Regular Annual Festivals in Hat Yai
IntroductionHat Yai is quite a cosmopolitan place. It's in Thailand, obviously, and so there are Buddhist Thai festivals but there are also large Muslim and Chinese populations living locally. In addition, most visitors from Malaysia and Singapore are ethnic Chinese. Thais have also caught on to Western festivals and celebrations, such as Christmas, New Year and Valentine's Day.
Sometimes it seems that a different festival is being celebrated every week. Some festivals are on fixed dates, such as Christmas and Songkran, but others follow the lunar calendar and are celebrated on full moon days.
Festivals in Hat YaiThe following list includes some, but not all, festivals.
Comments: Because Hat Yai is a very Chinese dominated town, the Chinese vegetarian festival celebrated once a year is quite a big event. It lasts for nine days and falls in late September or early October. The exact date varies from year to year as it is based on the lunar calendar.
Along Supasarnrangsan Road a lot of street stalls selling veggie food are set up. This is great if you like vegetarian food but not so great if you don't as many local restaurant owners take the opportunity to have a holiday and close their restaurants during the period of the festival.
The big day is the middle Saturday of the festival where there is a lot of activity around the junction of Supasarnrangsan and Saeng Sri roads (Map 2).
On this day free food is given out. 109 large woks of noodles and rice are lined up along the street and you can eat as much as you like for nothing. Farangs enjoying the free food are much sought after. I was constantly photographed while stuffing my face and noticed a lot of TV cameras pointing at me. All of the Thai TV channels seem to cover this event.
In the late afternoon a Chinese religious leader pushes pointed metal rods through the cheeks of religious devotees. As I observed this I noticed that most of them already had scars on their cheeks so they probably do it every year.
If you have ever witnessed the Hindu Thaipusam festival it is quite similar but without the metal cages that the Hindus carry on their shoulders. The devotees at the vegetarian festival put objects such as bicycles and garden strimmers through their cheeks before joining a large procession to central Hat Yai.
Getting caught up in the middle of the ceremony, as I did trying to take photos, gets a bit frenetic. Everyone with a camera pushes to get a good view while stewards try to hold the crowd back and constantly blow whistles. On top of all the noise, authentic firecrackers (a Chinese favourite and very, very loud) are let off.
Comments: Hat Yai is a big Chinese town. Not only are many of the local Thai residents of Chinese extraction but the majority of the visiting Malaysian and Singaporean tourists are also Chinese. The actual date varies from year to year depending on the lunar calendar but it falls some time in February or early March.
Have no fear, if you are in Hat Yai during CNY there will be no mistaking the fact. For a period of at least one week the sound of firecrackers can be heard everywhere and at all times of the day and night. If you have never heard authentic Chinese firecrackers before it is probably the closest sound to being in a very active war zone.
I suspect there is a real danger of deafness occurring if you get to close. Even from a considerable distance the noise is deafening. The Chinese love them. I find them quite annoying, especially at 3am. They are banned in most other countries and Chinese Malaysians get busted regularly for smuggling them into Malaysia. In Thailand though, where anything goes and noise is regarded as fun, nobody cares.
On the eve of CNY many Chinese families erect a table outside their homes and put their New Year feast on display. Lots of burning takes place on the streets. The Chinese venerate their ancestors and by burning letters and paper copies of worldly objects it is seen as a way of transferring them from this world to the next, a kind of celestial mailbox.
New Year's Day is actually fairly quiet as this is the day when people travel to be with their families. The following three days are when the real festivities take place in earnest, with lion-dancing, street fairs and general merry-making. There are big firework displays at the end of each day and of course lots more firecrackers.
Hat Yai can be a strange place at CNY. Certain areas get very busy as Chinese tourists from other countries come to visit but many locals close their businesses for up to two weeks. Other areas therefore go very quiet and a number of my regular eating places put up the shutters.
Comments: Loy Gratong is one of the major festivals in the Thai calendar (along with Songkran), and it takes place on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month, which is normally in November. It started during the Sukhothai period and that city is regarded as being the best place to witness this ancient festival. However, if you're stuck in Hat Yai, Sukhothai is a long way to go.
The origins of Loy Gratong are uncertain but what it seems to be is yet another relic of animism that persists in the Thai belief system by offering thanks to Phra Mae Khongkha, the goddess of the water.
Small lotus-shaped baskets called gratongs are floated in a suitable body of water. They were originally made of banana leaves and many still are. A few years ago styrofoam gratongs were all the rage but they were an environmental disaster so have been phased out. Some are made of bread dough which serves to feed the fish. Some people buy their gratongs and others make their own (see photo below).
The gratongs contain flowers, incense and candles. Before floating your gratong it is customary to add a coin, a lock of your hair and a fingernail clipping. Make a wish and set it afloat. The gratong will carry away all your bad luck as well as making your wishes come true. Marvellous.
Hat Yai has a variety of Loy Gratong venues. The event at the Prince of Songkla University generally attracts a higher class of Thai and is generally refined and peaceful. The festivities at Wat Hat Yai Nai are a little more boisterous with lots of young urchins swimming around in the muddy water trying to get money out of people, especially farang tourists.
Another location is the Municipal Park which, in 2005, also featured the International Lantern Festival that opened one day before Loy Gratong.
Comments: New Year has turned into quite a big event in Hat Yai in recent years. If you want to spend New Year in town, book a hotel early because they get very full very quickly, especially around Lee Gardens.
Several streets are closed to traffic and a large, temporary street market is set up. At midnight on New Year's Eve there is a New Year countdown at Lee Gardens and lots of fireworks.
Thailand adopted the Gregorian calendar on 5th October Thai year 2125 (1582).
Comments: Christmas means different things to different people. I'm not sure what it means to Thais. They like the decorations, fairy lights and gifts.
Shops and restaurants play Christmas songs, but they don't know when to stop playing them. It isn't unusual to be sitting having lunch in June and to hear 'Santa Claus is coming to town' in the background.
It's the same with mobile phone ring tones. Thais download Jingle Bells and it stays on their phones all year.
You will find that some of the large hotels serve a Christmas lunch and if you are Christian there are churches in Hat Yai where you can attend Christmas services.
Comments: Songkran, traditionally the Thai New Year, is probably the biggest water fight on earth. Expensive coffee table books about Thailand tell you that it is a very polite affair in which Thais bathe Buddha images and gently wash the hands of older people.
In reality, it's aquatic anarchy and you will either love it or hate it. I'm at an age now where I fall into the latter category. The thing I object to most about Songkran is that you can't elect not to join in.
If you go outside on 13th April, especially if you are a farang you will get doused with bucketloads of water. If you are carrying something expensive it might get ruined, but Thais don't care.
Many people drive around drunk, Thai males take the opportunity to grope Thai females, and the already excessive number of road deaths goes through the roof. I make sure that I have enough food in the house and stay indoors all day.
The good thing about Songkran in Hat Yai is that it lasts for one day. In northern Thailand the stupidity goes on for a week.
Here are some photos I took of Songkran in 2005. I was using a small P&S camera with a waterproof housing designed for scuba diving.
Comments: In the second half of November 2005 an International Lantern Festival was held at the Hat Yai Municipal Park (Map 2).
The 2005 event ran for just two weeks. It opened on the 15th November (one day before Loy Gratong) and finished on the 30th November. It was very successful, drawing huge crowds - especially on Loy Gratong day. Lanterns in all shapes and sizes were shipped in from other countries including China and Singapore. Being a night time event, the gates opened at 6pm every evening.
Three years later, a repeat of the lantern festival ran from 1st November 2008 to 28th February 2009, therefore a lot longer than the first time.
The same thing happened in 2009. The festival opened on 1st November 2009 and ran until 28th February 2010. It now appears to have become a permanent feature in the park.
I visited the 2012/2013 lantern festival, expecting to see the same thing as before, and was very pleasantly surprised to see that everything had changed. In fact, I was very impressed. The festival had moved to a different part of the park and many of the decorations were lit with thousands of small lights. It's still free - even for foreigners, which is most unusual in Thailand - and well worth visiting.
Hat Yai Lantern Festival (Thai web site).
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Listed opposite are some of my personal recommendations for hotels in Hat Yai based on budget. I have lived permanently in Hat Yai since 2003 and my recommendations are based on a lot of local knowledge.
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- Buri Sriphu Hotel
- Centara Hotel Hat Yai
- Crystal Hotel
- The Habita
- Hansa JB Hotel
- Hatyai Signature Hotel
- La Pause
- New Season Square Hotel
- S Hadyai Hotel
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