The air is thick with smoke as locals pray in temples all over Thailand, holding lit incense sticks with their palms pressed together. Peaceful chanting prevails while Thai people make food offerings to Buddhist monks, followed by clockwise circular processions around shrines with citizens carrying candles, three burning incense sticks, plus a lotus flower.
Welcome to Wan Awk Pansa, a celebration in Bangkok and the rest of Thailand at the end of the Buddhist Lent in October to commemorate the day when Buddha came back from heaven.
When is Wan Awk Pansa celebrated in Bangkok?
Wrongly called Khao Pansa by some people, Wan (Day) Awk Pansa or Ok Pansa is celebrated annually on the full moon day of the eleventh lunar month, which is October. In 2021, this happens to be the 20th of October.
The three-lunar-month-long Buddhist Lent in Thailand’s rainy season begins with “Khao Pansa,” or “enter Pansa,” and ends with “Awk Pansa,” or “exit Pansa.” During those four calendar months between July and October, monks aren’t allowed to leave their temple. On the full moon day of the eleventh lunar month that signals the end of the Buddhist Lent, people celebrate the occasion throughout the country.
What can you expect from Wan Awk Pansa, and where in Thailand is it celebrated?
If you pop into Bangkok’s Khao San Road and other tourist hot spots, you’re in for a blast. You won’t get free candy, but the foreigner-orientated bar and club owners spare no expense when it comes to deco as Khao San Road holds party nights for the occasion.
Whether you travel from Hua Hin to Bangkok, Pattaya to Bangkok, or Phuket to Bangkok, you can be sure to find Awk Pansa festivities in Thailand’s capital, especially in temples. Thailand has more than 40,000 of them, some 400 of which are in Bangkok. Though Wan Awk Pansa is by far not only about temple visits but also long-boat races and other fun-filled activities, depending on the region.
While there is Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, illuminated boat races along rivers occur in various cities in Thailand’s northeast, a region called Isan.
In the Isan city of Ubon Ratchathani, boat races during the day and “lai ruea fai,” or “lit-up boat processions,” are celebrated on the Mun River in the evening. In Nakhon Phanom on the Thailand – Laos border along the Mekong River, up to ten-meter-long bamboo boats are embellished with flowers, candles, and religion- and patriotism-themed lanterns that brighten up the river, casting a colorful reflection.
You might also see families participating in the processions with their own banana tree trunk boats.
Undoubtedly, the most spectacular festivities happen in Nong Khai, another province by the Mekong River close to Laos. The Naga Fireballs Festival is devoted to a fabled creature rumored to live in this river. Ranging from egg-sized to basketball-sized, reddish fireballs look as though they shoot skywards from the riverbed.
What is the cultural significance of Wan Awk Pansa?
For pious Thais, Wan Awk Pansa is an important event. It signals the end of the Buddhist Lent, a time when Thai Buddhists don’t eat meat and refrain from smoking or drinking alcohol. Ok Pansa is an official holiday and marks the beginning of the new season following months of heavy showers.
Known as “Naga” or “Payanak,” the mythological serpent is believed to live in the Mekong River. Visiting Nong Khai, you’ll see many restaurants and hotels adorned with intricate Naga snakes on the Ok Pansa day. Many Thai temples boast the very same creature on stairs that lead up to the entrance.
How can you make the most of Wan Awk Pansa?
Since the most impressive Wan Awk Pansa spectacles occur in Thailand’s northeast, your best bet is to visit one of the Isan cities and then return to Bangkok.
With its fireball show, Nong Khai is best viewed some 80km east of Vientiane along the Mekong River, close to Laos’s Pak Ngum district.
If you’re in Chiang Mai, be sure to check out the major temples, such as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep at the peak of Mount Suthep, before traveling back from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.
If you love the beach, sand, and sun as much as local Thai culture, you can chillax in the south of Thailand first and then head from Koh Tao to Bangkok and join Wan Awk Pansa festivities in the capital.
Whichever city you choose, book well ahead as rooms are in high demand on Awk Pansa day.
Bear in mind that Awk Pansa is a religious event, so dressing appropriately goes a long way. And if the air becomes too thick with incense, you know where Bangkok’s Khao San Road is.