Are you living on a different planet?
What if I told you that I live in a place where the year is 2559? No, I am not schizophrenic, I did not watch too many science fiction movies, and I do not live on another planet.
But I do live in Thailand, and the year is 2559 for the simple reason that they use the Buddhist calendar instead of the Christian one. The Christian (Gregorian) calendar starts with the birth of Jesus, 2016 years ago.
The Buddhist calendar starts with the birth of Buddha, 2559 years ago. Most dates in Thailand are written with the Buddhist year which tends to be very confusing for westerners. The trick is to subtract 543 years and you are right back to 2016.
How many New Years are there in Thailand?
There are three, believe it or not!
1. The Buddhist New Year is celebrated in mid-April which is the hottest time of the year. To combat the heat, the celebrations consist mostly of throwing water, and lots of it, on every person in sight for one or several days depending on where you are in Thailand.
Where I live, in Chiang Mai, the water throwing normally goes on for a solid seven days. However this year there is a severe water shortage due to drought conditions, so it is all happening within a couple of days.
The Buddhist calendar is quite complicated and is mostly used to calculate dates for religious events and big festivals. All the calendar days have special meanings and determine if a particular day is auspicious for certain occasions like marriages, burials or other important ceremonies and decisions.
So this calendar is more than a way to keep track of time. The younger Thais nowadays don’t know how to calculate and use the Buddhist calendar anymore. It is mostly the older people and scholarly monks who are still familiar with it.
2. Although the Buddhist New Year is celebrated in April, the official starting date of the year is January 1 of the Christian calendar – at least for international business. January 1 is a public holiday and is celebrated just like in the western world.
However the official year in Thailand is the Buddhist year. This is where the confusion comes in. When you see a date written in Thailand, it is generally a combination of two calendars: The day and the month are based on the Christian calendar, and the year is taken from the Buddhist calendar.
That’s no problem for the Thais, of course, but it is a real challenge for the foreign visitors to figure that one out!
Here are several ways how the date can be written in Thailand
3. Believe it or not, there is a third New Year in Thailand, and that’s the Chinese New Year which is celebrated by the six million Chinese who are part of the ethnic mix here.
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.
Any excuse is good enough for a party
The Thais recognize of course that most international business is based on the Gregorian Christian calendar. They are familiar with both systems, and January 1 is a public holiday here as well and is celebrated just like in the west with countdown and big fireworks.
Thais love a good party and take every opportunity to celebrate something – flower festivals, food festivals, New Year’s festivals, temple festivals, the king’s birthday, Buddha days, and many others.
Some festivals last several days and include huge parades, lavish festivities with spectacular floats, colorful parades, performances of singing, dancing, and of course feasting. Their dates vary since they are mostly based on the Buddhist calendar.
“Maipenrai” and the Thai view of life
So it is 2016 in Thailand and it is also 2559. And yes, we have three New Year’s celebrations every year, and if you are confused about what date it is on which calendar, 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.
Let me give you some examples how to use it: “January 1st 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”.
Religious tolerance in Thailand
It would never occur to the Thais to argue that Christmas is a non-Buddhist affair and therefore has no place here, or that there might be a conflict with the Buddhist religion.
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! But the Thais are highly tolerant, fun loving and non judgmental when it comes to other religions.
In Thailand you never have to wait for long until another festival is happening in your neighborhood. This is one of the great pleasures of living here.
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