Songkran: The Real Thai New Year

Lamphun-3
A traditional Songkran parade in Lamphun. Water is thrown on a parade of Buddhas and everyone else attending.

The Basics

Songkran is the world famous water throwing holiday of Thailand. It takes place in mid-April, when the oppressive tropical heat bears down with its greatest ferocity.

Songkran celebrates the beginning of the Buddhist year (2016 AD = 2559 Buddhist Year) and is the most important religious festival in the Kingdom. Songkran is officially a 3 day festival, although much of the country will shut down for a week or more. Many Bangkokians depart the city and head for their family homes in the provinces. Like Christmas, it’s a time to be with family.

The roots of Songkran are found in the ancient Buddhist calendar of the sun transitioning through the Zodiak. Rejuvenation, cleanliness, transformation, even metamorphosis are concepts traditionally associated with this event. You can’t help but compare Easter to Songkran.

In rural Thailand, old Siamese traditions hold sway for the most part. Like Christmas or Easter, Songkran is a blend of religious, secular and family traditions.

Songkran-Collage
A Songkran parade in Pasang. Pasang is only 30 kilometers from Chiang Mai and a great place to celebrate a traditional Songkran.

An early morning visit to the family Wat where a special Songkran ceremony is held is a common way to start the festivities. Many wats are decked out in their finest regalia with a full compliment of monks on hand for the service. Cleaning your house is a tradition (Does “Spring Cleaning” ring a bell???). Gift giving is a part of the holiday. (This Songkran, we gave our elderly aunt a new TV.) Visiting and paying respect to elderly family members is a must.

Pasang-1q
An early morning Songkran service in Pasang. The local wats are festooned with their finest regalia during Songkran.

The “Parade of Buddhas” (my terminology) is an important tradition. Congregants from local Wats take a revered statute of a Buddha from their Wat and mount it on a pick-up or flat bed truck. These Buddha bearing trucks are paraded down Main Street with a few congregants riding along dressed in traditional Siamese garb. As this Buddha Parade passes by, people throw water on the Buddhas and each other.

On day three, water throwing reaches its zenith. Young Thais will form along a road and throw water on anything coming by. Thais will ride in the bed of pick-ups and water battles take place between them and the youths standing along the roadway. If you are young or a farang, expect to have water thrown on you if you go out onto the streets.

This Songkran, I was throwing water with my wife’s family (I’m currently 62 going on 17) along the side of the rural road the runs past our house. We were definitely giving better than we got in this day-long water fight. I was too busy throwing water to notice that an official Thai fire engine had pulled up across the street and was training its big guns in our direction. The firemen had their nozzle set to a spray, but still let loose with a full drenching volume of water on us, much to their delight. They “got” a farang.

Actually, it’s quite refreshing to get doused with water when the temperature is reaching 100 degrees.

Of course all during the festival, family feasts are enjoyed and Buddhist merit making (doing good deeds) are top activities. Yes, quite a bit of beer and Thai whiskey are consumed, but getting obviously drunk in public is frowned upon.

Lamphun-2a
Drink, get wet, have fun. But pleeeeez, respect the culture. Songkran is a Buddhist festival.

Water Throwing Rules

In traditional, rural Siam, you don’t just throw water around willy-nilly! Here’s some basic rules that will help you understand Songkran even better:

1. Don’t throw water in people’s face. If you do, you may see a Thai get angry in public. (A very rare event)

2. Don’t throw water on an elderly person without their consent. If given consent, gently pour water down the nape of their neck and say “sawat bee mai” which means “Happy New Year”.

3. Do not get angry if someone unexpectedly throws water on you. If you are walking about in public, and especially at water throwing events, you’ve given consent to be doused. (There are no spectators to a water throwing.)

4. Do not dress in an inappropriate manner, especially if attending a “Parade of Buddhas”. This is a religious event. I wear a baggy swimsuit and t-shirt top which is good attire for both men and women.

5. Many Thai teenagers love to throw a bucket of ice water on you for the shock value. And shocking it is! Just smile. As a farang, you should just stick to throwing only cool water.

Lamphun-1a
The “Parade of Buddhas”. My favorite event during Songkran.

Best Places to See Traditional Songkran

Pasang and Lamphun have great, traditional parades and festivities. Best yet, they’re only a 1/2 hour drive from Chiang Mai. Lampang, Phrae, and Nan are also great places to see and participate in a traditional Songkran, but it can take 2-4 hours of driving from Chiang Mai to get to these old Northern cities.

Of course the old city of Chiang Rai is also a great place to see old fashioned Siamese Songkran festivals.

The towns and cities mentioned above are all part of the Old Lanna Kingdom. It’s the area of Thailand that still adheres the most to traditional Siamese ways. It’s also the part of Thailand I’m most familiar with. Check with the locals or your hotel concierge for the exact date and times as parade times and festivities will change from year to year.

“White Songkran”: A Shameful Debauchery

Hidden from White eyes and ears, in Thai newspapers, Thai radio, Thai TV and Thai dinner tables, a resentment is voiced as to the moral denigration of Songkran. (See video above) I will give you two scenarios to make crystal clear what much of the resentment is about.

Scenario 1: Foreign tourist descend upon the United States to “celebrate” both Christmas and Easter by getting drunk in public and openly cavorting with barely clad American prostitutes. In the name of the holiest days of the Christian Calendar, these foreigners carry out their debauchery.

Scenario 2: White tourist descend upon Thailand to “celebrate” Songkran by getting drunk in public and openly cavorting with barely clad Thai bar girls. In the name of the holiest day on the Buddhist calendar, these White people carry out their debauchery.

Scenario 2 is a reality. Americans would be outraged if Scenario 1 were even remotely true.

The worst offenders of “White Songkran” happen in Bangkok, Pattaya and some of the other beach cities where Songkran traditions are not as deeply rooted as in the North. Such behavior would simply not be tolerated in the traditional, rural north or Isaan.

The Thai military government has said that during Songkran, the police will begin arresting local bar girls whose dress is “too provocative”. Whether this is a mere threat is yet to be seen. (While I’m a strong critic of this pubic debauchery, I’m absolutely against jailing people for these indiscretions.) But the unfortunate truth is that the vast amount of tourist dollars coming from “White Songran” will mute any attempt to reign it in.

Ending Thoughts

Party hardy at Songkran if that’s your style. Make noise. Throw water. Drink beer and Thai whiskey. But respect Thai culture and religion.

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