Author Archives: Richard Barrow

My Top 10 Favourite Thai Festivals

Over the years I have seen some really great Thai festivals. This is a list of my Top 10 favourites in no particular order.

Thai Festivals

Loy Krathong Festival

(1) As the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (usually in mid-November) lights up the night sky, throughout the Thai kingdom, hundreds of thousands of ornately-decorated krathong or traditional banana leaf floats are set adrift in rivers and waterways in a spell-binding ritual called “Loy Krathong” – the ‘festival of lights”. This is one of the Kingdom’s oldest and best-preserved traditions. The next festival takes place on 10th November 2011.

Thai Festivals

Songkran Festival

(2) Songkran Festival, a national celebration of the traditional Thai New Year, captures the imagination of travellers for both its cultural and fun attributes; the latter being enthusiastic bouts of water splashing between friends and relatives. This takes place all over Thailand in mid-April. The date used to vary but it is now fixed and takes place on 13-15 April every year.

Thai Festivals

Chinese New Year

(3) The celebration of the Chinese New Year remains the most important of annual festivals on the Chinese lunar calendar observed in the various regions of Thailand. Festive celebrations are typically staged in areas where there is a significant Thai-Chinese community such as the Yaowarat district in Bangkok and in the provinces of Suphan Buri, Ayutthaya, Chon Buri, Ratchaburi, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nakhon Sawan, Chiang Mai, Songkhla and Phuket. The next festival is on 23rd January 2012.

Thai Festivals

Rub Bua Festival

(4) The Lotus Flower Receiving Festival, or Rub Bua in Thai, takes place at Bang Phli. This festival has been handed down from one generation to the next. It is held annually one day before the end of the Buddhist Rain Retreat.  Traditionally, local people line up on both sides of Klong Samrong and throw lotus flowers onto the boat carrying a replica of a revered Buddha image.The next festival is on 11th October 2011.

Thai Festivals

Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival

(5) The Candle Festival takes place as the seasonal monsoon rains descends over the kingdom, marking the beginning of the Buddhist “rain retreat” and the Buddhist Lent, or “Phansa”. As Ubon Ratchathani province prepares for the Buddhist Lent, men with artistic skills set about the task of moulding and sculpting Lenten candles. As these works of art are to be presented as Buddhist merit-making offerings, the artisans pour their heart and soul into their craft. The next festival is around the 3rd August 2012.

Thai Festivals

Phi Ta Khon Festival

(6) The Phi Ta Khon festival is unique to the Dan Sai district in Loei Province and reflects the local Isan belief in ghosts and spirits. Held once a year, it is part of a grand merit-making festival known as the “Boon Luang” festival. Young men of the community dress up as “spirits” wearing long trailing costumes made from colourful strips of cloth sewn together. The next festival will take place around June/July 2012.

Thai Festivals

Hae Pha Khuen That Festival

(7) The Hae Pha Kuen That Festival is unique to the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Holy cloth, known as Phra bot, is draped around the stupa in a merit-making ritual. The custom reflects a form of communal merit-making designed to strengthen community spirit and foster unity and has been observed for some 800 years. According to Buddhist belief, participation in communal merit-making earns an individual more merit. The next festival will take place around 7th March 2012.

Thai Festivals

Tak Bat Dok Mai Festival

(8) The Tak Bat Dok Mai floral offering merit-making ritual is unique to Saraburi province. This ritual stands out from the merit-making activities conducted in the other parts of Thailand because in addition to the offerings of cooked rice, food, incense, candles and other conventional sacred items, the Tak Bat Dok Mai ritual includes offerings of Dok Khao Phansa flowers that only come into bloom during the Buddhist Lent. The next festival is around 2nd August 2012.

Thai Festivals

Phra Samut Chedi Fair

(9) The longest running temple fair in Thailand is the Phra Samut Chedi Fair in Samut Prakan. It starts with parades through the town and along the river of the red cloth that is later wrapped around the stupa. Then for ten days the city virtually comes to a standstill for one of the biggest temple fairs in the region.  The next festival is on 17th-28th October 2011.

Thai Festivals

Monkey Buffet Festival

(10) One of the most famous places in Thailand to see monkeys is among the ruins of the historical city of Lopburi. In appreciation of their efforts to attract tourists, local businessmen put on a grand Monkey Buffet Festival for the monkeys on the last Sunday in November every year. Over the years this has become one of the world’s biggest monkey parties. The next festival is on 27th November 2011.

There are obviously more big festivals that take place in Thailand. Those will have to wait for another day and another list. What are your favourites? Are they missing from this list? Let us know in the comments below. For information and dates of Festivals of Thailand please visit our Thai Festival Blogs.

What to Expect if you have to go to a Thai Court

When I was younger, I once sat on the jury of a murder trial. It lasted for about seven days. I had always been fascinated by courtroom dramas and after watching “Twelve Angry Men” I fancied myself as Head Juror. Alas, I was only 19 at the time and no-one voted me for that position. Although it was a serious case, I did enjoy my time listening to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. In Thailand, the Courts of Justice don’t quite work in the same way. In the Criminal Courts, there are always at least two judges and no jury. Although it may seem to be unfair not being judged by a panel of your peers. I think it is probably better if amateurs, like myself, didn’t have so much of a say in the lives of the accused. But then, that leaves a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the judges. A few years ago I was in court for the trial of a defendant who had been accused of attempted murder.

The courtroom wasn’t very large. There were probably about six or so of these rooms on this floor alone. At the front was the raised platform where the judges sat. Above them is a portrait of H.M. The King. Below it is the symbol of the court, a downward pointing dagger with scales balancing on it. In front of the bench sat the court clerk. On the judges right was the table for the prosecution. On the left was the table for the defense. In the middle of the room, facing the judges bench, was the chair and table for the witness. The room was roughly split in half with a low railing. Behind this were the benches where members of the public and interested parties sat. In Thailand, courts are usually open to the public. So, in theory, if you are respectfully dressed, you could go and watch a trial. Just remember no cameras are allowed and you should turn off your mobile phone.

At about 9.35 a.m., the defendant was escorted into the courtroom by a policeman. He was barefoot and chained at the ankles. A piece of string was attached to the chains which enabled him to pick them off the floor as he hobbled along. The policeman told him to sit down on the front bench. Shortly later, the two judges arrived through their private entrance at the front of the court. No-one announced their arrival, but everyone stood up anyway. They wore a black robe with a dark velvet edging around the neck and down the front. People didn’t wai the judges, but bowed instead. The public prosecutor was sat on my left.  The first day was reserved for the prosecution. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution and she has to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In the morning, she called three witnesses: the victim, the arresting officer and a witness to the crime. Each one was called forward where they then put their hands together in a prayer like gesture and promised to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. As in Western courts, the prosecutor asked a series of questions and then the defence were allowed to cross examine. However, there were some notable differences.

In Western courts, there would be a stenographer who would make a record of everything that was said. However, in Thailand, this is left up to the judge. In front of him was a tape recorder. This wasn’t to record the witness. What happened is that after the witness had answered the question, the judge would then paraphrase what he had just said. But, he didn’t do this for everything. Only what he deemed to be relevant. During the cross-examination, I could see the defence lawyer pausing before he asked each question so that the judge could have time to record the answer. However, sometimes the judge didn’t bother to record anything which obviously annoyed the defence. He just told them to ask the next question.

I also noticed that the judges participated more in the questioning of the witness. Sometimes they asked questions that they felt the prosecutor should have asked. Or a question to clarify an answer. Like in my previous trial, the prosecutor sometimes left the courtroom during cross-examination. Although there were two judges, there was only one lead judge. The other was there as support. Every now and then he would change tapes and the court clerk would then take this to type up. At the start of each tape he would record something and then quickly rewind it to see if it recorded properly. The last witness of the morning was supposed to be the doctor. However, he didn’t turn up which seemed to annoy the judges. After a few phone calls, they decided to postpone the next trial date. The prosecution were supposed to finish on this day and then the following week the defence team would have their turn. But, as the doctor couldn’t come the trial was put off for just over two weeks.

By about 12 p.m., the court clerk had finished typing up the testimonials from the witnesses. These were then read out in court. Each witness was then asked if what had been read was a true account. They said it was. Then each relevant party had to sign these statements. The prisoner was then escorted back downstairs to the holding area to await the prison bus. I have been in that holding area a number of times to visit different people. It smells really bad. But their relations are allowed to visit them and also buy food for them from outside. The Thai courts are very busy and sometimes it can be up to a year before people go to court. And once the case starts, there can be a number of delays which sometimes means it might be several months before the verdict is finally read. In the meantime, if the defendant is not given bail, or cannot afford to pay it, he has to stay all this time locked up in prison. I will tell you about what to expect if you are ever sent to a Thai prison another time.

What to expect if you are invited to a Thai Funeral

The longer that you stay in Thailand, the higher the chance is that you will one day be invited to a funeral. This might be for the parent of a colleague at work or a relation of your Thai wife or husband. I am not exactly an expert on Thai funerals, but I have attended a fair number. I have also been invited, strange as it may seem, to take pictures at funerals. Like this group photo in the first picture. For this particular funeral I had to take dozens of pictures of various groups posing in front of the coffin of the deceased.

If you are invited to a funeral, then the first question that might go through your mind is what to wear. As you can see from this photograph, you should wear either black or white or a combination of the two. You should avoid any bright colours but you could get away with it if it is a muted colour. For example, I have seen some people wearing blue jeans but with a white or black polo shirt. For myself I usually wear a white shirt and black tie for the main events and a black polo shirt for other times.

Funerals for Thai Buddhists can go on for much longer than what you may have seen before in the West. It could last from anything from one week to a year or two. Depending on how close you were to the deceased, you probably won’t be expected to attend every part of the funeral. For the parents of colleagues at work I probably would only attend the cremation on the last day. For relations of friends you probably would attend at least one if not all of the chanting sessions. If you are close to the family then it might be appropriate for you to bring a wreath. Either that or give the family some money in an envelope.

The Bathing Rite takes place on the evening of the first day. You would only attend this if you knew the deceased personally. The body is laid out on a table and covered with a cloth. Only the head and the right hand is showing. People then take turns to pour some scented water over the exposed hand. You can take this opportunity to make a blessing or to ask for forgiveness for past misdeeds. A sacred white string, called sai sin, is then tied around the ankles and wrists. The hands are held together in a prayer-like gesture holding a lotus flower and incense sticks. A coin is also put in the mouth.The body is then placed in a coffin and placed on a high table. It is then surrounded by flowers. A portrait of the deceased is also prominently displayed.

Four monks are then invited to chant daily for the deceased. This usually take place over a period of seven days. However, this might be shortened if the cremation needs to take place on a certain day, like the weekend. It also should be noted that cremations cannot take place on Fridays as the name for that day sounds like the Thai word for “happiness”. If the chanting sessions are shortened to say five days, the same amount of merit still needs to be created for the deceased, so on two nights the chanting sessions have to be done twice. Notice the ribbon in this photograph. It goes all the way to the coffin which is how the deceased receives the merit.

In Bangkok, the daily chanting sessions for the deceased will probably start at 7 p.m. and last for about an hour. Upcountry these are often done at the house and may go on all night as they are social events. It is not a completely sad affair. There are four main chants with regular breaks in-between. During the breaks people chat or listen to some traditional Thai music. There is also often a break with some Thai dancing. The hosts are always generous and you will find that you are also given drinks and snacks. Even full meals. Before my first chanting session I thought I would have to sit on the floor for hours. But, there are always seats and the time passes quickly.

After seven days of chanting the cremation can take place. Some families will do this straight away while others might wait a year or more. Quite often a young family member, usually the grandson, will ordain as a novice monk in order to make merit for the deceased. They do this for only a day or two. Even though it is only for a short time, they still have to do the full ordination which includes the shaving of hair and eyebrows. On the morning of the cremation there is more chanting and food is then offered to the monks.

Once everyone has eaten, it is time to move the coffin to the crematorium. The coffin is carried outside and placed onto an ornate cart. A procession then takes place to the crematorium. Leading the way are family members carrying a portrait of the deceased. Behind them are a couple of monks holding onto a white thread that is attached to the coffin. The mourners walk behind the coffin. If you have ever done a procession around a chapel at a Thai temple on a Buddhist holiday you know that you have to walk around it three times in a clockwise direction. However, for funerals, you must walk anti-clockwise.

The coffin is then taken up the steps and placed on a high table in front of the crematorium doors. The portrait of the deceased is also placed here. The crematorium itself is decorated during the afternoon with black and white cloth and beautiful flowers which were the favourites of the deceased. The cremation ceremony is often in the late afternoon. If you didn’t go to the Bathing Rite or any of the nightly chanting then the cremation ceremony is the one that you should really attend.

At cremations you don’t get to see much of the ceremony. Most people are seated far away. During the ceremony, honoured guests will come forward with monk robes and place them on a pedestal in front of the coffin. As you can see here, the same ribbon is being used to connect the pedestal to the coffin. A monk then comes to receive the robe as if it was offered by the deceased. The monk here is saying a prayer before receiving the robe. During the ceremony someone will also give an eulogy about the life of the deceased. There is often also some kind of traditional dance performance.

Cremation ceremonies are often over very quickly. Anything from 30 minutes to an hour. When you arrive you are given a flower made from wood shavings. You will need this for the last part of the ceremony. The monks at the cremation will go up the steps first with their “flowers”. These are placed under the coffin as if you were lighting the funeral fire. Once all of the monks have done this then it is the turn of the guests. What most people do is tap the coffin a couple of times with the flower then place it in a tray under the coffin and then give a quick “wai”. You are also supposed to say a short prayer telling the deceased person that you forgive them for any wrong doings in the past. On your way down, you will be given a kind of souvenir of the funeral to take home. Sometimes this a book about the life of the deceased person.

At this stage, most people would go home. They have paid their respects. Unless you were close to the deceased, you would go home too. It is mainly family members that stay for the actual cremation. What happens first is that the ornaments decorating the coffin are removed. The coffin is then lifted off its base and then carried towards the crematorium oven. The lid is then taken off. A coconut is cut open and the juice poured over the deceased person. The coffin is then pushed inside the chamber. This is the last chance for family members to pay their respects. The remaining sandalwood flowers are also thrown into the coffin. Everyone then goes down to the bottom of the steps where they gather around to watch the cremation. At some funerals I have attended, rockets are fired into the sky. However, this is banned in residential areas.

The friends and relations don’t wait for the fire to finish. They will come back the next day to collect the ashes. A monk is present for this ceremony. Sweet smelling flower petals are mixed in with the ashes. Depending on the family, these might be placed in one urn or several.  Once they are collected they are taken to the prayer hall where there is more chanting and robes and food are again presented to the monks on behalf of the deceased. What happens next to the ashes will vary. Most will keep the ashes at the temple as there will be further merit making ceremonies on the 50th and 100th days. Some people keep them at their home.

A third option, which is seemingly becoming more popular these days,  is called “loi angkarn” which means the floating or scattering of ashes over the water. However, they might keep some relics, like pieces of bone,  in the shrine at home. It is not really a Buddhist tradition as it has been adapted from Hinduism where they often scatter ashes in the Ganges River. Some Thai people believe that floating the ashes of their loved ones in a river or in the open sea will help wash away their sins but also help them go more smoothly up to heaven. It doesn’t matter where you do this, but if you are in the Bangkok and Samut Prakan area then an auspicious place is the mouth of the Chao Phraya River at Paknam where I live.

There are a set number of rituals that have to be done in the correct order before the main ceremony. This includes paying respect to the guardian spirit of the boat and then later the god of the ocean and the goddess of water. Next comes the prayers where the mourners request the spirits and gods to look after the deceased person. It is then time for the white cloth containing the ashes to be carefully dropped over the side. They don’t actually scatter the ashes, they just let the cloth float away and then sink. As they watch it go, they say their final farewells while at the same time scattering flower petals on the water.

Win 44 Stamps commemorating Thai Language Day

The 29th July is observed every year in Thailand as National Thai Language Day. In celebration of this, Thailand Post have today released a set of 44 stamps, each with one letter of the alphabet. I have two sets of these stamps which I am giving away to two lucky winners on my Facebook public page. All you have to do to win, is visit my page and click on “like” for the picture of these stamps. All of the names will be put in a hat on the evening of Sunday 31st August 2011 and the names of the winners will then be announced on my Facebook page.

Facebook Page for Richard Barrow in Thailand >>>

July 29 was picked as National Thai Language Day to commemorate His Majesty the King’s private visit to Chulalongkorn University to join experts on the Thai language in a discussion on problems with using Thai words. The discussion took place on 29 July 1962 at the Faculty of Arts. Aware of the importance and value of the Thai language, the Government on 13 July 1999 proclaimed July 29 National Thai Language Day.

International TASTE 2011: Food Festival in Bangkok

Fine food enthusiasts in Bangkok have an opportunity this weekend to participate in the “International TASTE 2011 Amazing Thailand”. This is taking place at Parc Paragon which is the area in front of Siam Paragon. About 30 of the best restaurants in Thailand have been selected to present their signature dishes from various national cuisines such as Thai, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Italian and American.

Photo Album >>>

What is most interesting is that all of these delicious dishes and desserts have been made from local ingredients. For example, high-quality Kurobuta pork from a farm in Chonburi, fresh trout from Chiang Mai, Mozzarella from Chachoengsao and gourmet Japanese rice from Mae Chan district in Chiang Rai. The quality is high so you will probably not notice the difference.

The 30 well-known restaurants at the event include Portobello Day Cafe, Swang (Hua Lam Pong), Mu State Pinkaew, Arirang, Indus and many more. You can eat the food at the festival or takeaway. Prices start from a low 30 baht. It is a great opportunity to try out a variety of different international cuisine in one place. Just make sure that you turn up hungry as I must have snacked from at least six different stalls when I went yesterday.

As well as the food, there is also live entertainment which includes games, music and cooking shows. If you register when you arrive you will also receive a free copy of the “International TASTE 2011” book which is beautifully illustrated with recipes and cooking methods from several famous restaurants. I have posted the full schedule over at Thai Festival Blogs. The food festival runs until the evening of Sunday 24th July 2011.