Despite the setbacks suffered by the Thai economy in recent years, Songkran will still be celebrated with the same enthusiasm and abandonment as it has in the past: possibly with even greater vigour, as many Thais will see this season as a new beginning. Songkran is the Buddhist New Year festival that is a time for cleansing, symbolised by the throwing of water. It takes place between the 13 to 15 April each year and guarantees a drenching for everyone who ventures out into the streets of Thailand. Chang Mai, the 700 year old city in the north of Thailand, is accepted as the centre of the Songkran festival and it is here that people come from all over Thailand, and elsewhere, to experience this ancient rite.
The festival begins on the 13 April and everyone is awakened at dawn to the sound of firecrackers, used to drive the evil spirits, or bad forces, away. This is the day when everything is scrupulously cleaned; houses, shops, streets, clothes and especially one's person, in preparation for the new year.
The 14 April is the day between the old year and the new year and no one may quarrel or use harsh words to one another as it is important to have a good heart. The morning is spent shopping and preparing food ready for the following day, while the afternoon is reserved for visiting the temple to build sand pagodas. For this, it is imperative to take one's own bag of sand because the Thais believe that every time they go to the temple throughout the year they take away sand on their feet, and, as this sand is really monastic property, they return the sand to the monks during Songkran.
New Year's day (15 April) is called Wan Phaya Wan, day of great importance. It is the custom to go to the temple early in the morning to take food to the monks, as a form of merit making; and later in the afternoon to return to place small banners, known as Thung, on the top of the sand pagodas built the day before. Only then is it time for the family to celebrate, beginning with a visit to the oldest relatives, taking them gifts of areca nut, clove leaves, turmeric water and acacia oil. All the family are required to ask forgiveness from these respected elders for any wrong doings they may have committed throughout the year and to receive their blessing for the year to come, together with any instructions for improvement. At the end of this ceremony a little water is sprinkled onto the hands and heads of the old people as a blessing; and then quite a lot is thrown at the rest of the family in anticipation of the water wars that are to follow.
Traditionally, water should be thrown on 16 April but nowadays in Chang Mai it is not unusual for water to be thrown throughout the whole of the Songkran festival. There is no shortage of water, as the old city of Chang Mai is surrounded by a square moat, and hundreds of revellers gather in the streets nearby armed with high powered water pistols, bowls, buckets, in fact anything that will hold water; there are even hoses attached to pumps standing in the moat. Other participants ride around in pick-up trucks laden with huge barrels of water and hurl water indiscriminately at those on the side-walk, who defend themselves valiantly; everyone is guaranteed a soaking. No one is exempt, not even the policeman directing traffic, and all are expected to receive the ‘blessing' of the water with good humour, so ensure that your clothes will cope with the drenching and that your expensive camera is wrapped in plastic as no-one will listen to your pleas to be spared.
Custom requires that permission should be asked before splashing anyone with water, as a mark of respect, although this is often forgotten in the heat of the moment. However, if you don't want to miss the fun, but would rather stay dry, it is possible to view the scene from inside an air-conditioned tourist bus - just remember not to open the windows.
How Did Songkran Begin?
It is not clear exactly how Songkran began, although it is thought that it may have been a rite of the pre-Buddhist Dtai people celebrated for fertility, or a ‘goddess worshipping' ceremony to celebrate the new year. The actual date of the new year is set by the movement of the stars and occurs when the sun moves out of the sign of Pisces into the sign of Aries (usually very close to the now official date of 13 April).
There are several versions of the origin of Songkran but one of the most popular legends claims that the god Brahma became irritated by a smart young man named Dhammapala and challenged him to a debate. The winner of the debate was to be chosen by a wise old man and the loser was to forfeit his head. Dhammapala won the debate and chopped off the god's head but, as the head touched the ground, it caught fire and Dhammapala was forced to snatch the head up again. He was unsure what to do with the head for if he buried it in the earth, the earth would catch fire and if he threw it into the ocean the water would dry up.
To solve the problem he took Brahma's seven daughters and ordered them to take turns in holding the severed head, one year for each of them. At the end of her year the goddess responsible would pass the head to her next sibling, continuing the cycle. When the head was passed on it was cleansed and this, allegedly, was the origin of the splashing water fights that take place today.
Whether one subscribes to the legend or not, Thailand is a fascinating country to visit and Chang Mai, its second city, is acknowledged as the best place to celebrate Songkran. So take the plunge and you too might experience a new beginning.