Songkran is the huge Thai New Year festival that is officially held over three days in mid-April each year. It is very similar to the Western Christmas/New Year period with a large movement of people heading back to their homes to be with friends and family and a lot of businesses shutting or slowing down for the one week encompassing Songkran.
If you Google “Songkran” and look at the images associated with the festival you’d think that the whole thing revolves around water fights.
The waterfights do form an important and fun part of Songkran but there is a lot more to it and I want to share some of those other aspects with you in this post.
Last year we were in Chiang Mai and weren’t as involved locally as we were this year as a result of our move to Isaan. Our Moo Baan was a gated village and didn’t visibly participate in Songkran. We weren’t part of a local community so missed out on being able to join in that way and to tell the truth I thought Songkran WAS all about waterfights, which seemed pretty limited to me so I didn’t go looking further. We ended up heading into the centre of Chiang Mai and got caught in the tourist/Thai mix of waterfight mania that is a central theme to Songkran there and in the other major tourist destinations.
I upset a reader by stating that my experience of this festival in Chiang Mai had a sense of unreality to it, because of the number of farangs involved. She thought I was having a go at Songkran “Chiang Mai style”, which I wasn’t. However scenes like the one above are for obvious reasons very localised to those places with a lot of foreign holidaymakers, and they’re not all farang, heaps of Chinese were getting involved too. Nothing wrong with it and a great time had by all involved. It just isn’t the total picture.
So what does Songkran look like when it is experienced from a local point of view inside a small Isaan village? A lot different that’s for sure but some elements are still retained.
Firstly Songkran is about family. As I wrote earlier much of the country is on the move as people head home. This is particularly true for Isaan because a good percentage of the local population works elsewhere. If you get a taxi in Bangkok or have your hotel room serviced in Phuket or pick up a bar girl in Pattaya the odds are that they are from Isaan. They are normally darker skinned, much to their dismay, and speak two languages, Thai and Isaan, the latter being almost identical to Laos which is where many Isaan people originated.
The local population must have doubled for the festival period and the flow-on to people like my Thai family is felt as they worked hard to supply the local markets with fresh vegetables from their farm. The local liquor outlets do huge business too as it is a period of very hard partying and drinking, as Christmas/New Year is with us.
Gaun’s family reunion this year was limited to brother number 3 plus family, I am not sure if even Gaun knows all their names, sister number 2 who does have a name – Yurt, as she is a central figure to the family, and two nephews Game and Tom and a niece Puk. Brother number 5 made an appearance as did sister number 1 🙂
Secondly this is a Buddhist festival and that sometimes gets lost in the tourist brochures. The origin of the waterfights is that this is a time of cleansing, getting ready for the New Year. Part of that involves washing Buddhist statues with scented water. This can be collected and handed out to be poured around the house for good luck.
Well combine water, the hottest month of the year and Thais natural inclination to have a good time and how do you end up? Wet that’s how!
By the way if you don’t have access to a calendar you will know the New Year is on its way when you see these beautiful yellow trees called Golden Shower trees flower across Thailand. They were particularly striking in Chiang Mai.
The other giveaway is when shops start stocking up on the brightly patterned shirts that become the Songkran uniform.
The local Buddhist temple called Wat in Thai is the central point to Songkran. Much of the festival is geared towards the temple and it is a time to raise funds for whatever endless building project is currently being undertaken. Thai Buddhism is partly based around gaining merit and the easiest way to do that is to donate money, which ends up constructing another temple building. The result is that you will find huge temples in the oddest of places.
Songkran day itself started early with a big Isaan breakfast none of which included eggs, bacon or toast and marmalade. Everything in Isaan revolves around food and lots of it.
That done we headed to the temple to see what was happening there. From the loud music it was obvious that something had started.
If you are feeling hungry and have no money then find a temple at Songkran. Everything is for free provided by people who want to accumulate merit points by doing something good for others. Maybe the temple kicked in money too. Get there early for the ice creams because they went pretty quickly as it was a very hot day!
These small block ice creams are homemade and come in a range of very mild flavours and in colours that don’t necessarily match, the lemon is orange coloured for example. Haven’t they heard of artificial colouring! The local ice cream man stops at our gate every time he is in the area and I top up the freezer. Being such a good customer I get 12 for the price of 10 🙂
The more Buddhist bit of the day was happening around the Wat itself as the first crowd circulated three times around it dancing to loud non-Buddhist music.
Heading home we met our two tilers, guys who had worked on our new house, heading to the temple with one of the many, many money trees we would see that day. These are presented formally to the monks at the end of the day.
Back at the family home our own money tree was taking shape.
I mentioned earlier that Gaun’s brother number 3 had arrived with his family for Songkran. Almost the first thing he did was set up an informal casino Thai style, which seemed to be open 24/7! This was a big hit with the locals and it did almost non-stop action during the three days of the festival. Public gambling like this is illegal in Thailand. It is a worldwide phenomenon that governments hate not getting a cut in any transactions and here is no different. However, like two-up gambling in Australia on Anzac Day, it is allowed once for this special occasion.
Money tree finished lunch was being prepared by the family headed by Yurt, sister number 2. She works as a cook for an Udon Thani Thai/Chinese family and cooking is her love. She is happiest when feeding large number of people. I love it when she visits because she makes the best spring rolls.
I had lunch with a military officer that morning, a son of one of the village elders I have got to know, and he told me that normally the police would drop in several times during Songkran to get donations to their retirement fund! Gaun confirmed that this did normally happen. However the army guy said that now that the military were in control post coup, the police had been put in their place and weren’t as actively raising funds. He told me several times that the army didn’t take bribes. I will make no further comment considering where my home base is 🙂 Certainly the only police we saw was a guy out of uniform on the rounds selling sausages! Gaun’s mama bought one.
To prove the point the army guy went over to the casino and was promptly given 300 THB. He took it, brought it back to me and then to show that the military didn’t accept bribes he then gave it to my mother-in-law. The handing out of money for beer wasn’t unusual because brother number 3 did it a few times I saw just to keep the punters happy.
Gaun’s mama appeared a little later slightly confused as to why she had been given money and sent Lud, my brother-in-law, off to buy beer, some of which I enjoyed! A lovely little insight to a range of happenings. On a more serious note it does show a tension over power between the military and the police. As both side are armed I hope they continue to at least put up with each other.
Across the street some neighbours had set up a music system and were starting a party. We were invited over and beer and food offered. Beer yes, food no for me. Two of those spring rolls and I am done for the day! We had to pass a sentry, the first of the local kids starting to get ready for the upcoming water fights.
You will note the taxi in the background of the last two photos. This is normally Bangkok based but has been driven here for Songkran. I am not sure who is left driving taxis in Bangkok as we saw many taxis here over the holiday period.
It was now early afternoon and time to join the main procession that winds its way through the village before ending up at the temple to offer all those money trees to the monks.
Along the way many of the house had water organised to share with the passing traffic! This was the Chiang Mai equivalent but in a very different and more “personal” setting.
Arriving slightly damp but cooler at the temple we meet up with some friends from the morning who are eating of course.
We also met up with several people who had worked on the house. I have said it before but it gives me a real buzz to get greeted by locals I know. It is the advantage of living in such a close knit community like this one.
The procession started we left the Wat and joined up with the main group making its tour around the village. We just followed our ears.
Finally after about two hours the whole thing finishes up back at the temple. Three times around the Wat and then everyone gets together to present the money trees to the monks.
Although this was the official day of celebration Songkran continued to happen in the form of water throwing, parties and smaller events for the next few days. Less intense but still happening.
It seemed to be an auspicious time to become a monk and you can read about that HERE. Most of the people who had travelled to be with family stayed the week. The following weekend was very busy on the roads as everyone headed back to their work base. The family casino packed up on day three. The police would be legitimately making a visit otherwise.
The next day the family all got together and had a small ceremony where white wrist bands were exchanged and the elders had their hands washed, another traditional part of Songkran, done for good luck. A very personal and involving way to finish the festival for me.
I hope I have given you a balanced taste of Songkran in this post. If I have gone overboard with family photos I apologise but it is a true family occassion. It was a real privilege and huge fun to be included in such a natural and friendly way by my new family and the local community.
Thanks for reading.