Khao Phansa Day is a celebration that marks the beginning of Vassa, a three-month Buddhist festival in Thailand. Meaning to “enter the retreat”, discover Khao Phansa’s importance to Buddhism and the role it plays in Vassa.
What is Vassa?
Known as ‘Buddhist Lent’ or the ‘Rains Retreat’, Vassa is a Buddhist holiday when monks retreat for meditation. Lasting three months, Vassa begins the day after Asalha Puja, the first sighting of a full moon in the Hindu month of Aadi. In the Gregorian (regular) calendar, Aadi is typically in July although it can sometimes occur in June.
While the start of Vassa is called ‘Khao Phansa’, the end is known as ‘Ok Wan Phansa’, i.e. “exiting the retreat”.
The ritual of Pavarana marks Ok Wan Phansa. All Buddhists observe Pavarana by attending a sangha (assembly) and atoning for any sins committed during Vassa.
When is Khao Phansa?
In 2021, Khao Phansa is on July 25th.
The arrival of traditional globba winitii flowers usually signals the start of Khao Phansa. Translated as ‘white beauty’, these flowers only bloom during wet seasons.
What happens during Khao Phansa?
During Khao Phansa, like much of the three-month Vassa, many people will fast and avoid consuming things like alcohol and meat. Although abstinence plays a significant part, there are many sides to Khao Phansa. The festival also features its fair share of performance art, with parades at the forefront.
Khao Phansa is also a vibrant, colourful festival set against a backdrop of a million candles.
Historically, candles were donated to monks, who used them to study after sunset. As the donations grew every year, Khao Phansa became known as the ‘festival of candles’.
Today, intricate wax figurines outnumber traditional candle forms. And the place to see the best wax displays is a Khao Phansa parade. Whether at a street or river procession, witnessing a candle festival should be on every Thailand checklist.
Every year, followers and tourists alike flock to places like the Saraburi, Suphan Buri and the Ubon Ratchathani candle festival.
When did Khao Phansa start?
Khao Phansa takes in either June or July every year but its origin is a hot topic.
Depending on whom you ask, Khao Phansa either pre-dates or was created by Buddha.
The version that many Buddhists believe is a tale involving travelling monks and bad weather.
In India, it was common for monks to go from one monastery to another during the wet season. But by doing so, they would often unintentionally harm crops, insects or even themselves. That’s because they would usually travel these long distances on foot.
After complaints from farmers across the country, it’s said that Buddha provided a clever solution. He suggested all monks retreat during the wet season, thereby protecting and replenishing all involved.
The term ‘Buddhist Lent’ was attached to Khao Phansa and Vassa by visitors to Southeast Asia. That’s because much like Christian Lent, tourists noticed that Buddhists would also fast during Vassa. As Buddhists believe Vassa pre-dates Lent, many followers object to these comparisons.
What are typical Vassa customs?
Besides taking part in fasting and parades, many people still donate candles during the Vassa. And it’s not only to help monks study at night. Thai people believe that giving candles to people helps brighten their own futures.
During Khao Phansa, people also donate food, household items and large yellow robes to monasteries and temples. Yellow is the colour closest to daylight and therefore has the highest symbolic value in Buddhism.
It’s also the colour previously worn by prisoners and, according to Buddha, represents one’s humility.
Khao Phansa is also a popular time for Thai boys to become ordained as monks. In reality, this process is largely ceremonial. Of the many who ‘become’ monks during this time, only a few will actually commit to the lifestyle.