It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Minus the snow, that is. There aren’t any burly Santas with kids on their laps asking for gifts, either. That whole spiritual element is mostly missing, too. Come to think of it, Christmas, New Year’s, and all the other holidays that enrich cultures around the world in December take different shapes in Thailand. But that doesn’t mean the holidays have any less joy.
The people of Thailand celebrate winter holidays in their own unique and beautiful way. “We are festive people,” says Apple, an office worker in Sathorn, with a merry, vaguely Santa-like laugh. Truer words have never been spoken. From golden foil emblazoned with “Happy New Year” wishes to Christmas trees that stay up until February to Easter bunnies who make rare but occasional December appearances, seemingly fitting yet incongruous imagery—signs that the holidays have arrived, Thai-style—speckle the city like snowflakes. This month, soak up the spirit and celebrate like locals do.Pray All Night
It may be a Western tradition, but Thai people also celebrate New Year’s Eve on December 31—actually, people here celebrate multiple new years: Chinese New Year, Songkran, Diwali—just in different ways. For older generations, the Western New Year marks an occasion to rekindle Buddhist rituals. At Sanam Luang, as well as major temples around the country, Buddhists embark on a full night of prayer. Monks lead chants throughout the night, believing it to be an auspicious start to the year ahead. When the new dawn rises, the good deeds continue, as those gathered give food to monks, a tradition called tak bat.
Lead a Lucky Draw
‘Tis the season of sharing. Or is it the season of giving and receiving? At schools, especially Catholic ones, kids bring wrapped presents to school on Christmas Eve. They first place their gifts in one of a few boxes labelled by number, and then each student draws a piece of paper with a number on it from a jar. Once that’s done, one by one, students randomly pick goodies from the box that corresponds to the number they drew. What they receive is a total surprise—toy soldiers, stationery, bath soap. It’s a tradition not unlike the infamous white elephant exchange, but without the intended burden attached, and it’s not just for schoolchildren—companies around the city organize lucky draws in the spirit of the season.
Giving hampers to bosses, grandparents, or respected elders of any kind on special occasions has been a Thai tradition for ages. Hampers here, however, are a little different from the types you may know. The version most commonly bought in Thailand is called a “health hamper.” It might contain essence of chicken, Ovaltine, condensed milk, or diffuser oil. Who knows? They’re all a little different. Some department stores arrange hampers with products representing the four elements, for luck and longevity. OTOP products and house appliances appear in the occasional hamper, too. Yet lots of people prefer to build their own, enjoying the freedom to choose whatever they want while ensuring the products have not eclipsed their expiration dates. Just don’t put alcohol in your hamper—it’s taboo.
The clearest signs of the impending holidays appear on buildings. Thousands of light bulbs illuminate the road, the malls, and the tallest skyscrapers. Giant trees tower over public spaces, such as department stores and parks. So do other Christmas-y decorations, including cut-out cartoons of elves, Santa, and reindeer. The kitsch vanishes into the darkness of night, however, when locals stroll around town, soaking up the beautiful artwork and lit-up outlines of architecture in the cool weather. The most-visited and selfied spot in town is none other than CentralWorld, which builds scenes exclusively for the season.
Sparkling Christmas trees beautify nearly every major hotel. While it may not replicate turning on the lights at home, tree lighting ceremonies nevertheless engender a sense of community. From hotel to hotel, snacks and desserts accompany carols sung by local choirs. On December 3, in the presence of HRH Princess Soamsawali, Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel welcomes one and all to its Gala Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in the lobby. At other luxury hotels, such as The Peninsula, St. Regis, and Sofitel So, the lights have gone on in November, but you can still visit the lobbies to view the finished products.
What celebration would be complete without pyrotechnics? It would be like chips without ketchup. No matter where you are in Bangkok this New Year’s Eve, you will be able to witness spectacular firework displays from the safety of great heights—say, lebua, Chatrium, or Millennium Hilton. The Chao Phraya River is among the best spots to watch fireworks bloom over the skyline. Lifestyle malls and hotels by the river compete against each other by sending their colourful plumes into the sky throughout the night. Other destinations, like Sanam Luang and Siam Paragon, also put on displays on New Year’s Eve.
Now annual institutions, beer gardens pop up across the city as the weather settles into winter mode. From Sathorn Square to Esplanade to CentralWorld, beer gardens combine towers and pints of brews with food, live music, and lots of camaraderie. Once again, big beer breweries in Thailand, including Chang, Singha, and Heineken, are setting up semi-temporary tables, seats, and stages where big-name Thai bands—rock, country, jazz, and more—will serenade crowds of happy friends and families.
On New Year’s Eve, a variety of free concerts featuring many well-known local artists will win the hearts of partygoers. Leading shopping malls, like Paragon, Asiatique, and CentralWorld, transform their public spaces into dance floors. More than a few DJs and Thai celebrities make appearances—these too, like the Christmas-themed dioramas outside CentralWorld, are heavily selfied destinations. Restaurants, bars, and hotels also organize concerts, but they will also offer special menus and promotions to round out 2015 in extravagant, or delicious, style.
Thailand’s answer to Black Friday is the holiday season midnight sale. Department stores across the city spread cheer with grand end-of-the-year sales. Places like Siam Paragon, CentralWorld, and EMQuartier will extend opening hours while others will allow you to shop until you drop, closing at midnight.
Party, Party, Party
What else? Sure, you can party anywhere in the world, but Bangkok does it best. Many might choose to have a small party at home with friends or family, eating and drinking, exchanging presents, or even singing karaoke on home stereos. Others will go buck wild in town, whether at RCA, Sukhumvit 11, or rooftop hangouts like Cloud 47 or Park Society. With so many holidays in December, and such good weather to boot, the month becomes a de facto period of decadence. So join in however you see fit.