How can there be three New Years in Thailand?

Can you imagine living in a place where the official date is not 2010, but 2553? No, I am not crazy, I did not allow my fantasies to go wild, and I do not reside on another planet. Such a place does exist, it is called Thailand, and they use a different calendar which puts us in the year 2553.

The Christian (Gregorian) calendar starts with the birth of Jesus, 2010 years ago. The Buddhist calendar starts with the birth of Buddha, 2553 years ago. The dates in Thailand generally use the Buddhist year which can be quite confusing for anyone not familiar with this system. The trick is to subtract 543 years and you are right back to 2010.

The Buddhist New Year is celebrated in mid-April which is the hottest time of the year. To deal with the intense heat the celebrations consist mostly of throwing water, and lots of it, on every body in sight for one or several days depending on where you are in Thailand. Where I live, in Chiang Mai, the water throwing goes on for a total of seven days.

Although the Thais celebrate their New Year in April, they start counting it as of January 1. To confuse matters even more, written dates in Thailand frequently combine the days and months of the Christian calendar with the Buddhist year.

The original Buddhist calendar is quite complex and is not so much used for time keeping as for calculating dates of festivals, religious events and favorable or unfavorable days for weddings, business ventures or ceremonies. Each calendar day has a specific significance and can tell you if it is a good time for major decisions, financial transactions, weddings, or travel. The Buddhist calendar is not just a time keeping system but a way to calculate the significance of each day for our activities. The younger Thais nowadays don’t know how to calculate and use the Buddhist calendar anymore. The tradition is being kept alive by monks and the older generation.

Thailand actually has a third New Year which is based on the Chinese tradition and is celebrated by six million Thai-Chinese. They have their own calendar again and their own colorful and noisy New Year’s celebration in late January or early February. You can always tell a Chinese celebration by what I call “machine gun firecrackers”. These are small firecrackers strung up one after another, and they explode in rapid-fire fashion. Another unique Chinese tradition is the lion dance where two men slip into the same colorful costume and together perform sometimes incredibly acrobatic dances that truly look like a gigantic animal is moving about.

Most international business in the world uses the Gregorian Christian calendar, and the Thais do that as well. They are familiar with both systems, and January 1 is a public holiday here also and is celebrated just like in the west with countdown and big fireworks.

In Thailand any excuse is good enough for a party, and the Thais have an impressive collection of them: Flower festivals, food festivals, New Year (all three of them), Buddha days, temple festivals, the king’s birthday and quite a few more. In Thailand a holiday does not mean a day off work with quiet time – just the opposite – some festivals last several days and people come out by the tens of thousands to participate in spectacular parades, colorful performances, singing and dancing competitions, crowning of beauty queens and lots of great food. Their dates vary since they are mostly based on the Buddhist calendar.

Now it is 2010 in Thailand and it is also 2553. So we celebrate New Year three times a year, and we are sometimes confused about what the date is, but we don’t worry about it and just join the party! The Thai way of saying that is “maipenrai” – meaning “don’t worry”, “it doesn’t matter”, “it’s no big deal”, “it’s ok”. This is a useful word to know when you visit Thailand since it reflects the Thai attitude about life beautifully.

I give you some examples how to use it: “January 1 New Year is not really part of our tradition, but maipenrai, it’s a great opportunity to have a fantastic party, so let’s celebrate it”. Or: “Christmas has nothing to do with Buddhism, but maipenrai, it’s another reason to have a party, so let’s celebrate it anyway”.

Thais would never think that non-Buddhist festivals like Christmas have no place in their country or might even conflict with Buddhist principles. Now can you imagine the USA or any western country putting on a national festival for a Buddhist holiday just for the fun of it? No chance! One of the likable qualities of the Thais is their tolerance and non judgmental attitude towards other religions. Thais are fun loving people, and there is always one festival or another happening wherever you are. This is one of the great pleasures of living here.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Comment