The Other Side of Songkran

Songkran

Songkran (Thai New Year) is one of, if not the most important holiday in Thailand. When most people think of Songkran, images of the “World’s Biggest Water Fight” in Bangkok come to mind. There is however, another side of Songkran that takes place in the smaller rural areas. In the smaller communities Songkran is celebrated in a more traditional manner, honoring traditions that are hundreds of years old. Songkran is a time when Thais prepare spiritually for the new year, and honor those who have passed from this life. It is a time of renewing friendships, a time of family’s gathering together in celebration.

Each year during Songkran there is a mass exodus from Bangkok, as Thais either travel, or return home to be with their families. Although a large number of Bangkok residents travel abroad during Songkran, the vast majority travel home to rural Thailand for the holiday. Those Thais that live in Bangkok out of necessity, to earn a living, look forward to being able to spend time with their families.

Home for the Holidays. Travelers disembark from the inbound train arriving from Bangkok at Prachinburi Station, Thailand.
Home for the Holidays. Travelers disembark from the inbound train arriving from Bangkok at Prachinburi Station, Thailand.

Songkran is a 3 day holiday, and unlike some 3 day weekends where leisure time is a priority, it takes at least 3 days to get everything done that takes place during the holiday. Although the order of events may change from year to year, and by location, the following is what usually happens during Songkran where I live in rural Thailand.

Songkran 2017 Day 1

Day one of Songkran in Nakhon Nayok is dedicated to prayer at the local temple. Thais are strong believers in karma, so it makes sense to start any big event by praying and giving alms to the local monks. The act of giving is called “making merit”. It is important to store up as much merit as posable, to help ward off evil, for help in hard times and to keep in good spiritual and physical health.

Devotees pray in the local temple as Songkran 2017 begins in rural Thailand.
Devotees pray in the local temple as Songkran 2017 begins in rural Thailand.
Members of the congregation fill rice bowls that will be presented to the monks on the first day of Songkran in rural Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.
Members of the congregation fill rice bowls that will be presented to the monks on the first day of Songkran in rural Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.
Breakfast is presented to monks at the local temple as a way of giving alms to make merit. The monks will bless the food and will eat first, then the meal will become potluck for the congregation to enjoy.
Breakfast is presented to monks at the local temple as a way of giving alms to make merit. The monks will bless the food and will eat first, then the meal will become potluck for the congregation to enjoy.
Devotees serve monks breakfast at the local temple on the first day of Songkran in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.
Devotees serve monks breakfast at the local temple on the first day of Songkran in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.

Songkran 2017 Day 2

Day two in Nakhon Nayok is dedicated to a large community celebration at the temple. Although the important events start around noon, participants usually arrive early in the morning. Villagers prepare and enjoy breakfast and lunch while spending quality time with friends and family. There is also merit making by giving a meal to the monks as was done the day before.

Around 12:00 a large bell is rung and a traveling band in the back of a a truck starts to play, signaling the start of a procession around the ordination hall. Villagers walk and dance around the hall three times for good luck. All the while the truck band is leading the procession playing loud traditional Thai music. When the procession is finished it is time for the water blessing.

A procession around the ordination hall begins the Songkran festivities, April 14, 2017.
A procession around the ordination hall begins the Songkran festivities, April 14, 2017.
Villagers carry monks robes in a procession around the ordination hall to begin the festivities for the 2nd day of Songkran 2017 in rural Thailand.
Villagers carry monks robes in a procession around the ordination hall to begin the festivities for the 2nd day of Songkran in rural Thailand.
Members of the congregation dance in a procession during the Songkran festival in rural Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.
Members of the congregation dance in a procession during the Songkran festival in rural Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.
Villagers dance in a procession around the ordination hall to begin the festivities for the 2nd day of Songkran in rural Thailand. April 14, 2017.
Villagers dance in a procession around the ordination hall to begin the festivities for the 2nd day of Songkran in rural Thailand. April 14, 2017.

The water blessing is really what Songkran is all about, it gives us those images of hundreds in the streets spraying each other with water in the larger cities, elephants spraying water on tourists and all the rest. The traditional way of blessing with water is done with kindness and respect. Water is poured over the hands and sometimes shoulder of the blessing’s recipient while wishing the person good luck, health and a prosperous new year. With the water blessing the giver makes merit, and the receiver is given good luck. It’s really such a simple thing, water is cleansing, refreshing, symbolic of starting the new year fresh.

Blessing the monks hands with water is good luck for both the monk and for the person giving the blessing.
Monks receive a water blessing during Songkran 2017 in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.

Another part of Songkran is honoring and paying respect to departed relatives. Ashes of relatives are temporarily removed from the their burial stupas, and a ceremony is performed by local monks. Devotees pray and ask the departed for blessings and help with their daily lives.

A Thai woman removes the ashes of a relative from a burial chedi prior to a ceremony honoring the dead during Songkran festivities in rural Thailand.
A Thai woman removes the ashes of a relative from a burial chedi prior to a ceremony honoring the dead during Songkran festivities in rural Thailand.
A Thai family hosts a ceremony to honor departed relatives on the final day of Songkran in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, April 17, 2017.
A Thai family hosts a ceremony to honor departed relatives on the final day of Songkran in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, April 17, 2017.
A Thai family hosts a ceremony to honor departed relatives on the final day of Songkran in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, April 17, 2017. (Lee Craker/Lee Craker, Photographer)
A Thai family hosts a ceremony to honor departed relatives on the final day of Songkran in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, April 17, 2017.
Siri, a Thai woman farmer, blesses the Chedi where ashes of her relatives are kept after a ceremony to honor the dead during Songkran 2017 festivities in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.
Siri, a Thai woman farmer, blesses the Chedi where ashes of her relatives are kept after a ceremony to honor the dead during Songkran 2017 festivities in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.

Songkran 2017 Day 3

An aspect of Songkran which is sometimes observed in rural Thailand is building sand stupas. The meaning behind building a sand chedi is to honor the sand that has been carried out of the temple or grounds on members shoes. In years past this was a day long activity. However for the last two years this part of Songkran has been minimized to just a few hours. Building a sand stupa is also a great way to build community.

Members of the congregation place prayer flags on a sand stupa as part of Songkran festivities in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, April 18, 2017.
Members of the congregation place prayer flags on a sand stupa as part of Songkran festivities in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, April 18, 2017.
A Thai woman places prayer flags on sand stupa decorations as part of Songkran celebrations in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, April 18, 2017.
A Thai woman places prayer flags on sand stupa decorations as part of Songkran celebrations in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, April 18, 2017.
Women work on sand figures that represent each family in the community so the family will revive blessings in the new year.
Women work on sand figures that represent each family in the community so the family will revive blessings in the new year.

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