above, vlog #128
Songkran is About Paying Respect
The festivities of Songkran, or “Thai New Year,” are mostly marked by the nation-wide water fights that take place over a period of days. The pervasiveness of this celebration is enough to send hoards of Thais out of Thailand for the duration of the holiday, while simultaneously luring hoards of foreigners into the Kingdom to take part. For myself, the first time I saw Songkran was a few days after we moved to Thailand in April of 2012. My friend Boomii invited me to come with her friends and brother in the back of a pickup truck, with buckets, squirt-guns and a giant drum of water to splash and be splashed by an insane number of people. It was fun; for about an hour. But the holiday continues for days and there’s no “opt out” method. Kids wait on the side of the road to hose you or throw water on you while you’re on your motorbike, walking, or out for a run. Your shoes get drenched and soggy and the onus is on you to waterproof your electronics, money, or anything else that you don’t want destroyed by being drenched in water every 15 minutes or so. I don’t really like Songkran.
While the festivities have been like this since before I was born, so there’s no “the kids are ruining tradition,” from my Grinchy standpoint, there is a tradition within Songkran that Thais still practice (before all the water fights start) and most foreigners don’t really see or take part in. The throwing of water used to be a gentle pouring of scented, luke-warm water on the shoulder of passersby, to give them luck in the New Year. The pouring of water takes place over a period of days, internal to families and homes, far away from the “Spring Break-esque” partying of city streets. You start by bathing statues of the Buddha and then generations within single families pay respect to their elders, bowing their heads low, wai-ing, and pouring this scented water over the hands of the oldest, most respected members of the family. Over the next few days you circle out, paying respects to extended family and village heads. It’s about honoring community.
I’ve never been privy to this part of Songkran. Over my three years of living in Thailand I’ve accumulated comfort in some of the cultural practices of giving respect, which I’m so grateful for because accidentally acting gauche out of ignorance of custom is pretty easy. This year on the second day of Songkran, yesterday, I showed up at the gym to train, knowing full well that I’d probably just be training myself as Pi Nu and his family would be traveling to temples and doing various family things for the holiday. I was rolling my wraps when Pi Nu came into the gym and talked to me for a minute about how he wouldn’t be holding pads this morning but would take care of me this afternoon; then he walked into the house and came back a moment later to tell me to come make “boon” with his family.
I go into the kitchen and see that Pi Nu’s parents are sitting side by side on the wooden bench in the front room, with trays beneath their feet to catch the water. On the table is a small shrine and statue of the Buddha. Pi Nu’s sister-in-law was mixing a scented oil and flower petals in water for the bathing/ pouring and Pi Nu was making fun of my stitches with his brother. Fun times. The oldest family members – maybe coincidentally the closest-of-kin – go first, meaning Pi Nu’s older brother and Nu, then their wives and kids (who formed a chain and all went together, rather than individually), then me. So I got to see how it was done first, which was helpful. I kept my head lower than the statue of Buddha and then both Pi Nu’s seated parents, pouring the water gently and steadily over their hands. Some kids went after me and then garlands were placed on the hands of the parents, we all wai-ed with our heads to the floor three times and then sat quietly while each parent gave a short speech about hoping for luck for each of us in the New Year. I even got a special blessing from Bamrung (Pi Nu’s dad) that I achieve all my goals here in Thailand and continue to have luck when I go home to America. Which, I’m hoping won’t be anytime this year!
It meant a great deal to me to take part in this ceremony. It brought something valuable to the multi-day holiday that I’ve come to dread, simply by being included in a practice with people who I do respect and want to honor. It wasn’t just going through the motions, which dodging water on the roads has become. I like this Songkran. Although, I can appreciate how kids who have grown up in this custom and aren’t charmed by it get a real joy out of being released from their familial obligations to go outside and fight the heat with buckets of water. I guess you grow out of that and into the old traditions; like how a tree grows in both directions at once, roots and branches.