Each society has its way of bidding adieu to the old year as it heralds in the New Year. The onset of the New Year in Thailand takes the form of the celebration of the lively festival, Songkran.
The word Songkran hails from the ancient Sanskrit language, and it translates as a word for movement or change. Songkran signifies the celebration of the spring equinox, an event, which is celebrated with much fanfare in many other countries in the world as well.
Initially, the dates for the celebration of Songkran, the longest holiday in Thailand were determined in accordance with the solar calendar, and thus the festival’s dates often varied. In recent years, the dates of the festival have been fixed for the 13th to the 15th of April. Songkran typically falls at the hottest time of the year in Thailand.
Historical records indicate that the celebration of the Songkran festival came to Thailand from Burma in the mid-20th century as an adaption of the Indian festival of Holi. Today, in addition to Thailand and Burma, Songkran is also celebrated in other neighboring countries like Cambodia and Laos.
The legend behind Songkran
Like most Asian festivals, Songkran also has a legend associated with it. The legend here tells the tale of a battle of wits between a brilliant young man and a god called Kabil Maha Prom who was jealous of his brilliance. The God challenged the intellect of the young man by asking him to solve three extremely tough riddles and went on to add that if he did not solve the riddles he would lose his head. However, if he did manage to solve the riddles the God would sacrifice his head.
The young man only just managed to solve the riddle and the God was forced to cut off his head in response. The God’s head was not allowed to fall to earth for it generated much heat. Such intense heat would scorch the earth and dry up the oceans. So the head was kept in a cave in the heavens. It is said that each year at the time of Songkran one of the god’s seven daughters brings out his head, and much revelry and feasting is associated with the event.
The three-day Songkran holiday features distinct events, and as is the case with most festivals, the celebration of Songkran features revelries with friends and family. The day before Songkran is known as Wan Sunghkran Lohng. On this day Thais, clean their homes and buy new clothes in preparation for the Songkran festivities.
Wan Nao is the second day of the festival and on this day, the Thai people play a traditional game called ‘Saba’ (similar to skittles). They also build sand pyramids along riverbanks and anoint them with flags and floral decorations. This activity has much symbolism associated with it for in the days past; villagers used to carry clean sand to neighboring villages and temples to replace the sand swept away during the old year. In Bangkok, this sand pyramid building activity is concentrated within the city’s historic Rattanakosin temple area.
The symbolism of water during Songkran
Water-throwing events feature prominently during the Songkran celebrations. Parades for Songkran are carried out in major cities all over Thailand. These parades usually feature statues of Buddha and the crowds, which assemble roadside throw water on these images as they take part in the ritual of washing the Buddha image. However, water fights and splashes are not limited to these parades as the Thai people revel in dousing their friends and neighbors with water from garden hoses, buckets, and water guns as well. The symbolism behind this water-throwing activity is that the water washes away the misfortunes of the old year, leaving you fresh and cleansed to welcome the New Year.
Visitors and locals all in every region of Thailand take part in the myriad festivities of Songkran.
In the capital city, Bangkok much of the action takes place around the tourist hubs of Silom Road and Khao San Road. Vendors along these roads erect make-shit stalls selling water guns, traditional eats, and iced drinks to the huge crowds of visitors and locals who indulge in raucous water fights as they ring in the Thai New Year.
Beauty contests, boat races, floating boat parades and festive menus for Songkran are some of the other prominent features of the festival in Bangkok and other parts of the country.
Tips for a successful Songkran outing for a visitor
The festival of Songkran is no doubt a joyous time to be in Thailand. However, given the raucousness of the festivities you would do well as to follow simple common sense advice to enjoy the revelries to the fullest.
1. As the festival features much water splashing, you are better off leaving important travel documents at your hotel rather than carrying them with you.
2. If you need to carry your phone or camera with you, do carry them in waterproof bags to prevent damage.
3. Consider walking or using public transport if you are heading to the Songkran hotspots in central Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
4. Be mindful not to throw icy or dirty water on fellow revelers.
5. Refrain from splashing water on infants, monks or the aged.
6. Smile, relax and enjoy the festivities including the inevitable drenching.