Author: Grace Carter
Last update: 09/08/2008


Celebrated by:

Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos


April 13 to 15

How to say Happy New Year:

"Sawadee Pee Mai!"


A thousand years ago, it was customary for the Tai farmers of China's Yunnan province to begin farming during the fifth moon of the new lunar calendar. Those farmers were the ancestors of Thailand's present day population. Over the years, water became a symbol of the renewed fertility of the land in spring. For centuries, Thai people have sprinkled the hands of their elders with scented water from silver bowls. The same elders received strings, tied around their wrists by younger family members wishing them luck, which stayed on until they fell off of their own accord. Songkran has historically been celebrated at slightly different times of year. The modern date is a happy medium of sorts, with nods to the Thai lunar new year, and the astrology of Buddhism.

Values and traditions:

Songkran is all about cleansing. At least that's what it's supposed to be about. As far as we can tell, it's more about the joy of dumping buckets of cold water on unsuspecting people in the streets. In fact, if it's really hot out, Songkran sometimes starts a day early-not officially, but dammit, could you wait another day to start slinging the H20? Me neither. A walk through Chiang Mai on April 13th can feel like an episode of Punk'd gone amuck, but with fewer dramatic reactions from freaked-out celebs. The aquatic anarchy arrives at the hottest time of year, so often a splash in the back is a welcome treat.

It's not all a day at the water park. The idea is, of course, to honor water as the source of life's renewal, and a purifying influence that washes away bad thoughts and naughty deeds past. Many Thai (and Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese) people still adhere to more traditional elements of the holiday. They begin by returning home to help the family perform a thorough spring-cleaning, just like those celebrating Norooz, Chinese New Year and Hogmanay. Businessmen in Bangkok take off for the small villages where they were raised. Housewives burn worn-out clothes and household junk.

On the first day, traditionalists visit temples, or Wats, to practice Dharma, and perform good deeds, including crossing the palms of monks with a few baht. On day two, handfuls of sand are carried to the temples, to make up for the dirt that has been carried away on the feet of visitors during the rest of the year. The sand is piled and sculpted into personal pagodas, and then decorated with flags. Monks move the holiest statues into open-air pavilions, so visitors can sprinkle Buddha with cleansing water. Some parade through town on floats made from automobiles.

Throughout the festival, people dance in the streets. Music rings out from the Wats and the homes. In the market, birdcages are flung open and the birds let free. In Paklat, south of Bangkok, a procession of girls carries bags of fish to the river where the slippery creatures are released.

And of course, for the entire time, the relentless sousing continues unabated-often with water guns, pumps, garden hoses, and even fifty-gallon water drums mounted on the back of pick-up trucks. Those feeling water-logged might try to step into a restaurant to dry off. Watch out for a wide smile from a waitress, though-it could be intended to distract you from the glass of water she's hiding behind her back. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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