The beginning of a new year according to the traditional Thai calendar is celebrated throughout the country with religious ceremonies and public celebrations as the Songkran festival.
Everywhere in the kingdom people are splashed, doused, showered with water and hardly anyone who dares to go out on the streets at this time will be able to stay dry.
Similar to Western or Chinese New Year celebrations, the Thais celebrate their Songkran water festival with the same, if not even greater, passion for having fun. But what is unique about this festival is the ubiquitous pouring of water, in which you can see an exaggeration of the ancient tradition of pouring water.
But all these water features mean more than just getting wet together. The word “Songkran” comes from the Sanskrit language and means ‘move’ or ‘change place’, which means the entry of the sun into a new zodiac sign. Songkran is therefore the time to honor the old and move on to something new at the same time. Earning merit through good deeds is an integral part of this transition.
Each of the three Songkran days is traditionally associated with its own meaning and special activities.
April 13th is called Wan Maha Songkran. Originally, on that day, people cleaned their houses and prepared everything for the New Year celebrations. The most famous Songkran parade in Chiang Mai with Buddha figures, floats, groups from the various districts of the province, musicians and local beauties in traditional costumes takes place on this day, with the participants of the parade being soaked with water by the spectators.
April 14th is called Wan Nao. People prepare cooked and preserved foods for the Buddhist ceremonies of the following day. This is also the day to go to the banks of the rivers and fill buckets with sand there. With this sand, small “chedis” (tapering turrets) are formed by hands on the temple grounds and decorated with flowers and colorful paper flags. The purpose of this age-old custom is to raise the level of the temple grounds.
April 15th is called Wan Payawan. On this day the new year begins with the early morning offering of the prepared food, fresh fruits, robes and other gifts to the monks in the temples. In the ceremonies of the ritual pouring of water on this day, the wild and exuberant splashes of water that characterize the Songkran festival today have their origins.
The custom of dousing each other with water and soaking them to the skin – an experience some visitors to Thailand will make their first acquaintance with with Songkran these days – is a further development of the celebrations of the Astronomical New Year that have only recently emerged and some go too far. In the old days, instead of dousing each other with plastic buckets full of ice water, people would squirt a little scented water over each other’s shoulders and wish them a Happy New Year.
But one of the most important traditions of this festival is to show respect for older family members and important personalities who have earned the respect of their fellow human beings with the “Rod Naam Dam Hua” ceremony, the ceremonial Songkran watering.
From the group that has come together to show their respect, one will speak on behalf of all and ask the elderly for forgiveness for bad behavior or inappropriate behavior of the younger family members during the past year.
The older one will then dip his or her hand in the abundantly presented perfumed water, rub the younger one over the head and say his or her blessing to the whole group and wish good luck. After this ceremony, the whole group, led by the older family member, will go to the temple together to perform the “Rod Naam Dam Hua” ceremony (life extension ceremony).
But today, especially for tourists, the wasteful spraying of water is in the foreground everywhere in the country. Tourists who may be planning to explore the beauties of the rural areas around Chiang Mai by motorcycle these days should be warned and above all they should wear appropriate clothing. Because some Songkran celebrants love to pour water on motorcyclists and aim at the face or on the engine to bring the motorbike to a stop and then soak their immobilized victim all the more thoroughly. And those who travel by train in non-air-conditioned carriages should watch out for the open windows, as these are popular targets for water cannons and throwers of gigantic balloons filled with water.
But even if the meek customs of earlier times have changed into the wild customs of today, immerse yourself in the spirit of this festival. Get wet, keep your cool and enjoy the most exuberant and funniest festival that Thailand has to offer.