Traditionally, there was only one ‘New Year’ in Thailand. Songkran, the start of the Buddhist year, is still celebrated between the 13th – 15th April, at the height of the hot season. Translated literally as “the passing of”, Songkran marks the beginning of the solar calendar, when the sun passes from the sign of Taurus into Aries. In the rural community – and until recently Thailand was almost entirely an agricultural society – this has been a perfect time to take a break from the business of earning a living. The rice harvest is in, and replanting has to await the coming of the rains. For centuries, this has presented an opportunity for young men and women to meet socially, turning the lull in the seasonal cycle of labor to matters of courtship.
It is a time of joy, and Thais have long marked the occasion by making merit – by offering food to monks and by releasing caged birds, turtles, and fish.
The latter custom had its origins where villagers would collect fish stranded in the pools left as the ponds and canals dried up in the searing heat, saving them till Songkran for release into the river. Not only was this a means of making merit, it served as an effective conservationist programme. You still see vendors offering these creatures for release in many parts of Bangkok as well as in rural areas, pyramids of tiny wooden cages filled with twittering birds, metal tanks swimming with turtles, eels, and fish.
Water is a key element in the festival. Buddha images, both public and private, are washed with lustral water, while the whole house is given an especially thorough cleaning. The idea seems to be to start the New Year fresh and clean both in body and spirit.
Most noticeably to the casual visitor are the water fights. Thais and foreigners alike spend the days dousing each other (and any unlucky bystanders) with water – a fine and refreshing experience, given the prevailing weather.
The custom of throwing water is probably in part only an exuberant spillover of the tradition of pouring lustral water over the hands of monks and respected elders. More basically, however, the return of water to the parched soil is an expression of hope and anticipation, an invitation to the cooling,
life-giving rainy season to come.
This practice migrated long ago to Thailand from India by way of Burma. It thus came first to Chiang Mai, where it is still practiced with special enthusiasm. In those early days, there was little communication, no easy links between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and the water-throwing took a long time to reach the capital. When it did, though, it was embraced with such abandon that the police officially had to ban it as a traffic hazard.
The prohibition has never really taken hold and today if you ride a Bangkok bus during Songkran you must still be prepared for a drenching. Along the streets you find gleeful knots of people heaving buckets of water at any passing vehicle. If you’re driving, keep your windows closed. If you’re on foot you may get ambushed by a careening tuk-tuk jammed full of young revellers armed with pails of water. It’s all in the spirit of good fellowship and people are pleased to receive as good as they give out. Have fun!
Story by CP