Khao Phansa Day is a Buddhist holiday observed in Thailand on the first day following the full moon occurring in the eighth month of the Thai lunar calendar.
The date migrates each year due to differences between the lunar and solar calendars. Additionally, when Khao Phansa lands on a weekend, the next work day is made a non-work day to ensure celebrants get a day off work.
Khao Phansa marks the first day of “Buddhist Lent,” a time when some observant Buddhists fast from such things as meat, alcohol, and tobacco. For the most part, only Theravada, rather than Mahayana, Buddhists observe Khao Phansa, and even many Theravada practitioners choose not to fast.
Yet another name for Khao Phansa is “the Rains Retreat” because it occurs right at the beginning of Thai rainy season and because Buddhist monks take this opportunity to retreat inside of their temples for a three-month period of study and meditation. This tradition of a “rainy season retreat” predates Buddhism, but it was followed by Buddha during his lifetime, which encourages many to emulate him today. Ancient ascetics originally began the practice to avoid crop damage, and Buddha added the reason of avoiding killing insects by accidentally stepping on them.
Many monks enter monastic life on Khao Phansa Day, staying in monasteries and temples until the rainy season ends on Wan Ok Phansa Day. The number of rainy season, called “Vassas,” spent in isolation is the measure used to count how many years a Thai Buddhist monk “has been a monk.” After Vassa, Thai Buddhists celebrate the festival of “Kathina,” during which the common people bring donations to local temples, which often consist of new robes given to the monks.
There are many festivals held all over Thailand on Khao Phansa Day and during Buddhist Lent. The tourist cannot hope to attend them all, but here are some of the main ones to watch for:
- The very colourful Khao Phansa festival held in Saraburi. Here, at the shrine of the Buddha’s Footprint, many gather from all over Thailand to behold yellow-and-white flower offerings given to the monks as they ascend a stairway to footprint of Buddha. You may see worshippers wash the feet of monks to atone for their sins. Also, look for the Saraburi Candle Festival, where you can see uniquely carved candles lit and carried in a night-time parade.
- The other very famous and very colourful Khao Phansa Day celebration to not miss is held in Ubon Ratchathani. Again, there is a candle festival, which in some form, is common to most of the celebrations. You will see candles exquisitely carved out of beeswax in every imaginable shape and size. The candles are put upon floats and carried about town and eventually deposited in local temples.
- In Surin, there is also a candle festival, but besides that, there is a “merit-making” ceremony done on elephant back. This takes place at a local Buddhist monument called “Phaya Surin,” where about 100 elephants are rode upon by the monks of the highest stature in the community. The elephants go on parade, and it is a perfect chance for some unique pictures.
- In Suphan Buri, you will find the usual candles and float parade, but you will also see numerous folk dances by competing ethnic groups. There is great emphasis on the cultural diversity of the city. Many of the “candles” are actually gigantic statutes that are carved into life-sized figures, and there is a very serious contest to decide which is the best candle.
- At the Aquatic Phansa Festival in Ayutthaya, the locals put a “twist” on the usual land processions and carry their candles by boat to the local temple, where monks will use them during their three-month period of seclusion.
The tourist to Thailand on Khao Phansa Day will have many options as to which celebrations to attend. Candles are involved in practically all of them, but each town manages to do things in a unique way. There will be many memorable and photo-worthy moments.