Discovering the true meaning of Thailand’s most important festival
For the last few weeks I’ve been staying in a small village called Broken Road in Isaan, northeast Thailand. My stay coincides with Songkran – the Thai New Year celebrations from 13-15 April – during which people throw water over each other as a a symbol of their sins being washed away. Unfortunately, in the larger cities these celebrations have become rather hedonistic: an excuse for people to get wasted and have what amounts to a giant wet tshirt competition. While fun to look at, the original meaning has become somewhat diluted (pun intended). Staying out in the countryside has given me a chance to experience the true meaning of Songkran, and discover how this ancient festival is still relevant in modern-day Thailand.
‘The Seven Dangerous Days’
The roads are insanely busy during this time of year with the whole country making the trip home to where they are originally from. Isaan is no different, with bus-loads of people flocking into the region from Bangkok to the west, Chang Mai to the north, and the southern islands. Yet while Songkran is by far the most important event of the year for the Thai people, it is also one of the most dangerous. The death toll from road accidents doubles during the annual Songkran holiday – with 248 killed in just five days last year. Most of these deaths are from drink driving and speeding, but I can’t help but wonder if at least some of them are caused by kids or drunk people throwing buckets of water over motorbikes passing by at high speed. As we are crossing a road, a policeman approaches a ten-year on a motorbike without a helmet – and just as I think the kid is going to be told to get off the bike, the cop simply says “be careful, yeah” and the kid speeds off.
Almsgiving / Bintibat
Waking early on the day before Songkran, we put on long pants and head to one of the largest temples in the neighbourhood to perform bintibat or almsgiving – offerings to the new monks who were ordained the previous day. In Buddhism, almsgiving is the respect given by a lay Buddhist to a spiritually-developed person (such as a Buddhist monk or nun). It is not charity as presumed by Western interpreters; closer to a symbolic connection to the spiritual realm. I guess in its simplest form this means that by people relying on monks for spiritual guidance, and monks relying on people to support them with offerings, both parties exist in harmony. Eighty monks were involved in the procession, with us having to spoon rice into each of their bowls as they passed.
Broken Road lies on the outskirts of a small city called Nang Rong. Every year, groups of people from neighbouring villages gather at the lake for a traditional longtail boat race: an excuse to get together and prepare for the Songkran celebrations. People dance on makeshift stages, monks chant and there are all sorts of food stalls. It’s kind of like a village fete. Dressed in a pair of fluorescent shorts, garish space tshirt and a jasmine garland I look about 15 years old: a fact emphasised even further when I get my hands on a water pistol and chase some kids down the road. Other kids play among huge makeshift concrete tubes that have been filled with hoses and sprinklers.
Songkran in Broken Road / Rod Nam Dam Hua
In Broken Road the Songkran celebrations take on extra significance – with the family performing the Rod Nam Dam Hua ceremony as a tribute to Fanfan’s grandmother who passed away just a few weeks earlier. Ceremonial silver bowls (khan nam) are filled with water, scented oil and various flowers which are said to represent things such as a new start and renewed health. The younger members of the family bow before the older, pouring water over their hands and feet. We walk from house to house in the village, carrying the ornate silver bowl and performing the ritual many times – also offering milk to those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
At each house toothless old grannies smile and bless us, while kids run around with water-pistols and buckets of water. Neighbours hand us glasses of Hong Thong whiskey and soda, and Thai pop music blares from makeshift sound systems. One afternoon we hear some commotion outside. Looking down the road we see a pickup truck loaded with monks and a shrine secured on the back. The shrine has come all the way from Bangkok and is said to contain fragments of bone from Buddha. Pilgrims diligently follow the truck, and as it passes our house they throw water over us, speaking in Thai and blessing us for the year ahead.
Blessing monks / Song Nam Pra
On the 14th we head to the local temple and participate in Song Nam Pra – a ceremony where sacred thread (sai sin) draped from the ceiling connects all of the people in the temple together. After hypnotically chanting for over 90 minutes, the lead monk works his way through the crowd and splashes holy water over the crowd, the whole ceremony symbolic of your karma being born again. Similar to the Rod Nam Dam Hua we performed in the village, we queue and pour fragrant water over the monks’ hands and feet. The water passes through the monks’ hands but the flowers remain. Children and old people approach me and want to perform the ceremony on myself, while others pour water down my back and bless me.
The Songkran I experienced in Isaan is every different to the one many will have participated in in Bangkok. I’m grateful I got to see the true meaning and origin of the festival.
“Sawatdii pi mai.” Happy New Year.