Songkran New Year Festival
In Thailand, and big parts of the rest of South East Asia, New Years is traditionally celebrated when the sun enters the star sign of Aries, which is the first sign in Sidereal astrology. This normally happens between the 13th and 15th of April, but nowadays the New Year celebrations in Thailand kick off on the fixed date of April 13th. The New Year celebration in Thailand is called Songkran, which is Sanskrit for «to pass» or «move into», it refers to the movement of the sun, the moon and all the rest of the planets at this time of year. Lately, however, people relate Songkran a lot more to water than to the sun's movement and positioning.
«The Water Festival»
Among tourists Songkran is mostly known as the Water Festival and is generally a very wet celebration. People splash, pour and shoot water at each other for three wild days and the basic idea is that the water cleanses both people and environment in preparation for the coming year.
A huge cleansing ritual
The wild water chaos in Thailand during Songkran festival is based on the idea that the water brings prosperity and fertility to both earth and people. The belief is that splashing water around you will lead to rain which in turn makes everything clean, strong and full of good health, from the people to the earth, trees and crops. Some call Songkran a good spring cleaning. Nowadays the water splashing activities are accompanied with wild partying; no one walks the Thai streets safely during Songkran. Being soaked with water during the Water Festival is seen as a nice gesture and good sign for the year to come. The more water you're splashed with, the better!
Wild parties for all
Colorful festivities are arranged in all cities and villages in Thailand during the New Year celebrations. The idea behind this entertainment is to tie the bonds between families, society and nature tighter. All citizens join in during these parties; the point is to be reminded that everyone is connected and important, that all is actually one.
Paying tribute to Buddha
Traditionally this is the time of year when all the Buddha images are to be cleansed with a certain holy water. The images will be taken down and paraded around the town while people watch and throw their water on them. Sand is also brought to the temples where they are shaped into «stupas», which is the most ancient form of a Buddhist monument. The «stupas» are then decorated with colorful flags and admired by the locals. While cleansing themselves and Buddha, many Thai people also take the opportunity give New Year resolutions and vow to steer clear from bad thoughts and actions. Songkran is a fresh start for body, soul and mind.
In the early days
Back in the days, when Thailand was part of the big Sukhothai kingdom, which historically happened between the years 1238-1438, Songkran was celebrated both in the Royal Court and among ordinary people. The festivities were by no means as extensive as they are today, but more an opportunity for the king to have his officials pay him their respect in various ceremonies. In return the king paid his officials their yearly salaries. It wasn't until later, during the Ayutthaya period that the cleansing ritual of Buddha was included in the Songkran festival. It was also then that the idea to make sand monuments in the temples took form, and the colorful parties came about. You could say that it was around that time Songkran became more like the wild Water Festival that is enjoyed today.
A work free holiday
Thailand has strong roots in agricultural life and the people are hard workers, but during Songkran the Thai people stop working for a few days to enjoy the New Year festivities with family and friends, and to honor the memory of their ancestors and of Buddha. After a thorough cleaning procedure of houses and holy images of Buddha, sacred rituals are performed in houses and temples. One of the highlights during Songkran Water Festival is when the younger generation splashes holy water on the older generation's hands. It is a sign of respect, devotion and gratitude.
Back in the days Songkran was only celebrated in the northern parts of Thailand, but nowadays it is a well spread festival that is massively celebrated all over the country. Everyone present in Thailand during these days are included in the nationwide party, which usually looks pretty wild and chaotic, but a few unwritten rules are strictly followed by all. The rules include no splashing of water at pregnant women or monks and no water throwing in hotels, shops or restaurants. After sundown everybody goes home to change their wet clothes into dry ones and the party continues through the nights with the exception that no water splashing is allowed until the sun rises again.
Songkran Festival in Chiang Mai
The most authentic celebration is found in Chiang Mai, but also in touristic areas like Pattaya, Phuket and Koh Samui the Water Festival gets quite intense.
In Chiang Mai a traditional procession of Buddha images is performed. The images are placed on beautifully decorated floats that are carried through the city accompanied by live music from the nearby school orchestras. Along the roads people are gathered to splash their holy water on the Buddha images as they pass. This is how the holy images are cleansed and in return the people's souls get good merits. There is a whole lot of water being splashed during this ceremony, but in a calm and respectful way, as opposed to the wild water chaos you see in many other places. The little sand «stupas» are sculpted and decorated in the temples on Songkran's third day, after the sand having been brought in the previous afternoon. The Buddhists make their sacrifices and promises for the New Year and a variation of ceremonies are practiced, among them the one which involves youngsters paying their respect to the elders by damping their hands with holy water.
New Year celebrations in neighboring countries
It is not only in Thailand that Songkran is celebrated; also neighboring countries in the region have their New Year celebrations around this time.
In Laos the Water Fesival is called either Songkran or Pbeemai and is held on the 13th of April just as in Thailand.
The Cambodian New Year Festival is called Chaul Chnam Thmey and kicks off either the 13th or the 14th of April.
In Burma they celebrate Thingyan which is still calculated by the lunisolar calendar.
In China New Years Day is called Xishuangbanna and it's celebrated on the 14-16 of April. The exact date is calculated using the Dai calendar.