Chiang Mai is the best and busiest place in the country to see in the Thai New Year, Songkhran, which takes over the city roughly between April 12 and 15. The most obvious role of the festival is as an extended “rain dance” in the driest part of the year, when huge volumes of canal water are thrown about in a communal water-fight that spares no one a drenching. The other elements of this complex festival are not as well known but no less important. In the temple compounds, communities get together to build sandcastles in the shape of chedis, which they cover with coloured flags – this bestows merit on any ancestors who happen to find themselves in hell and may eventually release them from their torments, and also shows an intent to help renovate the wat in the year to come. Houses are given a thorough spring-clean to see out the old year, while Buddha images from the city’s main temples are cleaned, polished and sprinkled with lustral water, before being ceremonially carried through the middle of the water-fight to give everyone the chance to throw water on them and receive the blessing of renewal. Finally, younger family members formally visit their elders during the festival to ask for their blessings, while pouring scented water over their hands.
Loy Krathong, on and around the night of the full moon in November, has its most showy celebration at Sukhothai, but Chiang Mai – where it is also known as Yipeng – is not far behind. While a spectacular but unnerving firework fiesta rages on the banks, thousands of candles are gently floated down the Ping River in beautiful lotus-leaf boats. As well as floating krathongs, people release khom loy, paper hot-air balloons that create a magical spectacle as they float heavenward, sometimes with firecrackers trailing behind. As with krathongs, they are released to carry away sins and bad luck, as well as to honour the Buddha’s topknot, which he cut off when he became an ascetic (according to legend, the topknot is looked after by the Buddha’s mother in heaven).
Chiang Mai’s brilliantly colourful flower festival, centred on Buak Hat Park at the southwest corner of the old town usually on the first weekend of February, also attracts huge crowds. The highlight is a procession of floats, modelled into animals, chedis and even scenes from the Ramayana, and covered in flowers. In early April, the Poy Sang Long festival, centred around Wat Pa Pao near the northeast corner of the old city, is an ordination ritual for young Shan men, who are paraded round town on the shoulders of relatives. The boys are dressed in extravagant, colourful clothing with huge floral headdresses, which they symbolically cast off at the end of the festival to don a saffron robe – its most elaborate manifestation in Thailand is in Mae Hong Son. In late May or early June, the Inthakin Festival, a life-prolonging ceremony for the city of Chiang Mai, using holy water from Doi Luang Chiang Dao, is focused around the city foundation pillar at Wat Chedi Luang, which throngs with locals making offerings.