Songkran Festival

Songkran Festival, Thai New Year

Ambush in PhrakhanongAmbush in Phrakhanong

Songkran is the Thai New Year, a time of both pious and hilarious celebration: a time for showing respect to elders by pouring water over their hands, and a time for drenching passers-by with water pistols, buckets and even hose pipes. Not for the faint hearted.

I note that this year the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) have scrapped most of their public events because of the ongoing political unrest, and as the troubles approached uncomfortably close to Khao San Road, it looked like the revels there would be more muted than usual. However, reports suggest that on the day itself, fun was had by all, Thais and foreigners alike.

On Songkran day most Thais visit the local temple to make merit and pour water on a Buddha image.

In this temple a row of seven Buddhas had been set up - one for each day of the week: you pour water on the Buddha appropriate to the day of your birth.

Of course many people pour water on all the Buddhas just to make sure they catch any good luck going.

In the video above, the plastic bottle was filled beforehand with water from the tap and jasmine flowers from the garden. After pouring water on each of the Buddhas, the girls in the picture collects some water dripping off the table and uses it to anoint her companions.

Songkran celebrates the end of the dry season, the hottest part of the year (with temperatures around 100 deg. C) and, hopefully, the beginning of rice planting, though in some years the rains start in May or June.

It probably derives from the Hindu "Holi" Festival and is celebrated throughout Thailand and also in Thai speaking parts of Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Southern China. The official festival lasts only three days, but in Chiang Mai it lasts six days and in Pattaya up to 2 weeks!

Old Style Songkran

In "A Child Of The North East" the author Kampoon Buntawee describes life in a poor hamlet in North East Thailand in the 1930's from the point of view of a young boy "Koon". His description of Songkran in Isan is very evocative and not too dissimilar to the celebrations up country today, though probably less boisterous.

Songkran day started with Koon's mother waking the three children before dawn. They all washed and dressed in their best clothes. Koon's mother prepared an old brass pitcher of water and poured water into it and then a small amount of perfume. First they visited their grandmother and approached her on all fours. Starting with Koon's father they each sprinkled water from the pitcher onto her shoulder, receiving a blessing from the old woman.

For the rest of the day the children played with the other children of the village, tossing water and generally having fun despite the three year drought that reduced the amount of water available, then in the evening all went to the local temple. For this day, the Buddha image had been carried out of the temple and set on a platform under the Bodhi Tree and women from the village poured perfumed water over it. Some of the children lay under the platform as the water was poured so that they could share in the refreshing draught.

Songkran Now

A brass (or aluminium) bowl, filled with water and scented with jasmine petals, is still used for the polite part of the festival: families pay respect to their elders by pouring water over their hands, employees do the same with their bosses, but most of the three days is spent in riotous and often drunken water fights.

Pick-up trucks roam the streets of Bangkok and other towns throwing water over anyone who comes near them: motor-cyclists are a favorite target and anyone who needs to use an open-sided Baht bus. Groups of children stand by the roadside throwing water at the traffic and annointing motor-cyclists with powdered water.

Mayhem on the StreetsMayhem on the Streets

In Chiangmai and the Northern part of Thailand, well known Buddha images are placed on trucks then, garlanded with flowers, are paraded around the streets with music and dance.

Songkran in Chiangmai Songkran in Chiangmai

Songkran in the Shan States of Burma ca. 1910

(from "The Tai Race: Elder Brother of the Chinese", p203)

In the early years of the twentieth century, The missionary William Clifton Dodd and his wife were stationed in Kengtung (now part of the Shan states of Burma). They were invited by the ruler or Chow Fa to the New Year Festival in mid April, and arrived "dressed in their best". All was very polite for the first hour as the state dignitaries came to pledge loyalty to the Chow Fa by pouring water over his hands, but then:

"Suddenly the Chow Fa disappeared, returning soon dressed in his every day clothes. That was the signal ......"

"High carnival followed, shrieks and screams of laughter and running to and fro, pursued by the dignitaries of the palace, the court, and the eighty-six districts all anxious to pour water over us".

White Lotus Press, Bangkok 1996

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