Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year and it has to be the most celebrated event in Thailand. Like Easter and Passover, the dates on which Songkran fell were determined by the astronomical calendar. Easter and Passover, however, remain tied to the lunar calendar while Songkran is now celebrated from April 13 to 15 each year. Historically, Songkran was tied to the solar calendar, in particular the time of the year when the sun moved from Pisces to Aries. In present day Thailand, the New Year actually begins on January 1 but the traditional Songkran celebrations are as strong as ever.
Songkran is a time of cleansing and renewal, and traditionally it has been a time for Thais to visit and pay respect to family, friends, neighbors, and monks. When young people visit their elders, they will pour scented water over the elders hands and ask for their blessing. Since most people have the entire week off from work, many Thais travel during Songkran either “up-country”, i.e., back to their home towns, or overseas.
During Songkran, Thais will visit their local Buddhist temple (Wat) where they will provide food and alms to the monks and pour scented water over the statue of the Buddha in a cleansing ritual. As part of their visit, they will bring sand to replace the dirt that they might have taken away during the year on the bottom of their feet or sandals. This is a symbol of atonement since they have taken property that rightly belongs to the Wat. People will also visit the temple to “make merit.” They do this by building sand pagodas in which they insert a coin or sacred fig leaf. They sprinkle the sand pagodas with scented water and decorate them with small flags, flowers, and candles. This symbolizes the construction of a real pagoda, an act that brings great merit to the builder. Other acts that bring great merit are casting an image of Buddha, erecting a monastery, and copying the scriptures.
Buddhist monks live as mendicants, i.e., they rely on the charity of others to survive. Monks depend on the local people to provide them with food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Monks are forbidden to ask for anything but they can put themselves in position where people can make offerings to them. Monks can only collect and consume food from dawn to noon, and they are not allowed to store any food overnight.
At our resort, nine monks came for a small ceremony that began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted for about 30 minutes. At the end of the ceremony, the monks presented their alms bowls for a food offering. Packaged food was placed into the bowls and then taken out and placed into larger containers that the monks took back to their monastery. The offerings filled at least six of the large blue containers that are shown in the picture below. The ceremony ended with one of the monks blessing and sprinkling water over the attendees.
As with many western holidays, the more serious traditional and religious ceremonies are accompanied by more secular celebrations. Songkran is also known as the Water Festival and it doesn’t take long to figure out why. The water symbolizes cleaning and renewal and people take great pleasure in throwing water from bowls and buckets, shooting squirt guns, and aiming hoses at each other.
April is the hottest and driest month in Thailand with temperatures well over 90 degrees. Consequently, being doused with water is actually quite refreshing, unless, of course, the water comes from a container filled with ice. Pickup trucks are ubiquitous in Thailand, although they are the smaller pickups, not the large half-tons that populate the highways in the U.S. During Songkran, many Thais place a large barrel or two of water in the back of their pickup and the people in the bed throw this water on anyone and everyone that they pass. Motorcyclists are favorite targets as are the people in other pickup trucks.
Theresa and I went into the town of Hua Hin during Songkran to witness and participate in the water throwing. We left our wallets, cell phones, and everything else that we didn’t want soaked back at the hotel. While we took our camera, we placed it in a ziplock bag to protect it.
Within five minutes of our arrival, we were soaked and our faces covered in wet talcum powder. The talcum powder is supposed to symbolize purification. People put the talc is a bowl with water to make a paste. They then put some on their hand and touch your face while wishing you a “Happy New Year” with “Good Luck to you and Good Luck to me!” From what I could see, the Thais also wish Happy New Year and Good Luck to cars, trucks, and buildings. Yesterday (the day after the official end of Songkran), we could see many merchants scrubbing down their storefronts while other buildings and vehicles remained covered with dried talc.
Although just about anyone who ventured out to the streets during the Songkran holiday was quickly soaked, everyone was smiling since they all knew what was coming. The elderly (not me, damn it!) were pretty much left alone unless it was clear that they wanted to engage in this activity, and many did. My guess is that those who do not like getting drenched either confine themselves to their home for these three days or leave the country.
On the second day of Songkran, the resort at which we stayed had its own celebration. It began with a small parade around the grounds to gather people together. Next, young women performed some traditional Thai dances while the resort provided ice cream for everyone who was watching. Finally, the water throwing began and most of those who threw water ended up being thrown or dragged into the pool.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.