Lucky for us, we are enjoying a third new year celebration since our arrival! On December 31, we counted down and raised up a glass to the widely accepted new year; on February 5, we dressed in red, ate long noodles, and welcomed in the Year of the Pig; and for the past few days, beginning on April 13, we witnessed how the Thais make a big splash (literally) over their traditional Buddhist new year, or Songkran. Grab an umbrella and read on…
It all started when Bill was invited to give a second talk at Khon Kaen University (KKU) in northeastern Thailand. I decided to accompany him this time as I had never been to the area and had never met his colleague and friend, Ubon, who he has known for over 13 years. Ubon suggested that we stay through the weekend to participate in various Songkran activities and offered to give us a tour around Isan, Thailand’s largest region. We were quite excited about this gracious invitation because we had heard that most Thais who live in Bangkok travel to their hometowns for the four- to six-day holiday, leaving the city eerily quiet and free of traffic jams. And those that do stay engage in humongous water gun fights, with Westerners being the favorite targets! As much fun as that sounds, we were looking forward to spending Songkran in smaller cities and villages and taking part in traditional activities. This blog is solely dedicated to all things Songkran; I will write about our Isan adventure later so as not to overwhelm!
After Bill’s seminar, one of Ubon’s students drove us to a roadside vendor selling brightly colored floral shirts, the appropriate attire for Songkran (we are styling in the first photo!). So the next day, we fit right in with the School of Medicine’s celebration. It began with a lively parade of the different departments, each group dressed in colorful or traditional outfits, laughing and smiling nonstop, even as onlookers tossed cupfuls of water on them as they danced by. At the parade’s end, everyone took turns pouring water down each others’ backs or sprinkling it on their forearms, while exchanging good wishes for the new year. They also rubbed a powder paste on our faces (symbolizing the chalk marks that monks sometimes use when performing blessings).
Bill was asked to sit with the elders so that he could receive the blessings of the students and staff, and, in turn, he could do the same for them. Fortunately for him, he sat next to the dean who could explain everything that was happening. He held a garland of jasmine petals over a big silver bowl; people lined up to pour small bowls of water over the handheld flowers of each of the elders, showing them respect and wishing them a happy new year, long life, and good health and happiness. I also joined the line of well wishers, and then headed upstairs for lunch while Bill accepted the blessings from 200 or so others.
He then had lunch with the elders while watching a beauty contest! I don’t think he stopped smiling all day long!
The following day, we began our journey through the Isan region. We stopped at several temples, including Phra That Chong Chum in Sakon Nakhon, to take part in the Buddhist new year ritual of cleaning the temple’s small Buddha and monk statues. All of the statues are gathered from around the temple grounds and placed out in the courtyard. As you make your way down the line of statues, you pour a little jasmine- or rose-scented water on each one; this activity will wash away any bad luck from last year and bring you happiness and a fresh start for the new year! At this particular temple, Bill also received blessings from a monk, and Ubon shook out a very positive fortune-telling stick.
When we reached Nakhon Phanom, our first stop was at Wat Phra Tat Phanom. Built in the 10th century, it is a huge and very popular temple complex that is revered by both Thais and Laotians, as it sits near the Mekong River.
It is a very sacred temple because its 197-foot tall Laotian style chedi houses a breastbone of Buddha. We were lucky enough to be able to help wash the ornate chedi by first adding water to a large vessel and then joining other devotees in hoisting it way up to the top of the chedi using a rope pulley system. The vessel was then tilted, allowing the water to flow out over the chedi. So awesome!
Also on the temple grounds was a much, much smaller sand chedi that worshippers decorated with colorful flags and flowers that they received after making donations to the temple. Despite its large size, this temple was by far the most crowded one that we visited; we did not stay too long but were glad we had a chance to see it.
During one of our lunches, a Songkran parade was just getting started across the street from the restaurant. We stood under a tree in the median of the road and watched several ornate floats and groups of locals go by. More beauty contestants were seated on the floats trying to smile through the heat, and children were “riding” on bamboo-constructed horses. Other groups were dancing as they passed by the local governor and dignitaries who sat in the shade clapping and waving at the parade participants.
That was the first of several parades that we saw as we passed through the different cities. We also saw lots of children, teenagers, and adults armed with buckets of water waiting patiently on the streets for a daring motorcyclist or tuk-tuk to drive by and receive a heavy dousing! Our van was even caught up in an occasional deluge of water. And pickup trucks were loaded down with passengers and barrels of water that were used for filling buckets and squirt guns as they “attacked” folks on the street or in other similarly loaded down trucks! It was all done in fun, with no one being ridiculously aggressive. A true family-style celebration!
Our personal encounter with the true meaning of Songkran happened unexpectedly in a very small rural town called Ban Chiang. We took a turn down a back road and came face to face with an approaching parade. We jumped out of the van while the driver maneuvered a getaway so as not to impede the procession. This parade looked pretty similar to others we had seen all day long, except everyone was soaking wet! As they paraded down the street, they were being sprayed, squirted, and splashed! And it didn’t take long before Bill and I were drenched as well by friendly well wishers! Some folks even jumped off the floats to pour water down our backs, our fronts, and anywhere else that wasn’t wet already!
Bill decided he needed his own squirt gun to defend himself, and went off to look for one. In the meantime, a fire truck pulled up and I got completely saturated by an extremely happy fireman! After the initial shock, it felt pretty refreshing! Then Bill returned armed with his high-powered Cinderella squirt gun with backpack water tank! Look out, Ban Chiang! Let the games begin!
We were two of a handful of foreigners in this village and were graciously welcomed not only with water but with big smiles, handshakes, dancing in the street, and occasional sips of beer. The festivities sans the water fights continued into the night with a children’s talent contest, more dancing and music, and of course food! After a Songkran experience, fireworks just might seem a bit dull, I’m afraid!
When we returned to Bangkok, the streets were empty and most of the shops and restaurants were closed. Some restaurants are using the downtime to repaint or even renovate for the new year. The Buddha shrines and spirit houses are receiving extra cleaning attention as well. And folks are purging their homes of things they don’t need and sprucing up the insides in hopes of a fresh beginning. I’m thinking I may need to tackle the pigeon droppings on our balconies just to continue the Songkran spirit!