While Isan may not have as many tourist attractions as Bangkok
or Chiang Mai
, it has some of the most fun, quirky and interesting festivals you'll find anywhere in Thailand. If you like slightly off-beat events, check out these annual celebrations in Thailand's northeast.
1. Phanom Rung Solar Events in BuriramHead to Buriram's hilltop Khmer ruins to observe a fascinating solar event. Four times a year you can watch the sun rise or set in perfect alignment with Phanom Rung's 15 doorways, which face east slightly out sync with the line of the sun. These events happen about 14 days before and after the equinoxes in March and September. This visually stunning event attracts locals and others who often dress in white and make offerings at the temple. To watch the sunrise, plan on getting to the temple at about 5:30 a.m.
2. Yasathon Bun Bangfai Rocket FestivalIf you like rockets and explosions, you'll love this quirky festival in Yasathon. Every year villagers and others make enormous homemade rockets which are fired into the sky as part of a ceremony to guarantee good rains in the season to come. Though there are somewhat traditional roots to this event, it's become a rocket launching showdown, with each contestant trying to outdo the other. The event lasts for two days, during which there is also live music, parades and processions and folk dancing. Needless to say, there have been accidents at this festival so stake out your spot carefully!
3. Phi Ta Khon Festival in LoeiFor a bit of cross dressing and a celebration of the penis, head to the northernmost province in Thailand for this ghost festival. What's so confusing about the Phi Ta Khon Festival is that no one there seems to know what it's really about or why. The basis of the festival is pretty simple: In the Buddha's last life, as prince Vessantara, he was presumed dead after taking a long journey. When he returned, his followers celebrated so much that they woke the dead. To commemorate this event, villages in Dan Sai in Loei province dress up in painted masks and elaborate costumes and make a procession through this sleepy little town. The men also carry big wooden phalluses and wave them around madly. Then there are the men who appear to be dressed as penises, or as women. And everyone seems to be drinking. Despite this, or maybe because of it, the Phi Ta Khon Festival in Loei is probably the country's most fun event.
4. Bon Fai Naak festival in Nong KhaiWant to see some mythical naga (water serpent) fireballs rising out of the water and floating overhead before silently disappearing into the night sky? Head to Nong Khai in late October, where you'll find hundreds of other visitors crowding the banks of the Mekong River in the evening to watch for this phenomena also known as the Mekong Lights. The fireballs can be seen throughout the year but during this festival there are other surrounding events, too. As for a scientific explanation of the fireballs, they've been linked to tracer fire by neighboring armies and burning gas from the river, but no one has provided a satisfactory explanation for them yet.
5. The Candle Festival in Ubon RatchathaniIf giant carved candles are your thing you'll love the Ubon Ratchathani candle festival, which takes place around the beginning of August every year. The event celebrates the beginning of Pansa, or Buddhist Lent, when monks retreat to their temples for a three month period during the rainy season. The candles, which are often carved to tell stories from the life of the Buddha, are paraded through town on floats before being put on display.