Shapeless itself, water has nevertheless shaped life in Thailand for centuries. Like all civilizations that depend on rivers and seas for strength and survival, Thai culture has prospered throughout the course of its history thanks to water. We have built our homes, villages, towns, cities, and capitals around bodies of water. The clichéd nickname of Bangkok’s past, “Venice of the East,” was originally coined for the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. Water is our talisman, the life force of our society.
Through time and tide, water has supported the Thai economy, from agriculture to fishing, industry, and transportation. We have survived on and made a living from food and resources plentiful in the water. Our lives have depended on it, day in, day out. We suffer when there’s too much of it, and we dread there isn’t enough. While we construct dams and dikes to protect from floods, we initiate irrigation and artificial rainfall projects to combat droughts.
Water is integrated into our lifestyles. It gives us leisure and sports. We incorporate ponds and fountains into the landscape. We marvel at waterfalls, bathe in the stream, and swim in the sea. Free-flow trade flourishes at floating markets. Activities like boat songs and races have grown into festivals in provinces with main waterways. Nowadays, tourists canoe or go white-water rafting in many parts of the country. Some people even stay in houseboats, or houses on rafts, their lives fastened to the floating world. In front of households in northern Thailand, families leave water in jars that thirsty visitors and travellers can draw from to quench parched throats.
From birth to death, water remains the centrepiece of life in Thailand. At formative stages, we are sanctified by water in a rite similar to baptism. In the past, a child’s hair would be washed before the top knot was cut off at a tonsure ceremony. Likewise, when boys become novices and men ordain as monks, they first cleanse their hair before shaving it. At a traditional wedding, guests bless the bride and groom, pouring water from a conch shell on the hands of the newlyweds. When we move into a new house or office, a monk blesses our heads and habitats with holy water sprinkled from sacred branches. When a life expires, guests gently pour water on the hands of the deceased in an age-old funerary rite.
The two most popular festivals in Thailand, Songkran and Loy Krathong, revolve around water. During Songkran, the Thai New Year celebrated at the height of summer, we use scented water to cleanse images of the Buddha and to pour on the hands of the elderly as a show of respect. The wild side of the holiday sees crowds of partygoers splashing each other with the cold stuff — a tradition not borne out of religion, but rather good, old-fashioned fun. Loy Krathong is about paying homage to Mae Khongkha (Ganges), the Goddess of Water. Knowing that we use and abuse water daily, we ask for forgiveness from the goddess at the end of the year by floating the krathong (vessels) on a body of water, such as a river, a lake, or the soft, rolling sea. This, of course, pollutes the water even further, thus continuing the time-honoured cycle of abuse and forgiveness.
When rain is scarce or fails to fall in the monsoon season, farmers hold the Hae Nang Maew ritual — or Boon Bung Fai, if they are in the Northeast. During Hae Nang Maew, a female Siamese cat is carried around in a bamboo basket, paraded through the streets by brightlydressed folks who sing, dance, and plead for the clouds to break. Boon Bung Fai is an entirely different affair. Locals assemble gunpowder-filled bamboo rockets in the shape of Naga, since the Naga epitomizes water, power, and prosperity. The rockets are carted on elaborately decorated vehicles and then lit and launched into the sky, where, according to fable, they activate some kind of chemical reaction in the clouds that produces precipitation.
Among the myriad rich expressions Thai people use when talking about water, my favourite is, “Dtuk nahm sai ghaloke cha-ngoke duu ngaow.” Translated, it means, “Pour some water in a shell so that you can examine yourself in the reflection.” In other words, take a long, hard look at yourself and remember to be humble. Water is always a good mirror.