If you’re planning to visit Thailand in December, try to make it early enough for the December 5 birthday celebrations. Every year on December 5, Thailand celebrates their King’s birthday, for HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This is also known as Father’s Day in Thailand. It’s a national holiday, with schools and businesses closed. Parades and parties fill the streets, and lavish flotillas flow down the Chao Phraya river. The BMTA Bankok Mass Transit Authority has been giving free rides on buses to the Royal Plaza all week, so people can come to see the multi-day ceremonies and wish the King a happy birthday. The streets, bridges and sidewalks are packed with tens of thousands of Thais waving flags and “I Love the King” banners. People from all over Thailand have traveled to Bangkok to get a rare glimpse of their king on this occasion.
In 2010, I enjoyed one the most lavish celebrations I’ve seen in the 5 years I’ve been in Bangkok. As a precursor, a dazzling light show was performed at the Phra Pinklao Bridge on the night of December 4, one of many events leading up to the big day. Live music, food and drinks were available.
Grand Palace Ceremony
On next day, the big day itself, a ceremony was held at the Grand Palace, where the King appeared and spoke. The local Thais told me it was a moving inspirational speech for Thai unity. I could not get close enough to the Grand Palace, as it was too crowded, but I saw the speech on TV screens. Thais poured in from all over the country to see their monarch. There told me it was a sea of people, waving flags and banners, and very difficult to get a glimpse of… well, anyone in the royal procession. Like me, most spectators could only hope for a view via camera on TV screens. Either way, his speech was well received by millions of Thais.
500 Boats Lit up
The real event for me came that night. I went to the Phra Pinklao Bridge again, and this time watched the royal flotilla, including a procession of more than 500 ornate boats. These boats were dressed up in twinkling lights, and paraded up the Chao Phraya river. In the distance, the Temple of Dawn was also well lit. The result was a river illuminated in turquoise, red and blue. Many of the boats were decked out like floats in a parade, each one outdoing the other. Searchlights streamed across the sky.
A musician performed a moving instrumental on a single wind instrument. I’m told it is the king’s favorite song, and people around me were clearly moved. A candle was lit, and more music performed. More and more boats continue to float past. The displays get more elaborate with each set. As the evening wore on, fireworks sporadically shot in the air. At the end of the celebration, around 8:30pm, there was a huge explosion of fireworks at multiple places over the river. Still, the most exciting view was the long line of boats, all twinkling over the water.
Additionally, there were concerts held at the King Rama V Monument and several other places around Bangkok. Fireworks were displayed similarly all over the country. It should be noted that King Bhumibol is Thailand’s most popular king, due to his hard work in bringing social reforms and prosperity to most of the country. Currently, he is probably the most popular monarch in the world.
Try to catch this event, if you’re in Southeast Asia near the first week of December. You can take a taxi from any Bangkok hotel to the Grand Palace, or to one of the bridges that cross the river. It’s worth a visit. Just remember to prepare for crowded streets and a lot of flag waving. I would suggest crossing the bridge to the other side, across from the city. You can still see the boats and fireworks, but it’s not as crowded.
The lights and most decorations stay up all month until New Years Day, so you have plenty of time see them at the monuments and palaces.