The start of the traditional Thai New Year – otherwise known as Songkran – is a riotous event enjoyed by young and old, rich and poor and Royalty and commoners alike all over the Kingdom of Thailand. Today if you mention ‘Thai New Year’ to someone who isn’t Thai, chances are they’ll say “Oh yes – the water throwing festival, right?” and whilst it’s true that Songkran these days is a lot of fun which involves buckets full of water and beauty queen parades, its origins lie way back in agricultural history.
So, before we get to the fun, splashy part, let’s take a look at where, why and how Songkran came to be the water festival that we know and love today.
The word Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word, Sankranti, which means movement or change, although in this situation it refers to the transmigration of the Sun from one Rāshi (a constellation of the zodiac in Indian astronomy) to the next. Therefore, there are 12 Sankrantis in a year and each Sankranti denotes the beginning of a month.
Back in ancient times the day that Songkran fell on was set on the day that the sun migrated into the sign of Aries which was seen as the beginning of the year, however these days, Songkran is always celebrated on the 13th of April – the official beginning of the Thai New Year. It is also celebrated in the other Theravada Buddhist countries of Cambodia, Lao and Burma/Myanmar and in the Thai homeland of Sipsong Panna in the South West Chinese province of Yunnan where the Dai minority live.
Another point to note is that in Thailand, the Buddhist calendar is used as opposed to the Western Gregorian one, so now, as I write this in 2013 here in Thailand it is actually 2556. Officially New Year in Thailand was changed to the 1st of January in 1940 to align with the West and to increase business and trade opportunities but Songkran is still the most beloved of Thai national holidays and is quite rightly still celebrated as Thai New Year.
Unlike Western New Year, Songkran lasts for 4 days, with each day given a name and defined by a meaning and actions. The first day is Maha Songkran which signifies the end of the old year. The following day, April the 14th, is Wan Nao and this is an in-between day stuck in a kind of calendar limbo between the old year and the new year which is yet to begin. This day is traditionally spent preparing offerings of food for the monks who reside in the local temples.
Day three is Wan Thaloeng Sok – the 15th of April and the actual start of the New Year whilst the final day of the celebrations, Wan Parg-bpee, is spent honouring one’s ancestors and elders.
Songkran falls at a similar time as Holi which is an ancient festival celebrated in India, and they do in fact share some similar customs, such as the releasing of small captured fish into streams and rivers. In Thailand birds may be released from their cages too. Similarly, Holi is celebrated by throwing coloured water, and as we already know, this is something that the Thai people enthusiastically embrace during their Songkran festivities too!
So where does all this water throwing come from, what’s it all about and has Songkran always been so wild?! Well, originally throwing water was a Spring Festival ritual that even pre-dates the Buddha. It was seen as a symbol of good luck and of hope for rain for the crops that had been planted that year. After Buddhism was introduced to the Thai Kingdom, its meaning morphed somewhat into a religious act and the water was instead used in an annual cleansing of statues of the Buddha.
The water is considered blessed after the statues have been washed and is then used to convey respect to ones elders by pouring a small amount of it over their shoulder and down their back, on the 4th day of Wan Parg-bpee. This water will be scented, often with Jasmine flowers, although these days, leaving the religious reasons aside, water will often be filled with talcum powder too so it leaves a sticky white paste all over the ‘victim’.
Whether the water is being sprinkled over a statue of the Buddha, gently poured over the shoulder of a respected elder or tipped over your head in a bucket filled with ice, it symbolizes purity and cleansing and the desire to rid oneself of any bad thoughts and deeds of the past year.
Water is the main thing that springs to mind when thinking about Thai New Year but there are other rituals attached to the holiday period too. In the past many Thais would take sand to their local temple to symbolically replace all the sand that they’ve ‘carried away’ on the soles of their shoes throughout the year. This sand would then be built into sand pagodas – known in Thai as Phrachedi Sai. Prachedi meaning pagoda and sai meaning sand.
These days Phrachedi Sai are still created in some places although the sand is more likely to be provided by the temple. Nowadays it is a family activity and it is mainly women and children who build the pagodas. Dressed in their best clothes they’ll gather at the temple, buy incense sticks, flowers, flags, banners and candles from the stalls set up and prepared by the monks and then, using silver bowls that they have brought with them, collect some sand from the piles also prepared by the monks.
A prachedi sai can be any size, big or small, and is created by mixing water with the sand. Inside, a coin and a fig leaf will be placed (the fig is a religious tree) and once finished the pagoda will be sprinkled with scented water. Then the decoration can begin, with flags and banners being placed in the pagoda’s ‘walls’. After that, the base will be covered with a small yellow or red cloth, candles and incense sticks are placed in the sand as offerings and a short prayer will be said. In many temples prachedi sai building has turned into a competition, with the builders of the most beautiful pagoda being awarded a prize.
Like most countries, this being New Year, Thailand also has a whole host more of rituals and traditions. Most of them a lot more symbolic than the Western ideal of just getting as drunk as possible on New Year’s Eve – although that’s not to say that the Thai’s don’t like to party because they do! In fact Thai people have a word sanuk which means fun, and they believe that everything in life should be done with a sense of sanuk, even if you’re at work. This must be why Thailand is known as ‘The Land of Smiles’. But back to the rituals:
If you’re in Thailand for Songkran and somebody wants to tie a string around your wrist, you should be very honoured. You should hold out your arm with your palm facing upwards and let them tie the string. Whilst doing so they will be reciting a short prayer or blessing to wish you good fortune throughout the coming year. You may see very fortunate (or popular!) people with as many as 30 strings on their wrists. One word of warning though, you should not untie the string but wait until it falls apart and drops off of its own accord.
At New Year, as is traditional in many cultures, the home will be thoroughly spring cleaned – again signifying a desire to enter the coming year cleansed of all one’s ‘dirt’ or ills and it is also important to make offerings to your local temple or wat, as it is called in Thai, and the monks that live there. It is customary to offer preserved food stuffs and cooked meals as well as new saffron robes for the monks.
Parades are also a big part of Songkran and if you’re in The Kingdom at this time of year, you’ll see brightly coloured floats festooned with flowers and carrying statues of the Buddha. Don’t be shocked if you see people throwing water at the images – this is all part of the cleansing ritual – albeit one that is a little more rigorous than the sprinkling of water that takes place in the temples!
Beauty pageants are also popular, with girls in every town or district vying to be crowned the Miss Songkran of their area. But just because they’re beautifully made-up and wearing traditional dress, it doesn’t exclude these beauties from getting a soaking too and it’s not unusual to see floats of pretty girls cowering behind their parasols in an attempt to dodge the buckets of water that are being enthusiastically hurled at them!
Which brings us nicely to the really fun part: the crazy water fights and the slippery sidewalks. As we’ve seen, water plays a huge part in the Songkran celebrations and if you’re in Thailand, unless you want to shut yourself in your hotel room for four days, chances are, you’re going to get wet. Very wet. Early in the morning open backed trucks will start doing the rounds, with music blaring and huge vats of water (usually icy!) in the back. People will set up tables with their weapons of choice – be it super soaker water gun or your common or garden bucket – or even, if they’re lucky enough to have an outside tap, a garden hose pipe.
As the day progresses things get wilder and chances of seeing someone in dry clothing are very small indeed! As a farang – a foreigner – you may venture out of your house or hotel only to find you remain fairly dry for the first little while; perhaps someone will dab some scented water on your face as a mark of respect and you’ll think you’ve got away with it, but once somebody takes a shine to you or decides you’re too dry, your number is up!
From morning to night the streets are packed with people shouting “Suk san wan Songkran!” – “Happy New Year “or “Happy Songkran”, tipping water over each other or shooting each other with water pistols. People line the roadsides waiting for trucks to pass so that they can embark upon a frenzy of bucket throwing and water shooting, with the truck eventually moving off in search of a new set of victims and the roadside crowd eagerly awaiting their next open-backed vehicle or motorcycle!
You may also bump into someone – usually an older person – carrying a small silver bowl filled with white powder or paste. This is one of the oldest Songkran traditions and the paste is actually to ward off evil and offer protection. The person with the bowl will gently dab some of the paste onto the receiver’s face, neck or other part of the body. Tradition dictates that you should leave the paste on until it naturally washes off itself – which let’s face it probably won’t be before too long! Just like the tying of the strings, you should feel honoured if someone approaches you and wants to dab paste on your face; it is an act of kindness and don’t worry as the paste is water soluble and won’t damage your clothes or skin.
Of course, just as the water pouring has turned into water throwing, the traditional paste dabbing has taken on a new life in this fun loving country and some of those buckets will also contain talc, which passers-by will delight in throwing over you if you look even remotely damp. Sticky!
It can’t be denied that Songkran is great fun and typically embodies the Thai people’s love of laughter and fun, however one thing to take extreme care of is if you’re riding a motorbike or scooter. Traffic accidents go through the roof at Songkran due to all the water being flung around and drivers being temporarily blinded or skidding on wet roads, and the emergency services and hospitals are inundated with casualties – and worse – at this time of year. If at all possible stick to foot power during the festivities and be extra careful when crossing Thailand’s already busy roads.
Another thing to note is that although Songkran lasts for four days, the length of celebrations differ around the country. For example in Hua Hin, the coastal town three hours south of Bangkok where the King has his summer palace, the water throwing only lasts for one day – the 13th – however in the Northern city of Chiang Mai, celebrations last for the whole four day period. If you’re thinking of visiting Thailand for Songkran, therefore, work out where you want to be and how much of the action you can take! Another word of warning; some parts of Bangkok are reputed to get extremely crazy and the water fights can take on battles of epic proportions and may not be suitable for children, the elderly or the faint of heart!
If you do want to see some of the most manic Bangkok action, head for the backpacker haven of Khao San Road in Banglampoo district, which will be insanely crowded, or hit the downtown areas of Sukhumvit Soi 4, Soi Cowboy and Silom as they should also be good, i.e. crazy, places to head for.
Another tip is to make sure everything, and I mean EVERYTHING – is made waterproof before you leave the safety of indoors. Trust me, you WILL get wet and I’m talking about taking a shower with your clothes on proportions of wetness. It’s so tempting to take a camera out to capture the action but ask yourself if it’s really worth ending up with an expensive casualty on your hands. If you do want to take photos, get yourself onto a balcony just above street level to get some good shots, otherwise don’t risk it if you’re heading into the thick of things. And even if you’re not, you never know when you might get a soaking!
On a similar note, stock up on plastic bags or even zip lock bags and ensure wallets, purses and phones are safely wrapped up and stored away, either in a pocket, or better still a waterproof backpack or shoulder bag.
One other thing to point out is that most shops and services will be closed for the four day period (apart from good old Seven Eleven) and transport is very likely to be booked up way in advance as migrant workers and students in the big cities head home to the countryside for the holidays.
From its humble beginnings as a way for farmers to ask for rain, by way of a sedate religious ceremony and all the way to an wild celebration that sees most of the population covered in water and talcum powder or flour, Songkran has come a long way. Come, enjoy it, have lots of sanuk and take it in the spirit that it’s intended and is famous for. And if you don’t like the sound of being drenched in water by complete strangers, I’ll be willing to bet that you’ll actually be glad of that icy cold bucket of water being thrown over you – it’s certainly a respite from the scorching temperatures that bake Thailand and her inhabitants in steamy, sweaty, sultry April!
Suk san wan Songkran!