Each April, from the 13th until the 15th, the Songkran festival is held in Thailand. Depending on where you’re located in Thailand, you’ll find slight differences in exactly how it’s celebrated but here is the gist of generally what happens. This information is from one of my teachers at school and I hope it’s accurate – something may’ve been lost in translation.
The word ‘songkran’ itself means ‘sun moving forward to a new position’ or ‘to travel, to go forward.’ Songkran is the Thai new year, as well as the new year for the Tai people group. The 13th is New Year’s Day. This is a day to say goodbye to the old and a day to be cleansed – body and spirit. This is also the first day that water is thrown at everyone.
Traditional activities at temples, etc. tend to take place on the 14th. My teacher mentioned something about making sand pillars at the temple (don’t know what this is about). And, of course, there is more water throwing.
On the 15th, people will give food to the monks to make merit. They will also pour water on Buddha images. This day is considered more of a family day and so people will go to their elders to give them respect and take part in a hand washing ceremony. The elders, in turn, will give a blessing. There is also water throwing on this day.
In the past, when more people farmed, it would be a time to rest because the harvest had already come in. People would also rest during this time because it’s in the middle of the hot season, and you need to take it easy more during hot season.
Along with water throwing is the use of ‘din saw phawng’ – a clay paste that is a light grey when dry. This stuff is sold in a couple of different ways – in mushroom sized (but not shaped) blocks, or in large, circular slabs about the size of a pie. Small pieces of this (mushroom size) are broken off, and mixed with water in a bowl. One will then take some of this paste and put it on the cheeks of someone else. I think I read somewhere that it’s meant to be some sort of blessing or a protection against evil spirits. The Christians that I went songkraning with used it too but I’m pretty sure that that’s not their view of it anymore. It’s just messy fun.
So this is a very rough run-down of the traditional scene of Songkran, but what you need to understand is that it’s not a quiet water festival where people sprinkle a little bit of water on you and kindly dab a little bit of the paste on your face but it’s a full-on water fight. You leave your house and you’re a target for water and the paste. Even if you’re in your car, you’ll face road-blocks where they’ll throw water and smear the paste on your car. I felt badly for motorcyclists who had to go out during Songkran – it’s actually kind of dangerous to be out. Too many people drink too much over Songkran and many people are injured and killed. There were hundreds of deaths this year, as there are every year. My friend told me how she went for a picnic on the Sunday after Songkran (which was Easter Sunday), and they were sitting beside a river. What should come floating down the river but a dead body. Yup. A dead body. I heard another story about something that happened in Lopburi, where some guys were drunk and one guy ended up shooting his best friend because they were playing with a gun.
I’ve heard it described by a Thai person that Songkran is when Thai people play without manners. I can understand that statement. There is definitely a fun element to the water throwing and paste applying but unfortunately it can also be a scary time.
Anyway, happy new year!