For most in Europe and North America, Christmas is a winter holiday, helping to add some sparkle to the long, dreary December evenings. Traditional festivities and costumes seem to be made for cold weather: the satisfyingly rich food; the warm spices of mulled wine; fur-lined Santa hats; the garishly bright decorations; and the sharp notes of carols on a crisp, chilly morning.
Transport all this to the tropics, however, and the effect is faintly comical: the coloured tinsel in shop windows reflects only the dazzling sun; plastic reindeers and cotton wool snow sit scorching atop fake pine trees. And for what? With Christians making up less than one per cent of Thailand’s population, Christmas, where it is seen as an occasion at all, is more a response to foreign tourists and outside consumer pressure than a homegrown celebration.
The seasonal decorations are about as far as most Thai people will go to acknowledge the Yuletide festival (although the song, ‘Jingle Bells’, is very popular and is taught in schools all year round): some people will give presents, although this is a fairly recent phenomenon, and tends to takes place around New Year. Festivities are mainly reserved for shopping centres, private parties and restaurants serving special holiday set menus.
So, for most of the population, Christmas is just a day like any other, which is perfect if you have come abroad to escape the excesses of turkey and mince pies and James Bond on the TV again. The vast majority of local tour companies and activity centres will be operating a normal schedule, so you can, if you wish, choose to spend Christmas Day diving, kayaking, rock-climbing or simply pick-nicking on your favourite island without the spectre of Santa Claus looming on the horizon. Shops and banks will also be open for business as usual.
Travel agents and big hotels, on the other hand, often assume that you wish to celebrate as if you were at home. Most attempts to stage festivities for guests are pretty hit-or-miss affairs, usually following the formula of a buffet meal, with a few games, a band and schoolgirls Thai dancing – although there are exceptions. Guests are usually tied in to these expensive evenings when they book over the popular Christmas period, but there are many alternatives, particularly in the western-owned restaurants. Try Jenna’s, or Diver’s Inn in Ao Nang for Christmas Eve (24 Dec) menus; Umberto’s and The Irish Embassy will be holding Italian and Irish style feasts at lunchtime on the 25 December.
Whereas Christmas passes virtually unnoticed in Thailand, New Year (both 31 December and 1 January) is a public holiday and an excuse for wild partying. ‘Pi mai’, as the new year is known in Thai, is one of the year’s biggest celebrations, uniting all ages and religions, and the bars, restaurants and hotels in Krabi will be rising to the occasion. If you are not tied in to a Gala Dinner, we would advise heading down to the nearest beach, where you will be able to see all the fireworks from the hotel celebrations, as well as float your own fire balloon for good luck in the coming year.