Songkran; Sawasdee Pi Mai!
Updated: Mar 28
If you talk to the people who have experienced Songkran, they will likely tell you that it is one of the best events you will be involved in Thailand. It is the Thai New Year and unlike back home in Europe, this celebration can last up to five days!
It is usually at the height of summer here, in April (I say "usually", as this year it has been postponed until July due to COVID). As it approaches you can feel the festivity in the air as people start to put out paddling pools in front of their house or shop – water pistols and super-soaker's are in abundance hanging up to be sold. The weather is ferociously hot. Being out in the sun for too long in Thailand is a bad idea in general, but over-indulging in the sun worship you are asking, nay begging for trouble. You can be in for a world of hurt just being out unprotected for half an hour, with temperatures around Chainat regularly bandying around high thirties/ low forties degrees Celsius. When the weather is like this, Songkran is a blessing.
The Story of Dhammapala and Kabillaprom
Authors note; This is the story of the origin of Songkran. If you don't want to hear a slightly complicated, convoluted and colourful story of Asian myth, you may want to move on to the next section!
As mentioned, it is primarily the celebration of the Thai new year but it is also a water festival. In fact, it is the world’s biggest and most renowned water festival. Happily, Chainat has the status of the fifth best place in Thailand to enjoy this cultural phenomenon.
The origins of Songkran are rooted in an old Sanskrit world to mean ‘change’ and it is in keeping with Buddhist calendars and traditions. It involves the answering of a riddle posed to a rich man’s son, Dhammapala by the deity Kabillaprom. Dhammapala was blessed with the rich man by the god Indra as he was not able to produce an heir without the deity’s help. When he was born, he grew into a clever and pious young man. His reputation reached Kabillaprom, who, being intrigued by the youth, decided to test his genius by asking him a question. If he could not answer, he would lose his head, if he could, the deity would give his own head in return.
The god Kabillaprom asked the boy "Where is the glory of men located in the morning, during the day, and in the evening?" Dhammapala meditated over the answer but sure enough, could not imagine the answer and was certain that he would lose his head. While pondering, he overheard the conversation of between a pair of eagles. Unbeknownst to the eagles, Dhammapala had been bestowed the gift of understanding the creatures that surrounded him and understood what they were saying. The female asked her mate what he was going to eat tomorrow. The male thought for a moment and replied "We are going to eat the dead body of Dhammapala tomorrow as he does not know the answer of Kabillaprom's riddles"
The female asked whether he knew the answer. Indignant, the eagle replied "I do. In the morning, a man's glory is on his face, so they wash their faces in the morning. At noon, his glory is on his chest, where he will apply perfume when it is hot. In the evening, the glory moves to the man's feet, so they wash their feet."
Dhammapala remembered all that the eagle had said. The next day he found Kabillaprom. The deity waited, expecting the boy to be unable to give the answer to the riddles. To his great surprise, the clever youth gave forth the answer.
Keeping his word, the god accepted that he would have to be beheaded, but as he was not expecting this, he did not reveal before that if his head would hit the ground, great calamity would be set upon the earth. To prevent this, he summoned his seven daughters to catch his head and stop it from hitting the ground. If his head did touch the earth, a great inferno would erupt, engulfing the world. If it fell into the ocean, all of the water would dry up. Finally, if it was thrown up in the air, the rain would never grace the world again. To stop any of these eventualities, he told his daughters to put his head on a ceremonial tray ( called a phan) and carry it to the most revered mountain in Buddhism, Mount Kailash and place it in a cave there. Every year, his daughters. known as the Nang Songkran would take his severed head from the holy mountain and carry it in a procession accompanied by angels. They carry this venerable capitulum around Mount Mera, displaying and reminding the people of the god, Kabillaprom.
What is With All the Water?
Primarily Songkran is known as a water festival. For many in Thailand, the full origins of the story will have been lost, however, its current carnation is absolutely relevant. It is seen as a time of purification. After reading the origin story you can see where this purification element has become more and more prominent, you know, with the men's glory's thing? It is also a great excuse to soak and be soaked in Thailand's hottest time of the year! Believe me when I say, there is nothing much more pleasant when you can feel yourself slipping in to a heat induced coma that someone throwing water over you to revive your spirits. Some sadists out there make sure that the water is near freezing, that will absolutely wake you up.
So dousing yourself and your loved ones in water will help purify you but that is not all. You are expected to visit the temples and pour water over some willing monks to secure good look for the year. You will want to make merit (traditionally Thais offered the temples sand so that they can repair any wear and tear to their building). In fact, the traditions can vary, not only across the country, but across South East Asia. The one constant is the importance of water. It makes sense on a more primal level too. I don't mean to go on, but if you have not visited an area that has heat like here, such as India or Africa, it is hard to explain how oppressive it can be. We all know the importance of water, but it some places, it is revered above so many things, and here you can understand why.
The Dark Side of Songkran
I am not writing this to take anything away from the awesomeness that is Songkran, but this, for any future travellers, should probably be known. Songkran has a dangerous element to it, namely a tendency of booze over-indulgence. Now, that might not seem like something that is overwhelmingly worrisome as so many countries across the planet have the compulsion to get blind drunk when celebrating. There is not many places, however, that couple that compulsion with operating machinery simultaneously. Drink-driving is a perennial problem here in Thailand and when Songkran arrives, that problem increases tenfold. The country has some of the most dangerous roads in the world as it is but there is a lackadaisical attitude when it comes to jumping on a moped or in a car and setting off somewhere when absolutely slaughtered!
We missed Songkran when we first came over here but enjoyed it immensely in our second year. At first we were wondering whether to spend the first couple of days in Bangkok and then halfway through the celebrations, travel back up and spend the remainder here with our friends in Chainat. When voicing this idea, we were met with gasps and looks of astonishment. DO NOT travel on Songkran we were told in no uncertain terms by all of our more knowledgable friends. Subsequently we found out that over those days in 2019, 418 poor souls had lost their lives and 3,897 were injured on Thailand's roads. In just a few days!! Now this sounds like a bit of a horror story and may take the shine off things a little but there is one way to avoid the danger and that is planning. Have a concrete idea of what and where you want to spend the celebrations and unfortunately, you should not deviate from it or try to slip in several destinations to broaden the experience. It is just not worth it. Have a plan and stick to it (in one place!). If you do a little bit of reading before hand you will have an idea of what you would like to do, and to be truthful, you would be hard-pressed not to enjoy it anywhere!
Give it a Splash
That is the serious talk done. It would be a sorry remiss not talking about it but if you take heed of that there is nothing to stop you from having the best time ever! I admit now that I have attended quite a few party's and celebrations and I would have to say that this is one of the most amazing things I have ever joined in with. It is quite the rare secret gemstone that rarely reaches the ears of people outside the parameters of Asia. It would be fair to say that even planning your holiday schedule around Songkran would not be an overly-dramatic move. It was a sad thing that it never happened this year. Obviously, if there was ever a more sound reason to stop the event in its tracks it would be the shadow of COVID so, to the Thai government I say, good move. However, I cannot stress this enough, bring on next year!