Songkran, Festival of Water

Thailand’s Songkran festival has won fame amongst foreign tourists for the drenching they get on the hottest day of the year. It is a festival that is filled with laughter, colour and merriment. People who have never had a chance to take part in this festival look forward to the day when they can also join in the fun. Those who have already experienced Songkran can hardly wait for the day when they return to share the fun a second or third time. For the people of Thailand, however, Songkran is more than just a day of fun and splashing water. Since ancient times it has been held as the beginning of the New Year and holds the same importance for Thais as 1 January does for people of other nations.

In the Central Region, Songkran, or New year, is celebrated on 12-14 April and is a holiday for people all over the country. For the people of Lanna, however, the New Year commences on 15 April each year. This day is known in Lanna as Wan Phaya Wan which means that it is a day of great importance and more important than any other day in the year. Rituals and ceremonies are held in the period 13-15 April.

Festivities commence on 13 April, known as Wan Sangkhan Long, with fireworks and crackers being set off in homes from early morning. This helps to drive the bad spirits or evil forces from the family compound. On this day people thoroughly clean their houses, clothes and personal belongings in order to welcome the New Year which is rapidly approaching. Special attention is also made to personal appearance, especially washing the hair or manicuring the nails. The hair is then patted with oil from the acacia tree as it is believed that this will help to drive all inauspicious elements from the body and bring the person blessings.

14 April is known in Northern Thailand as Wan Nao. It is a sort of half-baked day, mid way between the Old Year and the New Year. As it is not really clear which year it is, it is not appropriate to perform rituals or ceremonies. Children are taught that on this day they should not quarrel or use harsh words with each other. It is a day for going to market and preparing food for the merit making that will take place the following morning.

During the afternoon sand is carried to the temple according to custom. People are free to visit any temple they wish and they take with them sand which they use to build small pagodas. This custom is based on an ancient belief that when Thais, as Buddhists, visit temples, sand gets stuck to their feet and they inadvertently take it with them when they leave. This sand, in fact, is actually monastic property and it is improper practice not to return it.

The next day, 15 April, is Wan Phaya Wan. The Lanna Thai place the utmost importance on this day as it is the first day of the New Year and considered extremely auspicious. Early in the morning, food is carried to the temple as a form of merit making, and later in the afternoon, offerings are made at the sand pagodas. Small banners known as thung are staked on top of the pagodas. This is followed by a custom where elders are visited by the younger members of the family who pay respects and receive their blessings. These visits are accompanied by offerings of areca nut, clove leafs, turmeric water, and the indispensable acacia oil. Following ancient tradition and as an expression of gratitude, forgiveness is requested from the elders for any wrongs that may have been done. The elders give their blessings and offer words of instruction. The end of the ceremony is marked by sprinkling the elders with water and the young people splashing water on each other.

The practice of throwing water is traditionally done on Wan Phya Wan and Wan Pak Pi (16 April). Today, however, Songkran is considered a festival of fun and it is not uncommon for the water throwing to start as early as 13 April, especially in Chiang Mai which is the focal point for both Thai and foreign tourists. The water throwing continues for several days, both inside and outside the city, but especially around the moat of the old city where the crowds gather in the greatest numbers. The traditional customs of respects should be adhered to, however. Permission should be asked before splashing a person and good wishes and blessings exchanged. Songkran is a Thai festival that should not harbour ill feelings or anger.

More Chiang Mai Articles