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Cover story: 25 May / Vol. 24 No. 4
 By Dararai
Thai Tradition & Festivals

A cat in a thinly woven bamboo basket is
carried in a procession to pray for rain.

Thailand is an agricultural country. Most Thai people in the rural areas grow crops especially rice for a living. Their fate inevitably depends on the falling of rain that will give life and freshness to their crops. The farmers will greatly suffer if there is drought. So they turn to have faith in beliefs that can alleviate their worry, prolong their hope and give inspiration to them. That is why there are various kinds of ceremonies of praying for plenty of rainfall, different in forms from region to region.

Due to the climate of the north, northeast and the central regions of Thailand, which is dry in the hot and the cool seasons, ceremonies of praying for rainfall are held in these regions. Stories and legends about three such important ceremonies, viz. the Tradition of Cat Procession, the Rocket Festival and the Phi Ta Khon Festival, are presented below.
The central region has the ceremony of parading a female cat to pray for rain. According to an ancient belief, the cries of a female cat could draw a rainfall. So the heart of the ceremony is when people throw water at the cat to make it cry a lot. In preparing for this tradition, a selected beautiful female cat is put into a thinly woven bamboo basket. The colourfully dressed farmers in a village will form a procession to parade the cat around the village. When walking, they will joyfully dance and sing a song with the lyrics asking for a rainfall enough for feeding their crops. The procession will pass from one house to another. Villagers staying in their houses when hearing the approaching procession will prepare a bowl of water and then splash it on the cat while the members of the procession will express their gladness as if it were really raining and say,

"Rain is falling. Rain is falling. A lot of rainfall. Our rice fields and the grass are all green now."

It is believed that if any house owner whose house the parade passes by fails to throw water at the cat, the cat will get angry and instead of calling rain for the farmers will use magic powers to prolong the drought. The ceremony ends after the procession has passed every house in the village.

Similarly to the central region, the northern people rely on the cat in asking for a rainfall. The cat is released into an enclosed area around which are placed earthen dolls of elephants, horses, cows, buffaloes, frogs, bull frogs, etc. Also included are sacrificial food and drinks and flowers. Villagers are required to observe either the Five or Eight Buddhist Precepts for three days beforehand. Then a number of Buddhist monks are invited to chant sutras while the villagers pray for plenty of rainfall.
As to the northeastern people, they have a unique festival called ngan bun bangfai or the Rocket Festival. It is held at the beginning of the rainy season as an annual plea to god for plenty of rainfall. A legend has it that once a god called Phaya Thaen, who was the most powerful in heaven, and was in charge of the regulation of rainfall in the world, was angry with the animals on earth. To retaliate, he stopped the rain completely, causing distress to all creatures. Greatly troubled, the animals made war with Phaya Thaen twice, but were defeated on both occasions.

A beautifully decorated rocket

Later, Phaya Khankhak, a former incarnation of the Buddha, mobilized those animals to fight against Phaya Thaen and they won in the end. As a result, Phya Thaen had to promise that if during the sixth lunar month (roughly corresponding to May) each year, bamboo rockets were launched on earth, he would not fail to make the rain fall.

People watching the launch of the rocket

This year the Rocket Festival is scheduled to be held from 12 to 13 May in Yasothon Province. Other northeastern provinces also feature the Rocket Festival but not of the same grand scale as Yasothon Province.

Processions of the rockets

Visitors will find the festival spectacular because of the colourful rocket processions, a rocket contest, a beauty contest and folk entertainments. For more information, please contact TAT Northeastern Office, Region 2 on tel: +66 (0) 4524 3770, 0 4525 0714.

Another festival of the northeast is the Phi Ta Khon Festival. It is an old tradition taking place in Dan Sai County, Loei Province, yearly. The festival is held as part of Bun Phra Wet and Bun Bang Fai, which are major festivals of the province. Bun Phra Wet is a religious ceremony in which people listen to the recitation of scriptures to gain merit. Bun Bang Fai is the launching of bamboo rockets to pray for rain. This year the Phi Ta Khon Festival will take place from 23 to 24 June.

The legend of the festival is derived from an episode in the Wetsandon Jataka recounting the journey home of Prince Wetsandon (the last former life of the Lord Buddha) and his wife Matsi after years of exile in the forest. The townspeople then celebrating his return were so delightful that the spirits emerged to join them.

The event lasts for three days featuring Buddhistic rituals, traditional ceremonies and fun-filled activities. Phi Ta Khon festival highlights the eye-appealing colourful parade of Phi Ta Khon along with local performances. Most Phi Ta Khon carry wooden weapons in the shape of an oversized penis with a splash of red paint on the tip and played with the audience, who are amused by their antics. The use of the phalluses is not considered rude. Indeed, they are a token of power and fertility. Natives believe that these things will satisfy Phaya Thaen, a most revered deity of the northeastern region who is believed to control the well-being of villagers.

Visitors will be amused by local performances and enjoy themselves during the festival. For more information, please contact TAT Northeastern Office Region 5 on tel: +66 (0) 4232 5406 to 7.

Lastly, it should be added that the tradition of Cat Procession is a local tradition, not a fun fair. And at present, it is rarely held except when there is the most severe drought situation. So, if you would like to learn something from these events, you can join the Rocket Festival or the Phi Ta Khon Festival. Both are held every year. Apart from having an opportunity to have a great fun, you will also get to know the northeastern people's ways of living.

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language.

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