The Thai New Year Songkran Festival is celebrated between the 13th and 15th of April each year. It is the third and final New Year we celebrate here in Thailand. Most people associate Songkran with wild water throwing parties, which is the way that this gentle ancient tradition now seems to be heading, driven no doubt to some extent by the tourist dollar.
However, there is a lot more to Songkran than getting soaking wet or taking the opportunity to feast your eyes on scantily clad Thai ladies in wet t-shirts, however pleasing that may be to the eye.
Songkran Festival in Thailand
The word “Songkran” in the Thai language is derived from Sanskrit and refers to astrological progression, moving from one year to another. Many early Asian calendars commenced in April and the new year was arrived at by astrological calculations. Here in Thailand, this was also the case until 1940 when January 1st was adopted as the start of the year.
It is also perhaps no coincidence that April is also deemed to be the end of the hot dry season in Thailand and usually heralds the approach of the SW Monsoon and the arrival of much-needed rain.
So how has a traditional ceremony to welcome a new year developed into the wild water fights of Pattaya and the Khao San Road in Bangkok?
The clue to answering this question probably lies in the fact that water and the impending arrival of rain play a big part in what was the original idea of Songkran.
Traditional Songkran Festival in Thailand
Songkran is traditionally a time for Buddhist merit-making Part of the merit-making process involves the gentle splashing of water on people, particularly family members. While Buddha images in homes and temples are also washed and sprinkled with scented water. The water is symbolic of cleansing, refreshment, and a renewal of life.
Within families, the younger members will pay their respects to the elders by sprinkling scented water on their hands, shoulders, and backs while offering new years wishes and blessings. You might also see the white string tied around a person’s wrists. Again a symbol of good luck and well wishes. Traditionally people leave the strings in place until they fall off naturally.
Besides the use of water and string, it is also common to find people with small silver bowls filled with a white powder or pasty substance(usually talcum powder). The white paste is said to protect a person from evil and like the string should be left on the skin and not washed off.
Traditional Songkran is also used as a time to make additional merit to Buddhist monks and temples by offering gifts including food and new robes.
Although the connection is tenuous it appears that the modern-day non-traditional Songkran is based on the old traditions. Although quite what older Thais make of the high-powered water pistols and barrels of ice-cold water that are used to soak anyone with the range I am not quite sure. Equally, they might wonder what is contained in the white paste/powder that is daubed on them or anything that moves.
Personally, I do not enjoy the modern version of the Songkran Festival which is usually extended to around seven days. Apart from the near riotous behavior of some elements of both the local and tourist communities it also heralds one of the most dangerous times to ever take to the Thai roads.
Drink driving is at its peak, as are road deaths and casualties. Sadly far from being a time of refreshment and renewal, the Thai New Year Songkran festival often turns into something quite different for many families who lose loved ones in the carnage.
What about you, do you enjoy the modern-day Songkran or are you like me a bit of a traditionalist?
Surviving Songkran Festival in Thailand
My plan for surviving Songkran in Thailand is simple, I stock up and stay at home. Only to emerge into the brave new world long after the last water bucket is empty and the 7/11 has run out of talcum powder. So this morning when I opened the doors of my Songkran bunker I was greeted with a beautiful clear blue sky and silence.
The joy of emerging, like some post-apocalyptic survivor, savoring a cup of tea and listening to the birds sing rather than the booming, out-of-sync karaoke, from our local temple, was sheer bliss.
Don’t get me wrong because I certainly don’t begrudge the Thai people their annual holiday, let’s face it for many of them it’s likely to be the only holiday they get until next year. It’s also good for them, in my opinion, to let off steam, a bit of an annual safety valve for the nation you might say, where the formality of daily life is put aside.
Here we have had two of the Parichat sisters, Noy and Kai, staying with us plus a cousin of Donut. So despite the fact that I have been hunkered down life has not been dull. However, this has once again stretched my patience a little thin at times, not because I am anti-social, but more because three years plus down the line I still find it hard to deal with the way Thai guests take over your house.
Mind you there was one bright spot associated with their visit, since Pen, who is a spinster, seems to be hitting it off with my foreign neighbor who is single and over here for a month’s holiday. They must be getting on well since this morning Pen asked me to write down the details of her bank account so she could give them to my friend.
I have the bank details so I can bail her out occasionally when the loan sharks come knocking. I think I need to speak to my friend about what he might be getting himself into, but then again on the other hand……
Another bright spot this week, not involving the family, saw my noisy neighbor get bitten by one of the soi dogs that took a dislike to the music booming out of his car stereo system. Why he feels the need to share his latest Thai offerings with everyone I am not quite sure but he made a big mistake by throwing a stone at Jacky, my immediate neighbor’s dog when she went sniffing around his mobile disco.
I actually watched the events unfold as the somewhat miffed canine waited till he turned and walked away then promptly bite his ankle.
His classic dive and subsequent rolling on the floor moaning on receiving the nip had to be seen to be believed and if it had taken place on a football field I am fairly sure Jacky would have been red-carded and he would have got a yellow for play-acting Anyway he went to the doctors and my neighbors mum got a bill for the jabs.
Now you might think my comments are a little harsh but in any country, the man would be classed as an ass**** so I have no sympathy whatsoever for him and his frequent noisy intrusions into our peaceful little soi.
Whether you are a Songkran survivor or reveler I hope you had a great holiday and that the Thai New Year brings you health, wealth, and prosperity.
For me at any rate, surviving Songkran in Thailand is over for another year. Next year I plan to be in England for the holiday so at least I won’t need to hunker down, will I?
Tourist Safety in Thailand
But what of the tourists? How well informed are they of what potential hazards await them in the Land of Smiles and the Songkran Holiday?
Some countries, like my own, do make an effort to make visitors aware of some of the dangers and other hazards they may face in Thailand. But seriously, who, if they are planning their annual two weeks in the sun, would trawl the Internet looking at the negative reports of their intended destination.
Not many I suspect. So as for being aware goes, although it is pure conjecture on my part, I fancy most tourists are fairly oblivious to the potential problems they could encounter in Thailand.
But what about the future? Will tourist safety in Thailand improve? Personally, I think not, simply because many of the things mentioned in this article would require change, a change in thinking and culture.
Will tourists wake up and smell the coffee, regarding their safety and the way some are treated in Thailand, perhaps even choosing a different destination? I’m not sure, but I fancy the answer is that they will continue to come here, although the country of origin of future tourists might well change.
A Little Advice on Tourist Safety in Thailand
Finally a word to potential tourists. Thailand is a great place to visit if you accept that you cannot expect much protection from the authorities when things go wrong. Also, accept that health and safety is a concept yet to be discovered by Thailand and its people who accept corruption as a part of daily life.
Take your time, plan things out a little and apply some common sense. Take out adequate travel insurance because you may well find that if something goes wrong, like an accident, the operator, does not have third-party insurance to cover your medical bills. Follow this simple advice and I am sure you will remain safe in Thailand.
If you’re interested in learning more about Traveling Southeast Asia and Thailand’s Nightlife, Please check out our “12 Things I Wish I’d Known Guide” or our Blog to learn more about this Amazing Country!