Samui Wining & Dining
The Thai New Year of Songkran is about a lot more than just water fights.

The Thai New Year of Songkran is about a lot more than just water fights.Ask someone what celebrating the New Year in America means, and what’ll come to mind is ‘Times Square’. Ask them the same thing about Beijing and the answer will probably be ‘dragons and firecrackers’. But get them to sum up the Thai New Year and the immediate response will be – ‘the biggest water fight in the world’.


But that’s a bit like asking someone what kind of car they drive and getting the answer, ‘a red one’. Yes, indeed, looking at the surface of it all, it’s one huge all-day water fight involving the old, the young, foreigners and locals, the police and bankers in shirts and ties. On the road, up the side streets, using buckets and hosepipes and water pistols and even giant fluorescent plastic water cannons. But in reality it’s all about something quite different, and the way it is today has a great deal to do with the huge influx of foreigners – but all of that will be explained in just a moment!


Although the Thai New Year was officially changed from its traditional date way back in 1888, to correspond with the celebrations in the Western World, the Thais are nothing if not a fun loving nation. And so today, they enjoy celebrating not only the Western New Year and the Chinese New Year, but also their own centuries-old ceremonies of Songkran, every year in April – they’re probably the only country to be able to let it rip three times a year!


On the surface of things, today it would seem to a casual observer to be just that – a big water fight. And it has to be said that every year,hundreds of thousands of visitors to Thailand plan their annual holidays to be here just for this event. Yet the origins of Songkran, and the part that water plays in it, are all about a much gentler and more symbolic sentiment completely.


You have to keep in mind that Thailand was traditionally (and still is, with a large percentage of its population being farmers) an agricultural nation, that was tied to the cycles of sun and rain, growing seasons and harvests. And, although few tourists are aware of this, The Thai New Year of Songkran is about a lot more than just water fights.the rainy season varies according to the location – it’s different in the farming north from that which we experience in Samui and the southern region of Thailand.


In the rural north and north-east, April is the time of the year, when the rice harvest has already been gathered, and it’s the hottest and driest period (Samui, being so much further south, this happens several months later.) The original celebrations began as an expression of universal rejoicing for the harvested crops. It was a time of new beginnings and fresh starts, as the sun began to move towards a cooler season at the vernal equinox.


The traditional celebration of Songkran emerged from this as a four-day festival of prescribed ritual and thanksgiving, in which water played only a tiny part – on the very last day. And this was when ‘Wan Paak Bpee’, which is a formal acknowledgment of respect for the elderly, came into play. People from each household in the village would tour around, in groups or individually, to bend a knee and sprinkle a few dropsThe Thai New Year of Songkran is about a lot more than just water fights. of the scarce and life-giving water on the hands and faces of the elders of the village – a gesture which has somehow now mutated into the wild and often frenzied excesses we see expressed on the streets today.


There’s a conservative element in Thai society that is quick to blame foreign influences for the many changes in the Thai way of life. But they are right about one thing: it was foreign visitors to Thailand that brought about the on-the-street-water-fight mayhem we enjoy today.


Young foreign tourists, travellers, students and exchange teachers began to splash water about on the streets, sometime in the late ’80s. Thai youngsters (and the not-so-young, too) delighted in this break-away from tradition, and it took hold in Chiang Mai in the north and in Pattaya,south of Bangkok. And soon every city was following-on, taking their water-fun out onto the streets, in processions of trucks filled with water vats and along the road with hosepipes and buckets. And so be prepared!


On Samui it lasts for just one day (unlike Chiang Mai where they carry on for six!). Small plastic or zip-lock bags are a must, keeping money, documents and your phone safe and dry. And maybe another bag for a change of clothes. Head for any busy main road, preferably near a bar or 7-11 where ‘refreshment’ is available! Have fun but stay safe. It only happens once a year and it’s absolutely not to be missed!


 Rob De Wet


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