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Songkran and the Water Festival

By Kevin Cain

Sounding almost like a progressive rock band, Songkran and the Water Festival is almost upon us. There have been many articles in this publication with reference to Songkran but on this occasion we thought we would focus on how the world perceives Songkran, and the tourists that come to the kingdom to join in on the celebrations.

Songkran is of course a celebration for the lunar New Year and is a main even in the Buddhist calendar. The history of the festival originates with the ancient Thai tradition of visiting monks and providing food, in addition to prayers blessings were to be given to the monks in the form of water being poured on their feet and daubed on their foreheads. The local people would then collect this holy water and bring it back home to family and friends and perform their own cleansing process. We all know today that the Water Festival has taken on a new dimension, and especially in tourist areas and big cities the gentle washing away of sins and bad luck has been replaced by a sort of slapstick aqua fight.

This new celebration has seen a whole new demographic of Songkran, as foreign tourists flock to Thailand’s shores to join in on the wild celebrations they have seen on YouTube and TV. Their expectation of the event has nothing in the remotest to do with ancient traditions, it is to satisfy a bucket list of the wildest parties in the world. Are foreigners wrong in thinking this? After all it is a celebration of the New Year and typical New Year celebrations all over the globe tend to be raucous.

The popularity of modern Songkran has grown to almost epidemic proportions, with its own newer and brasher festival traditions attracting huge crowds that seem to get bigger and bigger every year. Even the revered Guinness World Records Authority (or what used to be known as the Guinness Book of Records) bill Songkran as “The Largest Water Gun Fight In The World.” With such a label advertising it then what are foreigners meant to think? And in many respects is there anything wrong with splashing about and having a whole lot of fun in doing so? After all the modern interpretations of festival traditions are loosely based on the past:

  • Throwing water - the fun includes all manner of water guns, hoses, fire engines, buckets and every water carrying utensil that comes to hand. This water throwing roughly represents the collecting and pouring of sacred water

  • White chalk painting - chalk mixed with water to make a paste is liberally smeared over any exposed flesh and sticks like glue. Again monks use chalk marks to date and preserve blessings that have been made.

  • Food gifts - Thais still visit the temple and give food gifts to the monks, this normally takes place before the wild celebrations take place.

In a way the old traditions are being kept alive but in a new manner, this surely cannot be a bad thing ? There are many old festivals and traditions around the world that fade and die and eventually are forgotten forever but Songkran has a new lease of life and is back with a vengeance, with the added dimension it now has world recognition. After all Thailand’s economic and domestic problems have been well documented over the last two decades. And because of certain political events Thailand has seen a decline in tourist revenue, but Songkran bucks the trend.

Songkran and The Largest Water Gun Fight In The World is seen by the outside world as one big happy party. World press reports favorably about the Land of Smiles and shows images of throngs of people from all over the world in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya all coming together and having fun with the Thai people. The local economies of these areas are boosted by the influx of party goers coming from overseas, hotel bookings increase and restaurants, shops and tourist attractions all benefit. Yet there is still a collective moan from expats that the “silly season” is here again and the apocalypse is nigh. The response to such negative comments is simple, stay at home until the big bad wolf has gone away.

Yes, Pattaya’s celebrations of Songkran seem to go on longer than other places in Thailand but in a way that is a good thing. It keeps tourists and visitors in the city and continue to spend their money. Expats that live in Pattaya who wish to remain in the city during Songkran just need to change their routine for a few days. This may mean doing their shopping and other errands a little earlier, then relaxing at home. Hardly a massive inconvenience for the celebration of a world famous event that brings happiness to so many.

In real terms which ever way you want to look at it Songkran is a celebration, in many parts of the kingdom it is still observed as it has always been. But even then in rural villages and small communities the people have moved with the times, their water fun is a little more boisterous than it once was.The big cities of Thailand cater for non Thais in their celebrations and the party is tweaked to suit all, but still the festival is to celebrate the same thing. The Water Festival gives great pleasure to many visitors, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and something they will never forget. These satisfied pilgrims return home and relay favourable tales about Thailand to their friends and urge them to experience it too.

It also provides happiness to millions of Thais around the kingdom, brings families together for the holidays and keeps an old tradition very much alive and kicking. The Pattaya Trader wishes everybody a happy and safe elongated Songkran for 2018. Your options are open and entirely up to you, embrace the party, stay at home with the air con and watch the fun and frolics from a distance or simply “get out of dodge”.