In April, in Thailand, there’s really only one festival on everyone’s mind and that’s Songkran, the Thai New Year, which officially runs from April 13-15. Traditional merit making rituals, such as sprinkling scented water on Buddha images, are celebrated in grand fashion at Bangkok temples such as Wat Pho and Wat Arun. However, more raucous revellers take to the streets—particularly around Khao San Road and Silom Road—for unparalleled water fights using pistols, buckets and high-powered cannons. Prepare to get very wet (and stay that way).
The Origins of Songkran: The cultures of the Mekong region—Thailand, Laos, Yunnan, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam—share an affinity for water that goes beyond their shared geographic link to one of the world’s mightiest rivers. Over a thousand years ago the peoples of this region first began forming settlements centered in river valleys along the Red River in southern China and northern Vietnam, and as far west as the Salween River in what is today eastern Myanmar’s Shan State.
At one time, two migrational flows predominated: a northern terminus focused around the Yuan Jiang and Guangxi provinces, and a southern terminus along Thailand’s Chao Phraya River. Among the many intermediate migrational zones, the Mekong River valley through China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam formed the largest. Beginning as early as the eighth century AD, but most certainly by the 10th century, local meuang (“principalities” or “city-states”) were formed. Wherever these meuang sprang up, waterways natural and man-made served not only as sources for nutrition, bathing, agriculture and transport, but as important cultural adjuncts.
The most important festival in the entire region is the celebration of the solar-lunar New Year, when the sun passes from the sign of Pisces into the sign of Aries in the zodiac. Called Samkranta (Sanskrit for “fully passed over”), this festival demands that people take a few days out of their normal work schedules for spiritual cleansing and renewal. Believers hold that during this short period the spirit of the previous year departs and a new one arrives. Hence, on the first day of the festival, people give their homes a thorough cleaning to welcome the New Year spirit. New clothes will be worn, and in many households there is a ritual disposal of old clothing and other dispensable household possessions.
Water, representing the principal agent for this cleansing and renewal, plays a central role throughout the festival. Buddha images receive a ritual bathing as faithful Buddhists take turns pouring water over them. The faithful will also pour water over the hands of older Buddhist monks, and at home will perform the same ceremony for elders in the family. Although the original meaning of the water festival is kept alive by ceremonies such as these, nowadays it’s also very much a festival of fun. In most of the Mekong region, this is the height of the hot and dry season, and residents revel in being able to douse one another with water to cool off. In Bangkok, and a few other populous cities, the festival has escalated to a full-scale water war, involving pump-action water rifles, hoses, and virtually anything else that can deliver water with force. However, as the period of mourning is still underway for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, festivities might be a bit more subdued than in previous years.
Songkran around Thailand: In Chiang Mai the New year celebration is extended by two days (April 12-16), and the streets also serve as a venue for an international tribute to the shared cultures of the Mekong Basin, with processions along Tha Phae, Ratchadamnoen and Suthep roads showcasing the traditional costumes and dance traditions. In Nong Khai the festival runs one extra day (April 12-15), with most activity centering around Wat Pho Chai. In Ayutthaya, at the city’s UNESCO Historical Park, visitors can take part in Songkran festivities with elephants (in front of the TAT, Ayutthaya Office).
Find out more about Songkran in Thailand at: www.tourismthailand.org.