze into bright gold as the Dok Bua Tong or wild sunflower is in its blooming season. Held alongside the Festival is a local market selling local arts and crafts and farm fresh produce.
Bua Tong Fields at Doi Mae U-kho, Mae Hong Son
Alongside the nationwide festivals; such as, Songkran and Loi Krathong celebrated in Thailand, local festivals and traditions reflecting the peoples’ beliefs and customs are also celebrated in Mae Hong Son. These include the Chong Phara tradition of making merit in the Shan style at the end of Buddhist Lent or Ok Phansa in October and the Poi Sang Long novice ordination tradition during March or April.
Poi Sang Long Procession, Mae Hong Son
While the Mae Hong Son Loop can be done in three or four days, various side trips can be added to spend as much time as desired meandering through the region. Some suggested places include Huai Nam Dang National Park near Pai, where in the early morning during the winter months a mystical-looking sea of mist can be observed from the viewpoint at Doi Kiew Lom.
Huai Nam Dang National Park, Chiang Mai
The Twin Pagodas, Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai
At Doi Inthanon, the Great Holy Relics Pagodas of Phramahathat Napamathanidol and Phramahathat Napaphol Bhumisiri can be visited to pay homage, while the Doi Inthanon Royal Project research station with its flower garden and nursery makes for a great lunch stop.
Mae Hong Son is one of the 55 secondary destinations the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is promoting through the “Amazing Thailand Go Local” campaign, the aim being to spread more tourism revenue into rural areas and grow community tourism in a responsible and sustainable manner, while also evening out seasonality and weekend/weekday travel flows.
Thailand Ministry of Culture’s Department of Cultural Promotion has declared a year of activities in 2019 to celebrate ‘Khon’, Thailand’s masked dance drama, which has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a decision reached at the 13th Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Mauritius on 29 November, 2018.
‘Khon’ masked dance drama is Thailand’s first Intangible Cultural Heritage element to be proposed for listing to UNESCO after Thailand joined the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO in September 2016.
According to UNESCO’s inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, “Khon, the Khon Masked Dance Drama in Thailand, is a performing art that combines musical, vocal, literary, dance, ritual and handicraft elements.
Khon performances – which involve graceful dance movements, instrumental and vocal renditions and glittering costumes – depict the glory of Rama, the hero and incarnation of the god Vishnu, who brings order and justice to the world.
The many episodes depict Rama’s life, including his journey in the forest, his army of monkeys, and his fights with the army of Thosakan, king of the giants.
On one level, Khon represents high art cultivated by the Siamese/Thai courts over centuries, while at another level, as a dramatic performance, it can be interpreted and enjoyed by spectators from different social backgrounds.
Khon has a strong didactic function, reinforcing respect for those of a higher age and status, mutual dependence between leaders and followers, the honour of rulers and the triumph of good over evil.
Traditionally, Khon was transmitted in the royal or princely courts, and in dance masters’ households. Today, however, transmission occurs mostly in educational institutions, while still adhering largely to traditional methods.
Concerted efforts are made to ensure the continuity of the practice, including through the establishment of training and performance clubs that help reach out to young people.”
Here’s a 10-minute video documentary on “Khon, masked dance drama in Thailand” on UNESCO’s YourTube channel, published on 29 November, 2018.
Khon is one of Thailand’s most significant performing arts. The Department of Cultural Promotion under the Ministry of Culture declared “Khon, masked dance drama in Thailand” as the national Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.
Khon is an important traditional style of dance and art dating from the Ayutthaya period. This form of dramatic art has its own unique identity incorporating different fields of the arts, literature, rituals and crafts. It is a traditional form of entertainment that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Currently, courses to study the masked dance drama are offered at educational institutions of various levels. The true value of this style of dance drama lies not just in its artistic dance forms, but also in its clear use and reflection of “Thainess” as well as in the development of individual styles, especially the Khon in Thailand, which is widely recognised for its refinement and artistry.
To celebrate the artistry significance of the Thai performing arts and “Khon, masked dance drama in Thailand” being inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November, this year, the Department of Cultural Promotion staged a special Khon performance, “The Allegiance of Phiphek” in Bangkok on 3-4 December.
Throughout 2019, the Department of Cultural Promotion has lined up activities to celebrate the Khon masked dance drama in three parts:
1: Activities to honour individuals and organisations that help advance Khon.
2: Activities to promote greater awareness of Khon’s various forms, including seminars, printed media publicity, a book about Khon, a Ramayana animation, Khon exhibitions, and online publicity.
3: Organising Khon performances in Bangkok and provincial areas. This includes “The Allegiance of Phiphek” performance recently held in Bangkok.
For 2020, the Promotion and Conservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage Commission has proposed “Nuat Thai, traditional Thai massage” for listing with UNESCO. The listing is currently under consideration by UNESCO. Studies are also underway on other aspects of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Images of fairy tale castles and towering palaces are not so often associated with Thailand, thus many are surprised to discover there are various palatial palaces spread throughout the kingdom.
The Spectacular Grand Palace
The word ‘palace’ in relation to Bangkok will, for most tourists, immediately bring to mind the iconic Grand Palace. Built with the establishment of the new capital in Bangkok in 1782, this spectacular complex was the home of the king and the royal court and also the administrative seat of government for nearly 150 years.
Situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Rattanakosin Island or the historic Old City area and a must-see for any tourist visiting the Thai capital, the Grand Palace boasts beautiful architecture and intricate detail throughout its various buildings, halls, pavilions, gardens and courtyards.
Phra Sri Rattana Satsadaram Temple or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok
The complex incorporates the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – considered the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand, the Outer Court, the Middle Court including the Phra Maha Monthian buildings, the Phra Maha Prasat buildings and the Chakri Maha Prasat buildings, the Inner Court and the Siwalai Gardens quarter.
Dusit Maha Prasat Hall is reminiscent of the Ayutthaya Throne Hall, while the Phra Maha Monthian buildings have been used for royal coronations but are rarely open to the public.
The Grand Palace’s most iconic and majestic structure is the Chakri Maha Prasat buildings, comprising nine structures and which reflect the taste of earlier times for a blend of European and Thai styles. These were built between 1868 and 1887 and were commissioned by King Rama V the Great. Only three buildings of the former nine structure complex remain today, among these being the famous Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall.
Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall, Grand Palace, Bangkok
Originally conceived in pure European style, the Throne Hall blends an Italian style classical façade with a Thai-style roof crowned by gilded spires. It was built between 1876 and 1882 and was Siam’s first structure with electricity.
Overall the Grand Palace is an intriguing blend of Thai and European structures, a stunning mix of ceramic-cladded stupas, gothic style façades and golden spires that speak of classical columns and porticos.
Art Nouveau and Late Baroque in Bangkok
Being one of Bangkok’s top attractions the Grand Palace is regularly crowded with visitors, and luckily there are other palaces in the city which are open to the public for visiting. Bangkhunphrom Palace along Samsen Road is a magnificent early 20th century European-style palace known for its ornamental stucco details and elaborate interiors, although it is currently closed for renovation.
Police Museum, Parusakawan Palace, Bangkok
One of the most striking palaces in the Dusit area has to be Parusakawan Palace, which is an extraordinary blend of baroque architecture inside and art nouveau outside. The former residence of the Chakrabongse family, this palace evokes the splendours of rococo or late baroque art in Italy or Austria. In particular, there is the main room with walls covered by mirrors, golden stucco and crystal chandeliers. The Palace also features a police museum.
Phayathai Palace, Bangkok
Not far from Victory Monument is Phayathai Palace, an early 20th century royal residence built by King Rama V the Great in 1910. A noticeable feature is the European-style round turret with a red conical roof, which almost seems to have come right from a fairy tale castle. The building’s interior is very European and includes beautiful frescos on the ceiling in Italian style.
Phetchaburi’s Royal Palaces
Around 140 km south of Bangkok, along the Gulf of Thailand, the provinces of Prachuap Khiri Khan and Phetchaburi are home to many palaces including the kingdom’s first European-Thai style palace.
Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park, Phetchaburi
Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park is perched on a hill overlooking the city of Phetchaburi and while its name means Holy City Hill, it is better known locally as Khao Wang or hill with a palace. The palace complex was built for King Rama IV in 1860 and blends elements of European, Chinese, Khmer and Thai architecture. This was a beloved summer residence for the King, with its white stupa and neo-classical structures, observatory tower and theatre, and while there he liked to observe the stars.
Phra Ram Ratchaniwet Palace, Phetchaburi
In the town itself is Phra Ram Ratchaniwet Palace, also known as Ban Puen Palace, which was designed by a German architect and features both art nouveau and baroque style with its curves, ceramics and statues. Large windows from the floor to ceiling help create a bright and spacious feeling in the Palace’s rooms, and the whole interior exudes luxury and grandness. Completed in 1916, the elegant Palace is now home to the Phetchaburi Historic and Arts Museum under the supervision of the Royal Thai Army.
In Cha-am is Mrigadayavan Palace, which served as the seaside palace of King Rama VI. Designated a cultural heritage site in 1981, it is in an ongoing restoration project that aims to restore the Palace grounds and surrounding coastal vegetation in time for the Palace’s 100th year anniversary in 2024.
Mrigadayavan Palace, Phetchaburi
Blending Thai and Western styles, the Palace comprises 16 teak buildings connected by balconies and corridors and elevated on pillars to aid ventilation, and 23 staircases. For tourists and visiting school groups, Mrigadayavan Palace plays the role of an educational museum with exhibits on conservation and history.
A Summer Palace for Kings
The Aisawan Thiphya-Art Pavilion in Bang Pa-In Palace, Ayutthaya
North of Bangkok in the vicinity of Ayutthaya, Bang Pa-In Palace was used by Thai kings and inspired by the royal summer palaces of Europe. Originally built around 1630 by King Prasat Thong, it fell into decay following the war in 1767 and then began to see some restoration in the 19th century under King Rama IV. From 1872 to 1889, King Rama V the Great commissioned architects to redesign the entire compound as a European palace with an Asian touch.
Also known as the Summer Palace, Bang Pa-In Palace is situated alongside the Chao Phraya River. Amid its gardens and landscaping is an eclectic collection of small palaces, pavilions and various structures inspired by the United Kingdom, France and Italy.
The Wehart Chamrun Throne Room in Bang Pa-In Palace, Ayutthaya
There’s the colourful Chinese-style royal palace Wehart Chamrun (Heavenly Light), which served as a throne room, the Warophat Phiman (Excellent and Shining Heavenly Abode) royal residence, Ho Withun Thasana (Sages’ Lookout) a brightly painted lookout tower, and the Aisawan Thiphya-Art (Divine Seat of Personal Freedom), which is a gracious Thai style pavilion in the middle of a pond that offers a sharp contrast with European style statues and neo-classic pavilions.
Swiss Chalet in the Mountains
Among the palaces of Northern Thailand are Daraphirom Palace just outside of Chiang Mai city and Doi Tung Royal Villa, both former royal residences.
Daraphirom Palace, Chiang Mai
About 20 minutes out of town, Daraphirom Palace in Mae Rim district was home to Princess Dara Rasmi, a consort of King Rama V the Great. This large wooden mansion on stilts was built in 1913 blending Thai and European architecture and is now a museum offering a look into how the Princess lived in the early 20th century. On display are many of the princess’s personal belongings and items relating to her work in the fields of culture, the arts and agriculture. Visitors can see antique furniture, photos, musical instruments, dinnerware and more.
Doi Tung Royal Villa, Chiang Mai
An hour’s drive from Chiang Rai city, the beautiful Doi Tung Royal Villa was home to Princess Mother Srinagarindra. Built in dark teakwood, the Villa affords sweeping views over the mountains of Doi Tung and has a distinctive Swiss flair. Its wooden balconies and rustic style furniture evoke thoughts of a chalet in Switzerland. The Villa is today a museum in honour of the Princess Mother and how she dedicated herself to improving the livelihood of the local people.
Stretching out in front of Doi Tung Royal Villa is Mae Fah Luang Garden, the landscaped expanse filled with hundreds of kinds of plants and flowers.
These are some of Thailand’s most prominent palaces. There are more throughout the country, dazzling architectural gems in their own right, and each one a unique attraction waiting for tourists to discover.
Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai, bordering Myanmar to the north and Lao PDR. to the east, boasts a dramatic landscape of mountains, rivers and forests, an ethnic diversity in its people including those of hilltribe and Chinese lineage, and a strong Lanna identity that can be seen in its architecture, art, language, music and cuisine.
The Golden Triangle viewpoint in Chiang Saen
While the cultural essence of this identity – which dates back to Chiang Rai’s founding in 1262, and its role as the second capital of the Lanna Kingdom – is very much retained, there is also a growing modernisation of this taking place, one that offers a new perspective of Lanna in the contemporary world.
Chiang Rai found itself thrust onto the global stage in June and July of this year, when the Mu Pa or Wild Boars football team of 12 young boys and their coach became trapped by rising flood waters in Tham Luang Cave in Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park. The multinational operation that successfully rescued them gripped Thailand and the world, and memorials created to honour the epic mission have become new attractions in Chiang Rai.
Not least of these is a museum at Wat Phra That Doi Wao in the province’s northernmost district of Mae Sai, the temple where the boys were ordained as Buddhist novice monks for nine days to make merit for Lt. Cdr. Saman Gunan, the former Thai navy Seal diver who died while assisting in their rescue. Here, there are some 5,000 photographs of the cave rescue operation on display.
At Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, about five kilometres from Chiang Rai city is an enormous painting by a team of artists led by national artist Chalermchai Kositpipat depicting the rescue mission and the key figures involved, as well as a life-sized statue of Lt. Cdr. Saman created by a team of Northern artists led by Sarayuth Kammoonchai.
The painting depicting key figures involved in the Thai cave rescue at Wat Rong Khun
The White Temple is the creation of Chiang Rai-born Chalermchai and represents an unconventional approach to temple architecture, fusing as it does elements from the artist’s own imagination with orthodox Buddhist teachings about heaven, hell, karma and earthly sins. The temple is full of Buddhist symbolism while Chalermchai has also used icons from modern culture; such as, spaceships and even Neo from the Matrix movies to tell stories of the Buddha’s life and teachings.
As well as the White Temple, there is also the Black House and the Blue Temple, all of them fascinating representations of the new creative movement in Chiang Rai that is blending modern art and architecture with the ancient philosophy of Buddhism.
Baan Dam, or Black House, is 10 kilometres north of the city centre and is the labour of love of another national artist, the late Thawan Duchanee. Painted all in black, the compound is as playful as it appears grim, with animal hides and bones, eerie sculptures and tribal statues among the displays it houses.
The Blue Temple, or Wat Rong Suea Ten, is a 10-minute drive from the city’s Night Bazaar area and was completed in 2016. Adorned in the colours of sapphire blue and gold, the temple’s artwork and structure exude a modern feel, while the exterior features carved statues of the Buddha, Nagas, Garuda and other beings from Thai Buddhist cosmology.
There are of course traditional temples that can be visited, among these Wat Klang Wiang in the city centre, which houses the original city pillar shrine; Wat Phra Kaeo, which is the original site where the Emerald Buddha now in Bangkok was enshrined, and Wat Phrathat Doi Chom that sits atop a low hill overlooking the entire city.
Among the city’s notable attractions is the Chiang Rai Clock Tower. Designed by the same Chalermchai behind the White Temple, the Clock Tower puts on a light show every evening at 7, 8 and 9 p.m. Not far away is the King Mengrai the Great Monument, which stands in proud testimony to the founder of the Lanna Kingdom.
Chiang Rai Clock Tower
The central city area is also where Chiang Rai’s very own Saturday Night Walking Street takes place. Here, from 4 p.m. onwards, market-goers can peruse Lanna antiques, OTOP (One Tambon One Product) goods, locally made handicrafts and traditional knowledge products; such as, spa, herbal and massage items.
For those who happen to visit Chiang Rai during the New Year period, the annual Chiang Rai Flower Festival is well worth checking out for the myriad of different plants and flowers on show like roses, orchids and tulips to name but a few. The event also features plant contests, flower processions and cultural performances.
Not far from the city are attractions like Singha Park and Rai Chern Tawan Meditation Centre, which make for great day excursions. Further afield are attractions like Choui Fong Tea Plantation, where visitors can see first-hand how tea is grown and which is perhaps best visited as a stopover on the way to the Thai-Myanmar border town of Mae Sai or Doi Tung home to the Mae Fah Luang Garden and Wat Phrathat Doi Tung that sits at an altitude of nearly 2,000 metres above sea level.
Singha Park is about 12 kilometres from the city centre and is agro-tourism focused with various activities on offer from a petting zoo the kids will love to rock climbing and zip lining for the adventurous to pleasant pathways adults will appreciate strolling along. The Park is large and the bicycles for hire onsite are a great way to explore it, while there is also an electric tram that tours the various sights.
Roughly 20 kilometres from the city, Rai Chern Tawan Meditation Centre is a quiet retreat set in peaceful surroundings with bungalow and tent accommodation, where all are welcome to come and study Buddhist dhamma and reflect upon life.
For an interesting insight into Chiang Rai’s history and its Lanna cultural heritage, Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park and Oub Kham Museum are both just a few kilometres from town, while centrally located in town is the Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre, which is a recommended visit (beforehand) for tourists planning to travel to the region’s hilltribe villages. The Centre was created to educate tourists about the six major tribal groups of Northern Thailand – the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Yao, their culture and on etiquette they should observe when visiting the villages.
Tourists lucky enough to visit when the annual Akha Swing Festival is held – usually around August or September in the rainy season – are in for a real treat. One of the most important festivals for the Akha hilltribe people of Chiang Rai, this colourful and vibrant event commemorates the goddess of fertility, celebrates an abundant crop to be harvested, and honours the Akha women. For them, it is an opportunity to wear the costumes and ornaments they have made during the year and to show they have entered marriageable age.
A highlight of the Akha Swing Festival is when the women ride a giant bamboo and wooden swing at frightening heights, often at the edge of a cliff, while singing, laughing, screaming and reciting Akha verses.
A couple of hours’ bus ride from Chiang Rai city is Chiang Saen, on the banks of the mighty Mekong River and Thailand’s oldest city boasting an impressive history. It was a main city of the ancient Lanna Kingdom and the capital before Chiang Rai’s establishment in 1262. Evidence of these former glory days can still be seen today in the form of chedis, Buddha images, earthen ramparts and pillars.
Chiang Saen is also famed for its vantage points looking out over the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Lao PDR. and Myanmar come together at the convergence of the Khong and Ruak Rivers.
As northernmost province Chiang Rai serves as a strategic gateway for air and land travel with neighbouring countries in the region like Lao PDR. and Myanmar. Destinations further afield like Hong Kong are also connected with direct flights into the Mae Fah Luang-Chiang Rai International Airport.
Chiang Rai is one of 55 secondary destinations the Tourism Authority of Thailand is promoting through the “Amazing Thailand Go Local” campaign, the aim being to spread the tourism revenue more into rural areas and grow community tourism in a responsible and sustainable manner, while also evening out seasonality and weekend/weeday travel flows.