Behind the fun and water fights that have made Thailand’s New Year celebrations famous around the world lies a strong set of deep, meaningful spiritual roots and rituals.
Ushered in every year in Mid-April by local revellers and tourists alike during a nationwide multi-day water festival, the Thai New Year – or Songkran – was originally celebrated by the northern Dtai hill tribes of Ynnan province in China as a fertility ceremony. The festival has survived migration and cultural evolution over the centuries, but remains an important observance, not only in Thailand but also in Laos, as well as parts of Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Today’s wet and wild festivities in Thailand may lead some visitors to believe the word “Songkran” actually translates to something like “water war” in English. However, in Sanskrit, the original word “Sankranti” from which “Songkran” refers to an approaching or passing phase in the cycle of life and the date – 13 -15 April – also marks the start of a Lunar New Year.
In addition to the fun of taking to the streets to dowse complete strangers with buckets of ice cold water, spiritual preparations and rituals remain a strong focus for many Thai people during the country’s main national holiday and festival. Below are some insights into the traditions of this ancient
Preparation and Decoration
April, also known as Wan Sang khan Loong, Songkran festival begins in Thailand and people often like to to give their houses a thorough spring clean on this first morning – that is, if they are not too busy joining the water fights that have already begun. The next day is known as Wan Nao, when decorations are traditionally put up at homes and in temples across the land. Buckets of sand are often used to craft impressive figures which are decorated with colourful paper streamers and flowers. Traditionally, food to give to monks as alms is also prepared on this day.
rings in the New Year, and on this day – known to locals as “Wan Payawan” – people gather at their local temple to make offerings. Food prepared on Wan Nao, as well as fresh fruit, new robes and other gifts are all offered to monks as a way of making merit. In the past, Wan Payawan also marked the beginning of the gentle water rituals, which have since evolved into today’s exuberant soakings.
Respect for Elders
is also known as Wan Paak Bpee. In Thai culture, respect for elders and ancestors is still extremely important, and Wan Pak Bpee honours that. As a sign of respect, scented water is poured gently over the hands of senior members of the family and community who then bless the participants in the ceremony in return. The fragrant water is often scented with dried flowers and cumin and once the blessings are over, one representative from the participants will often ask the elders to forgive any disrespectful behaviour or attitudes from the previous year. This blessing of the elders with sweet, scented water eventually evolved into a gentle sprinkle of water onto the back of friends and loved ones, intended as a new year greeting (expressed as Sawasdee Pee Mai
in Thai). It is this part of the celebrations that gradually transformed into the excexuberant festivities visitors see today.
Songkran is also an important time to make merit and bring good luck, health and prosperity for the year ahead. To that end Thai people will often perform acts of kindness during the festival, such as liberating birds and fish, or perform a dutiful act by bathing a Buddha image in they house or at the local temple. Thai cultural performances are also common during Songkran, and include plays and dance shows, often depicting Songkran festivities in times past.
Island hotspots like Phuket and Koh Samui have become particularly popular as destinations for international visitors to join and enjoy the fun of Songkran’s water fights. In Phuket’s Patong, Songkran kicks off on April 13th when pickup trucks line up on the streets, loaded with ice cold water ready to soak passers-by. Patong’s Bangla Road or Chaweng Beach Road on Koh Samui are definitely the place to be for the full wet and chaotic experience. Anyone that goes outside during the Songkran celebrations in these places will certainly be soaked to the skin. But it is also important that the festival is inextricably tied to a gentler, more spiritual celebration.
by Wayne Hue