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Songkran 2019 in Isan

Songkran, Thai New Year, is celebrated with enthusiasm all over Thailand. This year was a little different for me and I thought I would give you my take on the event having lived here for nearly six years.

What’s Different?

Looking back on my time in Thailand through the stories I have written for the blog I have observed changes in my attitude to life here, and I am sure some others who live here fulltime might agree with some or all of what I cover below.

I have passed through a number of stages in my relationship with the life around me. I don’t think these are unique to those of us who settle in Thailand but would equally apply to any totally new living situation worldwide. For me I have identified five quite distinct stages as follows:

Stage 1, was the tourist mode. It was that first burst of enthusiasm after I arrived here and threw myself into everything as if I was on a brief holiday. This was done in Phuket, which obviously lends itself to supporting this lifestyle, but would have probably occured wherever I was. Isn’t it true that In this phase we quite likely to make a list of all the things we want to do and see, in the same way we would on an extended holiday? Beaches, tours, elephants, bars and clubs, shopping and anything else that grabs our fancy. Some people try to maintain this stage as an ongoing way of life and good luck to them, but for me there’s a limit to the list of Trip Advisor recommendations I can take in one lifetime and my enthusiasm and definitely the availability of money quickly led me to…….

……Stage 2. For me this happened during a three-month period in Chiang Rai and then into a twelve month stay in Chiang Mai. I still had that slightly puppy dog excitement with just about everything, because it was all so new and different from my previous life in Canberra. This stage was more to do with the everyday sights rather than planned outings, although there were plenty of those too. It’s the photos of the five people on a motorbike, the timber houses, the colours and food in markets, the tuk tuks, flowers, rice growing and so on. Even ugly was a photo moment because it was so new to my eyes. Who hasn’t taken a shot of the massed broadband and electrical wires drooping into the street?

Stage 3, became a period where I found a steadier and more focussed enthusiasm. The puppy has matured into a young adult! The everyday sights became more accepted and time was spent on selective and planned activities. Looking back on the posts I wrote at that time they shared experiences like cafes, wats (of course), the scenic driving trips we did, formal gardens and neighbourhood sights. Those five kids on a motorbike might still be noticed but the camera would have probably not have been raised.

Stage 4, might well be different from your experience because circumstances took me back to an almost a Stage 2 phase. In late 2014 we moved from urban Chiang Mai to rural Isan and my early enthusiasm for everything was rekindled because I was thrown into a virtually totally new environment and I loved it. My posts of late 2014 and early 2015 were taken up with building our house but after that I involved myself in all the events, sights and family life happenings that were available to me plus exploring the region I now found myself. It’s this real-life experience that makes this blog unique over the alternatives many of which seem to remain permanently stuck in Stage 1.

I will finally make this introduction relevant to Songkran 2019 and the title of this section ‘What’s Different?’ Stage 4 had me enthusiastic and involved with every festival and local event. Our New Year (31 Dec), Chinese New Year, Thai New Year, Bun Bang Fai (May/June – Isan only), Buddhist Lent (beginning and end), funerals, weddings, monk ordinations and street parties for any reason, all were photographed and shared on the blog.

What I have come to realise, and it particularly struck me with Songkran this year, is that I have now moved into a Stage 5. The cycle of the year’s planned festivities is basically ‘same, same’, which while still enjoyable, can become just everyday and cause my enthusiasm to be at a lower level. Involvement becomes optional. I have visited every known scenic attraction in the area and feel very little urge to revisit more distant places that I have been to before. For me it’s a time when living in a new country has become ‘normal’ (mostly) and days become more routine and unscheduled. Let’s face it, you can be living in a house in Isan, a castle in Germany, a hotel in Hong Kong or a boat in the Caribbean and you wake up, check your emails, make a coffee/tea and decide what’s for breakfast whatever the view out the window. I suspect that for many, our life wherever it is lived eventually becomes an expansion of that universal morning routine, unless you have the energy and money to remain on a Trip Advisor fantasy forever.

Although this might sound like a negative I don’t see it as that. I am still learning and I find small aspects of life here are worth recording and sharing in the blog, which has ended up being a reflection of my daily life here. I find that I now both see things and also often understand why they are as they are and that adds a depth to the experience that replaces the previous ‘wow, isn’t that amazing‘ experiences that used to overwhelm me without much in the way of understanding. For example there are aspects of Songkran that traditionally started as a New Year spring clean of both Buddha statues and family elders and have since evolved into the water fights to ‘clean’ everyone. That sort of knowledge has added a level of appreciation to the broader enjoyment of the festival as a result (for me anyway).

So my reporting on Songkran this year isn’t all water fights, although there was some of that (see photo below), but more to do with the family orientated things we got up to, some of which relate more to these traditional aspects of the event. That makes this post a bit different from the deluge (555) of Facebook and other blog photos, which often show a narrower and wetter aspect of what is or should be a broader and deeper celebration.  I will step you through our Songkran below:

The Real Meaning of Songkran

Songkran derives from Sanskrit meaning ‘shift’ or ‘movement’. It derives from the movement of the sun from one position to another in the zodiac. According to its literal meaning in Sanskrit, a songkran occurs every month. However, the period that Thai people refer to as songkran happens when the sun moves from Pisces to Aries in the zodiac. The correct name for this period should actually be Maha Songkran (‘great songkran’) because it coincides with the arrival of a New Year. The songkran festival is, therefore, a celebration of the New Year in accordance with the solar calendar. The celebration covers a period of three days: 13 April is regarded as Maha Songkran, the day that the sun moves into Aries on the zodiac or the last day of the old year. The next day, 14 April is called Wan Nao, the transitional day between the old and the new years, and 15 April is called Wan Thaloeng Sok (Thaiวันเถลิงศก ‘to begin a new era or year’), New Year’s day itself.

Step 1 – Hair colour

I don’t know if there’s an official reason why so many people dye their hair for Songkran but there you go. It happens and the ladies were right into it. For regular readers hoping for a revisit of my hairstyle that unexpectedly happened to me for the Isan festive of Bun Bang Fai 2018…….forget it 🙂

A trip to Si Bun Ruang central was needed, the shopping hub of Thailand, and we had with us Peng, Puk (a niece of Gaun) and Yuan as evidently Songkran hair colour selection is an important family matter.

Yes Peng, a very nice choice. Peng didn’t change her hair this year as she’s involved with the university selection process.

Not the most flattering photo of Gaun, but I won’t tell her if you don’t. Here we are at hair colour central, the farm where marks on the concrete don’t matter. That’s Puk, daughter of Guan’s older sister Bear. Gaun has gone for a bright red but it turned out more orange as you will see later.

Yuan went pretty conservative with a light brown.

I haven’t got many photos of Yuan post-hair colour so thought I would add this while we’re on the topic. Songkran is a busy time on the farm as so many Thais return home to celebrate the New Year and they are all partying and eating. Yuan’s new hair colour as she sits in a sea of long beans.

Duk Dik WSD (World’s Scruffiest Dog) was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got a touch of Gaun’s colouring!

Step 2 – Dressing up

With new hair colour in place the next thing my ladies like to do is dress up and get lots of photos taken. Gaun and Peng are enthusiasts in this department, as are most Thai people who don’t mind a photo or three, and for this photo shoot they went with a traditional Isan look involving clothes borrowed from Gaun’s mama!

Step 3 – Collecting Yurt

Gaun’s older sister Yurt works in Udon Thani as a cook and housekeeper for a Thai Chinese family and has done so for decades. She only comes home three times a year, even though Udon is only 80 km away, making an appearance for the three New Year events that Thai people celebrate being our New Year (31 Dec), Chinese (late Jan) and Thai (Songkran).

Because Yurt loves searching the markets for a bargain and buying things for the family her arrival is marked with an influx of things that sometimes end up in storage (after she leaves) but were too good an offer not to get at the time! There will be an influx of brooms or plastic buckets, which are distributed around to spread her generosity. Yurt also brings a stack of food when she visits. You’d think she would want time off cooking but not so. She arrives and starts cooking as soon as things are unpacked. We normally have a freezer full of things by the time she leaves.

Because of the quantity of her contributions it has become a routine that we drive to Udon to collect her and we usually end up with a pick-up load of stuff. Yurt insists on paying me 1,000 baht for the fuel, which is yet another indication of the quality of this family. I end up taking it as she won’t accept my refusal but it’s passed to Peng or Gaun later. It is always a pleasure for me to help out and I’m supposed to be the one with the money (in comparison only). She travels light going back on the local bus.

Sometimes a pick-up comes in handy. Collecting Yurt is one of those occasions.

This was parked in front of the building where Yurt works and lives. It has a number plate on it and for those of you who have seen some of the vehicles still driving around Isan I thought it might still be operational.

This is Yurt who had just come back from buying yet more food. She told Gaun that this car was not used, which is odd because I thought it still had a few hundred thousand km left in it 🙂

But it did still have a function as a tiepoint for that roller blind! With the scarcity of parking in Udon you’d think it would have been moved on by now.

More additons were added to the food supply as we headed back home. Melons were being sold on the side of the road between Nong Bua Lamphu and Si Bun Ruang. 7 kilos for 100 baht (A$4.40). Diced, cooled and served with ice and coconut milk – yummy.

Step 4 – We finally get wet

We were back in the village late morning where Yurt swung into action cooking up my favourite – large spring rolls. Post lunch we headed into town to join two farang friends and some of their families for the afternoon water fights.

Doug and his wife Pu own a shop on the street, so we base ourselves there with a supply of drink and some loud music and get involved with the locals. The main street is wall to wall vehicles. Every motorbike gets a drenching and some of the pick-ups have bins in the back full of water and an exchange of water between street and car happens. Many of the participants just do a loop and you get to see them a few times before the water runs out.

Some of our fight team. Gaun was in shy mode as usual. The lady on the far right is Pepsi, the lovely wife of Mike, a friend of ours who lives locally.

The main problem this year was that the water supply couldn’t cope with the unusual demand. It ended up being a dry battle sometimes as we waited for the trickle from the hose to at least fill the bottom of these bins.

An Isan tuk tuk, completely different in design from the ones you see in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Can you spot the small dog getting a drenching?

I wasn’t super involved this year but did manage to cop a bit of water as you can tell. Very cooling.

I only show this photo again because it is reflective of a different attitude to growing up between here and the western world. This little one, who can’t be more than five years old, was sitting in the back of a pick-up on her own. Was she in any danger other than getting a cold? Very unlikely. Was she having fun – absolutely. How boring we have become in our ‘advanced’ societies. The result is we end up living a more restricted life because we have an expectation of the worst happening at any moment to us or those around us. Sometimes it does, that’s life, but mostly it doesn’t. 

An ice truck parked next to us and Gaun was quick to order two sacks of ice at 40 baht a sack (A$1.70) to add to our water supply. You should have seen the expression of those who got a bucket of iced water over them when they were expecting the normal very warm wetting 🙂 I know I am a married man but I think I can get away with saying that the delivery of ice was never this attractive back ‘home’.

And again. This girl was seated on the front of a quadbike. It was travelling at less than walking pace so why not? She was having a ball.

A little out of focus but I liked the photo so have included it as the last one in this section. Was a good time had by all? I think so.

Step 5 – Giving Buddha a Spring clean

The nice thing about Songkran, which unfortunately many westerners miss out on, is that it’s not all about water fights and drinking too much. There’s a hidden and more reflective side that balances up the images of Songkran tourists think form the entire event.

I personally enjoy this side as much or more so than the water fights because it involves me in one of the traditions that forms the ‘real’ foundation of the Songkran celebration. At this time of the year Buddha statues that often sit unattended in temples are brought out and people have the chance to wash them, representing a cleansing of negativity and a purification. A fresh start to the New Year.

Each year we visit my favourite wat called Pha/Pa (forest) Silawa, which is a ten minute drive from us. This is a simple temple, beautifully maintained set in a large treed area. So peaceful and much more orientated to the way Buddha would have wanted temples to be, in my opinion of course!

For the photographers out there, this area was covered by a shadecloth, which is why the photos have a green tinge to them.

Just stunning in its simplicity.

What’s Peng doing under the table? The water poured over the statues gets her wet and she get the blessing as well. Why do I love my life here? No idea 🙂

This is a wat in the Thai forest tradition so it is very unusual to see a ubosot, a monk ordination hall, in the red, white and gold, which you’d normally see in village wats. Notice how spotless it is. Even the road has been swept.

Many of these forest (Pa) wats have a simple hall like this one where larger gatherings take place on important Buddhist calander days.

Step 6 – Sandcastles

Building sandcastles at some wats is also a less know feature of this period. I know of only one wat that does this in our area but I am sure there are plenty of others if you knew where to look. The internet tells me:

Another reason to visit your local วัด /wát is you will also see the sand ‘pagodas’ that are constructed in an effort to return the sand that was carried away throughout the year. Of course, folks do not want to carry the sand that has gotten stuck to their shoes because that is ทำบาป/tam bàap or commit bad deeds, but it cannot be helped. So these sand pagodas or sand castles are made to bring back any sand that was unintentionally carried away and to help the วัด/wát with any future construction projects. 

My thanks to this blog HERE for the words. This seems like as good an explanation as any so we are now both wat sandcastle experts.

I had great hopes for this wat called Wiset Mongkhon, newly built across the road from our moo ban (village). However it is a sad example of a temple being semi-abandoned once the official opening ceremony has been completed. Lots of trash all around the site, bird droppings and just generally uncared for.

You’d think that for Songkran a special effort would have been made wouldn’t you? You have to be very careful about making any criticism of monks in Thailand so I will make no further comment. The word lazy springs to mind but I have no idea why that is.

The sandcastles are in better order than the real thing! This is the best effort I have seen at this temple. 

Peng looking as if she had just completed her own sandcastle. Maybe not!

Donating some money to the temple. If you want a good party this moo ban is the place to go. Any opportunity for a music truck and a dance and they are into it. Much better than our moo ban, which is very conservative on the party front.

And a gentle trickle of warm water down the back for my troubles!

Step 7 – Giving us elders a wash

And finally before family members who have come home for Songkran leave again it is time to pay respects to the elders. If you thought that this would be a serious, quiet occasion you haven’t been with my Isan family! There is an element of the intention of the ceremony but it is accompanied by a very casual approach and lots of laughter and fun as the photos show.

In accordance to what’s obviously seen as my decline into old age, I got my hands washed for the first time this year. It was a mark of respect I would be quite happy to do without in exchange for being regarded as eternally young, which I am of course if only on the inside.

I don’t know what the joke was but mama on the left and another elder, the mum of the lady we bought our original land from on the right, are enjoying it. Peng on the far right.

Water being poured over the hands by Bear, Gaun’s older sister who runs the other half of the family farm.

Peng’s turn. She and her grandma are very close.

Gaun

Yuan

Peng gets a good luck wrist string from Yurt on the left and Lud from his wife Yuan on the right.

Peng and her mum had something going on as you can tell from the next three sequential photos. To me this is what Songkran is all about.

Peng and Gaun are giving each other the wai, the raising of hands as a mark of respect. Not to get too technical but there are three levels of the wai according to status and respect. You will note that Peng’s wai is higher than Gaun’s, as would be normal in the case of a younger to an older person. 

Don’t go giving the wai to everyone you see if on holiday here. Thais use it rarely in everyday situations (we don’t shake hands with everyone we meet in western society do we) and they are probably thinking ‘oh not again’ when they have to wai back to yet another farang tourist 🙂 It’s used more in formal situations like this one, as well as socially and in business. 

We started this section with Yurt so it’s appropriate the final photo is of her and Gaun.

Oh, one more. Just to prove the extreme conditions I have to put up with to write and publish these posts Gaun has just given me a plate of our own mangos, on a base of sticky rice grown by the family and coconut milk. Challenging times. 

I hope you enjoyed this insider’s look at Songkran in Isan. Despite my introduction it is still a hugely enjoyable period and well worth being in Thailand over this time. Do make the effort to engage in some of the non-water aspects of the event as like everywhere the cultural aspects of life in Thailand are fading as they evolve into time-poor, stressed and materially obsessed people just like us. Songkran will become like Christmas, a time to max the credit card with little connection to the underlying reason for the celebration.

Please leave a comment. It makes my day. Ian, if you are reading this you are excused as we saw you yesterday 🙂

5 Comments

  1. Jim Busby

    Sorry for the late reply, I never saw a notification in my email about the posting, and was absent from checking in on your blog. Oops! Thank you for your introductory overview of your progression of life in Isan. Your blogs and writings have reflected your, well maturity, in a way of accepting/exploring a rural lifestyle where the focus is family and your day to day life. The real pleasure in your blog is the honesty with which you present both the interesting, and not so, meaning you are not trying to sell us on living in Isan, but exploring a new and different culture. Your more personal photos help us see your family as you see them.
    Thanks again for the insight into the true meaning of Songkran beyond the fun water fights, which like a snowball fight, are pure bliss. Devilish of Gaun to make ice water to douse the unsuspecting. Like everywhere around the world, there is one defining holiday, that culminates with the coming together of family and friends to give thanks, pass on traditions, share stories, and eat food. For Thailand, Songkran, or the New Year, is that holiday, and it makes perfect sense, since it is a new beginning.
    Like you said, poor Duk Dik was once again at the wrong place at the wrong time. See if there is any significance to the hair coloring (which I’ve seen done on other occasions), or is it just a festive accompaniment to everything going on around the holiday like Christmas sweaters. Oh yes, I would like two bags of ice delivered personally to my house next week.

    Take care,
    Jim

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      Good to hear from you Jim. I occasionally get a bit disheartened writing for the blog but then I get a comment like yours or a reader drops in to have a chat and my enthusiasm is reignited. The reality is that I would write the blog whatever the readership because it is as enjoyable for me as for some of those that read it and provides an outlet for my photography and desire to tell stories about life here. I average around 100 individual readers a day, which is minute by internet standards, but as it is such a specialised blog that’s enough to keep me going.

      Another super hot day and I was going to do some work outside but have been driven inside, so replying to comments, answering emails and maybe writing another story is an active and involving way of not doing much! Better than staring at a TV.

      I will place your order with the ice girl. It was almost one of those calendar photos wasn’t it.

      Cheers.

      Tony

      Reply
  2. franklin r bond

    Hi Tony, it’s getting late here but thought I’d send a comment/question before retiring for the evening. I know this blog is all about Songkran but I just wanted to know where does Gaun get her inspiration from for gardening, landscaping, decorating?
    I hope to come over next year and experience Songkran at my wife’s birthplace way down south of Thailand, a few hours south of Hua Hin, a quiet part of Thailand usually as it’s also a rural area near Ribon. I’ve been coming to Thailand for ten years on holidays so thought it about time to get wet! Thought I saw your sister in one of your photo’s Tony, is she a twin?Cheers Frank

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      Hi Frank.

      Gaun gets her garden inspiration from two places. Firstly when we lived in Chiang Rai and Mai we went to all the local gardens, most of which are based around Royal palaces or centerpieces. Doi Tung and Mae Fah Luang (both connected to the previous King’s mother) in Chiang Rai and Bhuping/Phuping Palace gardens, Ratchaphruek gardens, Queen Sirikit and more in Chiang Mai. These tended to have a formal presentation with lots of masses plantings mixed with showcases of flowers. The original garden Gaun planted at our place more reflected this background with hedges, both non-flowering (box) and flowering, mixed with flowers. The new garden was more my inspiration but made reality by Gaun based on the Jim Thompson garden in Bangkok. A very tropical design with palms, ferns and splashes of colour. Gaun also has a natural instinct for presentation and there are many aspects that are her own design that originate from who knows where.

      A more low-key and genuine Songkran is a delight. I did one Songkran in Chiang Mai city centre and while it was entertaining, it was so farang based and so over the top, that I felt it had lost a lot of its character. I much prefer the smaller version we have here. You will have a ball I am sure. If my sister was here it will come as a surprise to both of us 🙂

      Thanks Frank.

      Reply
  3. Tony in Thailand

    Testing but I also wanted to say what a brilliant story this is. Well done

    Reply

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