Thai people are intrinsically tethered to the temple. At every stage of life, from naming newborns to sharpening academic skills to holding final funeral rites, the temple plays a central role. Beyond shaping culture, the gilded, spired buildings and expansive grounds also provide venues for important events. They’re true community centres, and they have been for centuries—temples were the cinema before the cinema existed, the Siam Paragon of a previous era. Nowadays, temples across Thailand recapture their role as the lifeblood of local communities during elaborate festivals known simply as temple fairs.
Paintings on temple walls depict moments of play and celebration, scenes that represent temple fairs. They speak of a time when the temple was the centre of daily life—a meeting place for community elders, a room for prayer, a place to celebrate special occasions, and, in earlier days, the only location where men and women could mingle. Now, temple fairs are mostly organized for annual celebrations, when people of all ages can cut loose in one moment and worship sacred Buddha images in another.
In Bangkok—and, in all actuality, in Thailand—one of the most remarkable temple fairs takes place at Wat Saket each year. The fair dates back to the reign of King Rama V, when the striking Golden Mount was built and renovations that had begun during the rule of King Rama I were finally finished. Chulalongkorn, as Rama V is most often known, called for a celebration late in the year, when his people could enjoy the crisp early winter weather. The ritual burst and bloomed from that first event. Today, the fair at Wat Saket, always held during the week of Loy Krathong, is perhaps the grandest in the country. Many thousands of people flock to the relatively small grounds to soak up the festivities.
Not far from Wat Saket, another remarkable fair with roots in the history books takes place in Dusit. At the Marble Temple, or Wat Benchamabophit, activities were organized and led by noblemen, and so the entertainment vastly differed from other temple fairs around the country. Villagers were allowed to visit and experience court traditions, but they couldn’t get involved—they were only witnesses. The segregation ended when a festival known as Tan Kuay Salak was started. Held annually at the Marble Temple, the fair was organized to unite the northern Thai community living in the capital. While today Tan Kuay Salak remains a northern Thai gathering, anyone can (and does) attend.
With the rise of technology, not to mention the wealth of leisure activities now available, the lustre of the temple fair should have faded long ago. Yet it hasn’t. These sprawling community shindigs remain as popular as ever. Wander into any temple fair and the reason for their endurance becomes clear—there’s just so much to do, and that goes for kids, teens, and adults.
Activities start with serene good deeds. The elderly, in particular, like making merit, hoping to bring luck and prosperity into their lives. At Wat Saket, three days before the fair, Buddhists are invited join a huge parade around the neighbourhood, carrying a big red cloth that’s toted to the top of the Golden Mount and wrapped around the chedi, signalling that the fair is about to start. More often than not, the parade is made up of the older generations, those who tend to believe more firmly in the power of tradition.
For the young and wild, the temple fair is anything but boring. There are local folk bands, unending corridors of food stalls, haunted houses, acrobats—you name it. The temple is transformed into an open-air arena, complete with a stage and dance floor. Crowds shimmy and sing along to luuk thung artists performing on stage. Some might attach banknotes together that they put around the artists’ necks as a reward. It’s not all luuk thung, either. There’s likay (Thai opera), mor lam, lam tad (a kind of ad-libbed singing dialogue between a man and a woman—like a rap battle, but much less contemporary and far more rural Thai), and singing contests at night.
Some rare shows are found exclusively at temple fairs. Just about all of them offer a target shooting game, which is, of course, very popular. Plastic guns take aim at a fixed target —balloons, cans, cardboard—and good shots are rewarded with prizes. Darts are popular, as well. The more targets you hit, the bigger the prize, spanning from instant noodles to kitchen utensils to huge teddy bears.
No fair is complete without sao noi tok nam. Pretty young ladies sit above tanks of tepid water. Paying customers throw balls at targets. Hit hard enough, the target triggers a Rube Goldberg device. The perch upon which the dripping beauty sits is released and she falls into the tank. Once the water is cleared from her nose, she climbs back up and the process begins again. Children love picking up guppies from kiddie pools using paper shovels, trying to snatch as many as they can before the paper dissolves in the water. All ages relish lasting memories from the bright, colourful Ferris wheel and merry-go-round.
Pandering to the Thai belief in ghosts, temple fairs often feature haunted houses, the creepy scenes revealed for the low price of B20. A couple of staff wearing traditional Thai costumes and the kind of makeup that would make Lady Gaga blush chase customers into a dark tent. The effect is often amusing rather than frightening, but still the laugh is worth the price of a plate of cheap pad thai. Perhaps more skin-crawling than scary, local-style Ripley’s Believe it or Not zones display bizarre fake creatures, including Siamese twins, mermaids, and deformed human figures.
Apart from the aforementioned entertainment, food amounts to the temple fair’s biggest draw. Every inch of the grounds are packed with stalls selling noodles, roasted red pork, oyster omelettes, and more. Ubiquitous meatballs and other common takeaway items allow for casual grazing from the first step inside the temple to the last. People with a sweet tooth will find a sugary heaven here, too. Down-to-earth desserts include kanom bueng (the Thai taco stuffed with marshmallow and foy thong), jampada tod (breadfruit seeds wrapped in fried coconut flour), cotton candy, steamed sweet sticky rice stuffed in a bamboo tube, and kanom jaak (steamed coconut paste wrapped in palm leaves).
As essential as religion is to Thai culture, nostalgia plays a big part, too. Temple fairs harken back to the good old days—the authentic way of life—evoking the rites and routines that have been passed down through generations. Odds are good that they will still matter to Thai society long into the future.
Photos by Supphanat Kusolphithak