“Celebrate we will. Because life is short but sweet for certain.” – Dave Matthews Band
Four years ago, I experienced Thailand’s Songkran water festival celebrations for the first time. It’s Christmas, New Year’s, Canada Day and the Fourth of July all rolled into one big party favour. For all practical purposes, the country shuts down for three days of celebrations highlighted by the free-for-all water play in the streets. Underpinning the joy and laughter of the festival is a distinct sense of camaraderie and community that runs throughout the kingdom.
As the festival begins, I feel that I’m part of a bigger whole, inexplicably bound to every other person in the country at that time. Walking out the door into the streets on the first day of Songkran, I’m always hit with an eerie sense of being in a body snatcher, sci-fi horror B-movie. The streets and neighbourhoods look and feel the same as they always do until I’m awash from the first spate of cold waters baptizing me for the day’s celebrations. The anticipation in the days leading up to the start of Songkran eventually gives way to joy and optimism.
Make no mistake about it. If you walk the streets during Songkran, you WILL get wet. It’s an unwritten rule that monks, nuns, the elderly and babies are exempt from a thrashing of water. However, there is no exemption from the bliss that presides over the day.
I immediately fell in love with the festival and have returned every year since. Not only do I appreciate the fun and frivolity of the holiday but more so all that it symbolizes: cleansing and renewal. For me personally, Songkran symbolizes second chances.
When I first started travelling years back, the weight of a fully loaded duffle or backpack was a minor inconvenience that came with travel. Over time, I came to realize that the weight of regret would saddle me in my tracks deeper and faster than a bag packed with too many pairs of pants and sandals.
History and Background
The term Songkran is a Sanskrit derived term literally meaning “astrological passage” which implies change and transformation. Historically, the Southeast Asian countries celebrated their New Year in accordance with the changing seasons of the lunar calendar around the time of the Vernal Equinox (March 20). Thailand’s Songkran date was originally determined through astrological calculations but the date has now been fixed to April 13 and celebrations run for three days until April 15. Depending where you are in the country, celebrations can run as long as five days. Songkran was recognized as the start of the New Year until 1940 when they adopted January 1 as the first day of the New Year.
As the celebration originally marked the changing of seasons, moving from the old to the new and the bad to the good, the festival customs also reflect this spirit of change. In preparation, spring cleaning of house and home is done to purge anything that may be old and provide no more use to make way for the new. At temples, Buddha images are cleaned and blessed by the monks. In addition to the water play that occurs during Songkran, it’s also customary for people to smear chalk-like paste made from clay and water on each other’s faces to mark blessings.
What’s with all the water?
The significance of water lies in its connotation of cleansing and purification. Traditionally, elders and monks are “bathed” with a sprinkle of water by hand or small pail as a sign of respect. Over time this custom has been liberally extended to people pouring water on one another as an act of, renewal and good luck. The modern Songkran that occurs today has evolved into an unabashed and exhaustive three day water gun fight in the streets of Thailand. Until last year, this was the only Songkran that I knew or had experienced. I reckon, the changing generations and large influx of tourism has bastardized Songkran the way Taco Bell has brutalized the taco.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the revelry of the festival. Every year, armed with a water gun the size of a hand canon, I’m eager to flush a cascade of water on the back of some tourist or receive one for that matter. However, after the close of day one of last year’s Songkran, I walked the streets of Chiang Mai not only soaked with water but also with discontentment. The novelty had seemingly worn off. This iconic holiday suddenly felt like a chore to attend and participate in. It was the same feeling that I get every year here in the West when people bemoan what the “true” meaning of Christmas is.
Songkran in Nan Province
After the first day of last year’s Songkran in Chiang Mai, I headed north to Nan province to spend the rest of Songkran with my friend’s family in her hometown of Chiang Klang. Expecting the water play to continue in this small countryside village, instead the second day of Songkran involved a visit to the local wat or temple. Life is built around the wat which seemed to anchor the village and pump the life force to its people giving them their sense of community, faith and contentment.
I followed suit with the other faithful by gathering dirt from the river banks and taking it to the back yard of the temple where I sprinkled the dirt over a series of tiny mounds which would later be adorned with colourful prayer flags. My friend explained that this was done as an act of Merit. The sprinkling of dirt was to represent the dirt carried away by the monks throughout the year as they ventured away from the temple. The dirt was meant to come back to the temple to replenish what was taken away. This was another symbol of renewal like a circle completing its figure and being whole again.
On the third day, I returned again to the temple for the water ceremonies where I followed suit with the town people and bathed the numerous Buddha statues throughout the temple with scented water. Sheets of bamboo fences in the temple yard were also bathed in water. The sins and misfortunes of the previous year were meant to be washed away. It was a time of renewal and new beginnings.
Next, I joined the procession to pour water on the hands of a few young monks as a sign of respect. Despite their youth, they were held with as much respect and reverence as their adult counterparts.
The evening was spent eating and drinking with a large gathering of family and friends. The living room floor served as our table; there’s a certain intimacy created when you eat on the floor without a table fencing off another person from you. While still seated on the floor, dinner eventually transitioned into a Sai Sin String ceremony. The elders in the room would each tie white cotton string bracelets around my wrist offering their blessings. These Sai Sin strings are meant to offer the person wearing them good health and protection from harm. The strings were meant to be worn for at least three days and not to be voluntarily removed letting the strings unravel naturally at some point.
This year, I’ll be staying in Canada thus missing my first Songkran in four years. The joyous and colourful nature of the holiday celebrations left a bold first impression on me. However, the spirit of the Songkran has left a much deeper and lasting impression.
For a guy who’s lived most of my life looking at the glass of water as being half empty, cynicism and fear became my hallmarks and personal gain was the only cause worth fighting for; over time I morphed into a bit of a fatalist, a poor neighbour, a selfish son, brother and friend. My world revolved around me without much care for community.
The ability to experience a rendering of Songkran closer to its origins reminded me of how big and grand the world really is …
And how much I really want to be a part it.
“Celebrate life. Don’t just celebrate festivals! Make a commitment to enjoy every moment, so that your journey becomes a festival of joy.” – Ravi V. Melwani (RVM)
Have you ever celebrated Songkran in Thailand? What was your experience?