NORTH THAILAND TRAVEL GUIDE

Northern Thailand

There are only three seasons in the tropical year rather than the four of the more northerly or southerly temperate zones that many visitors to Thailand come from, and there are more distinctly evident here in the north than they are in Bangkok, over 700 kilometres further south.

Way down the peninsula, Phuket is a thousand kilometres or so closer to the equatorial region itself where, in the heartfelt opinion of the old sweats of the colonial era, there are only two seasons: 'Hot and Wet, and Bloody Hot'.

An early Thai classic palm-leaf book from Sukothai in the fourteenth century defined these three seasons in astrological terms as The Path of the Ox - The Cool Season - (mid October to mid February): the Path of the Goat - the Hot Season -(mid February to mid June): and the Path of the Naga - The Wet Season - (mid June to mid October).

As with much traditional Thai culture, there is a strong underlying Indian influence evident in the old names for these seasons due to many forms of both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs having spread throughout most of Southeast Asia over the past two millennia.

By July, the monsoon rains, under the aegis of the Naga, are in full swing. The relevant constellation must be Ophiucus, the Serpent Bearer, since it is prominent in the night sky throughout the wet season, even if only intermittently visible due to overcast skies.

It culminates (appears to reach its highest point) around July 26th. In colloquial Thai, the stellar serpent of the title is called ngu yai ("big snake"), a term also used locally for the naga, the paramount regional symbol of water in its multiple forms, in the Asian twelve year zodiacal cycle.

In India, the figure bearing the serpent is identified with Krishna, an avatar (descent) of Vishnu.

The culmination of this constellation in late July not only occurs about midway between the north and south poles but around halfway between the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

It therefore approximately corresponds to high summer in Europe, yet in the agricultural cycle of monsoon Asia, the onset of the rainy season marks the beginning of the rice cycle.

As of writing in mid-June, rice is sprouting in the seedbeds near farmers' houses in the villages, and work has begun on repairing the bunds (banks) that divide up the paddy fields, and the clearing of the network of irrigation channels.

The laborious task of transplanting the sprouts out into all the ploughed fields soon lies ahead. In the meantime, the fresh food markets in town are redolent with displays of such succulent seasonal favourites as durian, mango, rambutan, and mangosteen, harvested towards the close of the hot season, while longan, a major northern crop, are ripening on trees in gardens scattered throughout the suburbs.

Theravada Buddhists celebrate the major festival of Asalaha Bucha at the full moon on July 7th this year. This commemorates the Buddha's first sermon, The Turning of the Wheel, shortly after his enlightenment. The day after that is Khao Phansa, the beginning of the three lunar months of the Buddhist Lent.

(Visitors should note that the first of these is a public holiday - all government offices are closed - while both dates are also bank holidays.)

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