Songkran is a 3 day (sometimes longer depending on the region) festival celebrating the Thai New Year. The word Songkran comes from sanskrit meaning transformation or change. Most farang’s (foreigner in Thai) associate it with a giant water fight – and it is – but it was also so much more than that. It was about tradition, and respect, and renewal to begin a new year. Over the last three days, I had the amazing opportunity to hang out with my host family and experience Songkran the way their family celebrates every year. I’m writing about my experience and what I understood the traditions to mean as a foreigner with limited Thai ability, so bear with me as I attempt to explain the best I can.
Each morning started with a trip to the mùu-bâan (village center) to make merit to the monks. On Thursday, we spend most of the afternoon and evening at the SAO (Subdistrict Administrative Organization) which is another community center of sorts. The emcees at the event introduced me to the community and then volun-told me that I would participating in a dancing game similar to musical chairs. There were no chairs, but we danced in a circle and when the music stopped you had to step on a number. Numbers were drawn and whoever was standing on that number won a prize. It was very awkward and I am a terrible dancer, but Thai people are amazing and made it fun! Plus my host family had a great time laughing at me 🙂
A monk came and gave a sermon and then all of the older members of the community were placed in chairs at the end of a a table lined with monks. At this point, electronics went away and water came out to play. We filled our buckets with water and added Thai traditional scents and flower petals. We lined up, first to pour water over a Buddha statue which is a Songkran tradition of purifying Buddha images for the new year. Then we made our way down the line to pour water over the hands of each monk and elder. For Thai people, this is the chance to bless and receive blessings from the monks and elders. By the end of the line there was some water splashing and blessing of friends and family in a more relaxed and fun way. Little did I know, the real party was about to begin. Each village (I think 8 villages were represented at this combined community gathering) had elders come up and do some sort of performance. Never in my life have I been so entertained by octogenarians. The party went on into the night with singing, dancing, and drinking until we made our way home around 9pm.
By Friday morning, several out of town family members had arrived or were on their way, so the number of family members at our house had about tripled. In the morning the family went to make merit and then announced we were going to the beach! We piled into a truck and made the hour and a half trek, because driving during Songkran is a slow and wet process – basically a like a city-wide car wash. There were families standing on the side of the road and in truck beds tossing water at every passerby; including the boys in the back of our truck equipped with giant containers of water to toss back. Once we got the beach the whole street was a giant water party, with a (normally) two lane street made into a four lane truck parade. Peace Corps has a rule against volunteers riding in the back of trucks, so unfortunately I didn’t get to join in, but watching the chaos was almost as much fun. Once we got back home that evening more family members had arrived so we rested, cooked dinner outside and spent the rest of the evening in an easy laughter before my exhaustion took over and I was the first to call it a night.
Saturday we again went to make merit at Wat Yang-en, right next door to the school where I’ll be teaching in about a month. After this, I joined some family members on a trip to a nearby sunflower farm next to a giant reservoir amidst the mountains of our community (cover photo). It was absolutely gorgeous – but also very hot. On our way home we also stopped by a local museum commemorating the 5th King of Thailand.
We ate lunch, changed into our crazy flower shirts, and got ready for another water showdown. We went back to the mùu-bâan for more blessing and pouring of water on monks, and then back to Wat Yang-en to get completely soaked.
Today, most of the family members are heading home. My host family is already back to work in the fruit garden, and I’m sitting here fascinated by the joy I’ve found in Thai culture. The last three days I have seen more celebration of elders, more respect for tradition, and more multi-generational laughter than in any American holiday. I don’t mean that to put down America, because we have some great holiday’s as well (Thanksgiving is the best and you’ll never convince me otherwise). Plus, I think there is always a shiny newness and draw to cultural traditions different than our own. However, Songkran taught me that I want to be more intentional about the way I treat the elderly in my own life. I want to be more cognizant of the ability for people, at any age, to break it down on stage in a tutu or look you right in the eye, grin like a maniac, and then laugh uncontrollably while dumping ice water down your shirt.
This farang’s first Songkran was pure (soaked) joy. I can’t thank my host family enough for making me a part of it.