Phuket observes all the main national festivals, both religious and contemporary, as well as some unique local events, such as the annual Vegetarian festival with its bizarre body piercings.
Songkran Festival – Thai New Year
Famous across Thailand in the hot April weather, this riot of fun is equally enjoyed and avoided by foreigners since it involves a full day when anyone, anywhere, is fair game for a soaking. Full-scale water battles break out in selected areas of the island and it’s impossible to travel anywhere without roadside kids drenching bikers and cars in buckets of water.
It all originated from a gentler tradition of washing Buddha statues and pouring water on the hands of one’s elders to show respect. Songkran was also to beckon the rainy season and is a time for Thais to gather with their families. But it’s also a time for the younger members to go out and do battle. Central Patong and Saphan Hin in Phuket Town are the best places to be, along with the main beach areas. Arm yourself with a water pistols – there are hundreds of thousands on sale, of all sizes – a sense of humour and waterproof bags for your valuables.
Unique to Phuket is the Turtle Release at selected beaches, a merit-making exercise at Songkran.
Loi Krathong Festival
Taking place later in the year, Loi Krathong is an enchanting Thai tradition celebrated across the Kingdom, whereby sins of the past year are despatched symbolically on small, beautifully crafted krathongs that are floated down rivers or canals. Village entrances are decorated, locals wear traditional costume and general festivities accompany this two-day event. Fireworks are also set off (often annoyingly for days before), and the adopted Northern Thai tradition of letting off khoms (hot air lanterns made of rice paper) into the night sky adds to the experience.
Phuket Vegetarian Festival
There are vegetarian festivals elsewhere, but the Phuket festival is best known around the world. It takes place on the first day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar, usually in late September or early October. This festival originated when a troupe of Chinese performers visiting Phuket at the time when an epidemic was sweeping the island. The performers urged the locals to give up meat for seven days and showed them how to perform a number of rituals to purify themselves and appease the gods.
It worked. During the Vegetarian Festival the Taoist population, along with many Buddhists, don white clothing and abstain from meat, alcohol and sex. Street markets spring up serving a variety of vegetarian delicacies unique to the festival. Selected participants enter Chinese shrines and meditate until they enter an ecstatic trance and claim that they are possessed by spirits. While in this trance they perform amazing and fairly gruesome acts of self-mutilation.
Images of Chinese gods are carried through the streets and evil spirits are scared away with firecrackers by the thousands.
Spectacles include climbing ladders made of knives, fire walking, and the incredible processions. The latter take place in the morning all over the island and involve entranced ma song (horses of the gods) piercing their faces with everything from spikes and knives to lawn furniture and bikes – some cut themselves with axes or swords as they walk.
Phuket King’s Cup Regatta
This sailing event is a prestigious international race and draws boats and their crews from all over the world to compete for royal prizes. If you sail, there may be room for you in one of the crews – keep an eye on the website. The almost daily parties are fun – the best of which is at Kata Beach Resort (HQ of the regatta) on the last night -when the sailors have finished racing and can let their hair down.
Chinese New Year Phuket
Always guaranteed to be a colourful and noisy affair on an island with a rich Sino history, Chinese New Year is widely celebrated in Phuket, which itself has a large Chinese influence. Lion dances and parades are held in Phuket Town to the accompaniment of thousands of firecrackers. These are centred around the various Chinese temples, and not seen much in the tourist areas of the west coast.
Loi Ruea Chao Le (Sea Gypsy Boat Floating) Festival
This is similar in intent to Loy Krathong. It occurs twice a year, during the sixth and eleventh lunar months. The sea gypsy villages at Rawai and Sapam hold their ceremonies on the 13th; Koh Sirey celebrates on the 14th; and Laem La (east of the bridge on Phuket’s northern tip) on the 15th. The festival is marked by night time ceremonies during which exquisitely-crafted boats are set adrift to cleanse the people of the sins of the year.
Thao Thepkasattri – Thao Sri Suntorn Festival
Celebrated in mid-March to commemorate the repelling of Burmese invaders by the two celebrated heroines of Phuket. Performances, markets and other events are held throughout the island, particularly near the Heroines’ Monument.
The King’s and Queen’s Birthdays
Also fathers’ and mothers’ days in Thailand, when Thais demonstrate their deep reverence for their monarchs by displaying huge portraits of the royal family. Try to get a good vantage point to watch the fireworks to mark these occasions. King’s and Queen’s birthdays dates: 05th December (King), 12th August (Queen).