Christmas is a huge holiday in the West. The months of December, November (and sometimes October!) are dominated by festive activities and atmosphere. But what’s it like in other places?
Having lived in Thailand for 5 Christmas’s, and with number 6 just around the corner, I can give you a good idea of what Thais do for the holiday. I even went and took photos of what’s going on this year!
So does Thailand celebrate Christmas?
In a word, no. They are a Buddhist country. They have their own holidays and customs. Christmas is as alien to them as the idea of celebrating Divali would be to people living in the USA.
That said, the influence of Western culture is strong here. You will see shopping malls, bars and restaurants join in with the festive vibes. Particularly in tourist and expat areas.
That influence is what I’ll be discussing in this article. Along with telling you about the biggest Thai holiday and its obsession with water pistols and car accidents…
Does Thailand Celebrate Christmas?
The country of Thailand has a population that is mostly Buddhist (95%) with a sizable Muslim minority (4%) and a small amount of Christians (1%). The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is simply not the huge event it is in Christian countries.
Mosey down the more foreigner-dominant areas though, and you will be quickly reminded that it is the festive season.
The shopping malls especially go hell for leather with the Xmas theme. You’ll see decorations, trees, presents and other reminders that it’s near the end of the year. Here’s a look at one of the many impressively decorated Christmas trees you can find around in Sukhumvit. This one’s actually on the smaller side!
Christmas is also celebrated in bars, restaurants and clubs anywhere you’ll find tourists or expats who are spending the day away from their home countries. And there is no shortage of places to get a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.
Outside of the major cities and the touristy areas, Christmas is a non-event. Your ordinary Thai who sells Pad Thai in Songkhla or works a rice paddy in Udon Thani doesn’t care. For them, Christmas is a strange farang invention that the rich people on TV celebrate.
The 25th of December is not a public holiday in Thailand. Unless it falls on a weekend, it’s a normal working day for the Thais.
International companies, organisations and workplaces with a high amount of foreign staff do give it as a holiday. The school I work at gives a generous 3 weeks off for Christmas. This is standard for most international schools.
You can check out the Thai national holidays on this useful website. It’s filled with Buddhist observances and Royal birthdays. Interestingly, they get holidays for the Western New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day even though the Thai New Year – Songkran – is also a holiday and falls later in the year.
What Is Thailand Like At Christmas?
Christmas and New Year is Thailand’s peak period for tourism. It’s an attractive option for holiday goers looking to venture away from their frigid northern hemisphere climes. Also, everyone has days off. Particularly nearby Australia where it’s the summer break for schools.
Any holiday at this time will encounter ‘peak season’ problems. Crowded tourist hotspots, higher prices, hotels and transport being fully booked… You will want to be organised if you plan to be in the country around this period.
For those living here, it’s the same old routine. Shops don’t close, your favourite Pad Gra Pao stall will still be there. The main differences are that your Facebook feed is filled with Christmas stuff from friends back home and that your friends in Thailand are desperate to spend all their money on a Christmas dinner somewhere.
A nice advantage of this time of year is the weather. Thailand has three seasons. Hot, wet and cool. The December to February months are known as the cool season where daily temperatures are 28-33°C rather than 35-40°C. Still bloody hot, but less oppressive than the rest of the year.
The North of the country, where it’s more mountainous, gets much cooler. The people there even wear jumpers and jackets sometimes!
The cooler weather leads to more outdoor activities. Music festivals like Wonderfruit or Big Mountain take place in December. There are also the outdoor beer gardens in Bangkok which have live music and pretty young girls in Singha or Chang dresses serving drinks. These only pop up for a couple of months of the year but are immensely popular.
What Do Thai People Celebrate Instead?
The closest equivalent of Christmas in Thailand is Songkran – the Thai New Year. The time is traditionally spent with families with a focus on religious activities like merit making.
It’s celebrated from 13-15th April each year with those dates being public holidays. Often individual companies or the government itself will give even more time off. Songkran is also a very popular time for tourists to visit for reasons I’ll get to in a second.
Here are a few of the ways Songkran is notable and different from how we would celebrate holidays.
Less gift giving. Thai people are not as rich as the people in Christmas-celebrating countries. And they have not been struck by the rampant shift to consumerism – even if that is quickly changing. Small gifts are given, but from the children to their elders.
Merit-making. In place of gift-giving, Thai people like to make merit which is to do good deeds for people in the spirit of Buddhism. Donating or helping out at the local wat (Buddhist temple) is a popular choice.
Massive water fight. Traditionally, Thai people pour water over one other to signify washing away bad luck and starting anew. Over the years that has morphed into a massive water fight in places like Khao San Road, Chiang Mai Old Town and other tourist areas. We’re talking Super Soakers, buckets of ice… that kinda thing.
It’s a lot of fun and a memorable experience. The type of Songkran you get will depend on where you go. Spend the day in Silom and expect to be drenched in ice-cold water from Thais and expats alike. Spend the day in Buriram and expect more respectful water-pouring and paste-smearing.
How To Celebrate Christmas In Thailand
If you’re stuck in Thailand over Christmas and worried about missing out on the festive cheer, let me put you at ease. The expat population of Bangkok is around 250,000 which creates big demand for Christmas dinners and parties of all kinds.
On the nicer and more expensive end are the hotels. Here’s an example of a typical deal at W Bangkok. On top of the food, you have the option of a ‘bottomless brunch’ style deal where you can get unlimited alcohol for a few hours. Most hotels will offer something like this and information is usually available on their website.
If you’re looking for somewhere less glamorous (and more cheap!) then expat bars, pubs and restaurants are your next port of call. Here’s the Christmas Dinner for the Drunken Leprechaun, a pub/bar type place in Sukhumvit. Nice atmosphere, affordable food and plenty of drinks to continue the party.