Songkran: A Thai New Year Festival

Last February my parents and I Skyped one evening. They asked me which month they should visit me in Thailand. Their options were either of my school breaks: April and October. Without a doubt I said, come in October, the heat is sweltering in April; it’s the hottest month of the year. Besides, that’s four weeks away. That’s hardly any time to plan.

The next day my Mom messaged me. “We bought our tickets to Thailand! We’ll be there in one month!”

I should have known better.

So, I put my nose to the grindstone, hounded well-traveled volunteers and drafted a plan for our travels around the country, with the beloved Thai tradition of Songkran Thai New Year falling smack dab in the middle of our vacation. Hot? Certainly. Bound to get interesting? Even more certainly.

Here’s what you need to know to survive the Thai New Year festivities.

**Note: Click on Any Photo Sequence to see Enlarged View**

1. If you Can’t Beat it, Join it. Prepare to Feel Hot

Temperatures in April reach 40-41 degrees Celsius (102-105 degrees Fahrenheit) with 65-75% humidity. You’ve never experienced a heat like this before. If you’re merely traveling around larger cities in and out of air-conditioned buildings that’s one thing, but when you enter into remote villages where air-conditioning is a luxury only of the rich and famous, you must rely on some more primitive instincts to keep yourself cool.

Volunteer favorites? We bathe ourselves in Snake Brand Prickly Heat; parts of our body that just shouldn’t get so friendly with tingling can’t resist the cooling sensation. We bathe 3-4 times a day. This isn’t a joke. Being wet naturally helps keep your body temperature at its lowest. Not. Doing. A. Thing – from noon to 4 p.m. Find a big, industrial fan, fight off your competitors and take a seat because you won’t want to go anywhere. Drinks lots of water. Just when you think you’ve drunk enough, drink more. Carry an umbrella. My parents think I’m crazy and a converted Asian because of this one, but carrying an umbrella that has a silver lining underneath reflects the sun away and brings the temps down about 5-10 degrees. At the least, wear a hat. Lastly, when the time arrives, move on to survival step number 2 for the Songkran occasion.

2. Revel in the Water. Plan to Get Wet

It’s a Thai tradition that around the New Year in April people devote at least one day to dumping buckets of water on each other. Part of this is because it falls around the hottest days of the year and part of it reflects on washing away the old and preparing for the new in the year to come. With that, people wash Buddhist Statues in ceremonial water. Prepare for your inner child to come out in these water wars and waterproof yourself and all your valuables for peace of mind. When my parents and I traveled down to Bangkok the trains filled up with teenagers on a mission, soaking wet floors, and water oozies and balloon bombs galore. Now go get out there and get wet.

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3. Always Remember to Pay Respect to the Monks and Your Elders

This is one of my all-time favorite Songkran traditions. In my village we have a ceremony called ab-naam-puu-soong-ay-yu where we the elders line up and sit down in chairs. The family then goes down, one-by-one and pours water over their hands and heads, wai-ing them along the way (See the end of this BLOG POST for explanations about wai-ing). Next, they tie white bracelets around our wrists and offer blessings and good luck to us throughout the year.

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4. Dust Off the Old Vocal Pipes for Good Ol’ Karaoke

On the days of Songkran you can expect to wake up to speakers blasting so loud at 5 a.m one could never sleep through it unless a seasoned professional (aka: me). Still, you’ll find yourself so gay with revelry at this point, you’ll want to go downstairs just to see what all the hollering is about. Here, you’ll find whiskey bottles already popped open, woman frying chicken, a pickup truck hauling a bigger set of speakers into the driveway, speakers literally as big as the truck itself, and a very large crowd of smiling Thais. You’ve officially arrived in the village version of Songkran Thai New Year. My parents are brave, brave souls.

Even if you think you sound like a dying cat, you’re sure to get hoots and hollers from all the village Thais for your expert sing-song voice. No one can escape the absurdity where Thais drag you on stage, throw you a microphone, and choose any one of 3 American songs they know: Zombie by the Cranberries, Hotel California by The Eagles. Okay, so there are only 2 in my neck of the woods but at least that limits you. (See my POST on Karaoke for more fun tales) Worst case scenario, you’ll have to do what I did, and sing the same 2 songs three times in one day. Anything can happen during Karaoke time.

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5. Find Your Happiness in a Bowl of Papaya Salad and Pad Thai

Do you know how around Christmas time in America many worry about adding pounds and inches to their waistline because Aunt Betty will make her famous Apple Pie, Cousin Bob will bring his Sweet Potato Casserole with those tiny marshmallows you can’t resist, and there are so many plates of food you might think it’s possible to just eat your way into the new year? THAT is exactly what Songkran is about. The key is to pace yourself. A regular Songkran food schedule looks something like this: Nibble on food at 6 a.m. before you make merit to the monks. Eat again after the monks chant at 8 a.m. Take a break after eating. Eat snacks at 9:30 or 10 a.m. Eat a full lunch again at noon. Get so full that you feel sleepy. Everyone in the house finds a fan and sleeps in the heat until about 2:30 p.m. You wake up and start scavenging for desserts, snacks and food. Eat snacks again. Around 6 p.m. eat a full dinner. After dinner, sit around laugh, talk and sing karaoke. Between 8:00 and 9:30 p.m. nibble on anything you want at free will. Yes. I’m serious. This continues for days. Food is as central to the holidays as singing, whiskey, smiling and laughing. Just give in, and remember, just when you think you’ve seen all the food people will offer you, ALWAYS assume there is something else coming next, so save room. (Interesting cultural note: Women in the villages do not typically drink, so all this whiskey referencing I do DOES NOT pertain to women at all in my village, myself included).

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6. Be Prepared for Your Thai Smile to Shine

Volunteers often lament how difficult it is to smile all the gosh-darned time. Don’t get us wrong, we love smiling, just sometimes not all occasions call for a grin. However, if you can let yourself go, Songkran is every single reason one should smile, be alive, happy, dance and be merry. You won’t find yourself in such a rare opportunity to receive so much love, kindness, generosity, and hospitality from a group of community members anywhere else but here. At least not like this. So don’t be surprised if when your head finally hits the pillow at night, your jaw aches a little from laughing and smiling so much. This is what the Land of Smiles is all about. And to think, I live here. What a beautiful thing.

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2 responses to “Songkran: A Thai New Year Festival

  1. Pingback: My Greatest Volunteer Accomplishment: It Isn’t Mine at All | Light Enough to Travel·

  2. Pingback: Weekly Wednesday Gallery: Snapshots from Abroad II | Light Enough to Travel·

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