The Drive-bys, Douche bags and Devis of Songkran: What you really ought to know about Thailand’s traditional New Year celebrations

Songkran

Driving to the shop can be a bit hazardous at Songkran

If you’re travelling to Thailand around mid-April, don’t be surprised if the Thais wish you a happy new year. Thailand’s traditional New Year celebrations are held from 13 to 15 April and include three or four days of hedonism, when drivers obey no rules and the police just do what they always do: nothing. Be prepared to get wet as the normally discreet and self-contained Thais let go of all inhibitions and drink enough alcohol to kill a cow, dance, party and water fight wherever the mood takes them.

A police man

A police man doing nothing

Songkran is the perfect time of year for the boys to get close to the girls, as cultural taboos are forgotten for the entirety of the festival. Although physical contact and overt expressions of attraction are looked down upon in Thailand, at Songkran your mother will happily pretend she didn’t see you sneaking off into the house with your girlfriend then sneaking back out again two hours later looking hot and happy.

And don’t be offended when an ugly, drunken Thai adolescent, with white powder all over his face and spooky tattoos all over his body, runs up to you and throws an ice-cold bucket of water over your head then pastes you with white powder, temporarily blinding you and poisoning you with this non-edible substance as he rubs it on your mouth. No! Do not worry, this is how they celebrate the New Year in the Land of Smiles: by killing each other in road accidents and throwing water in the faces of passing motorcyclists as they whizz by at 50 mph on their Honda Wave or Fino. In 2010, 361 people were killed in road accidents related to drink and reckless driving. This year, things have improved; so far only 148 people have died in the name of fun. Don’t worry, the guy who killed your son never knew it, he just carried on laughing and threw water at his next victim. Yes, water is a dangerous element, all said.

So how did this hysteria sweep across the nation? And what is the origin of the Songkran festival? The following passages attempt to enlighten and entertain you, while hopefully teaching you some useful knowledge that you can use to impress the locals.

The Legend of Songkran

Kirinee Devi

Kirinee Devi

Long ago, in ancient times, a high-so Thai couple had everything money could buy. They had the house, the BMW, iPhones, expensive jewellery and took regular trips abroad. But, as the wise Buddha himself often said, money does not bring happiness. For all their possessions, this wealthy couple lacked a child. One day, they visited the local temple and made merit by giving food and gifts to the monks. They prayed to the god who guarded the local banyan tree and asked for a child. Because of their good deeds, the god rewarded them with a son, who, chance would have it, turned out to be a precocious and gifted boy.  They named him Thammaban.

So gifted was young Thammaban, that he was able to speak with birds. Most of the people in his village thought he was wacko when they saw him sat in a tree making whistling noises, but when his mother explained that he could actually talk to the birds, word got about that Thammaban was special. His fame caught the attention of the four faced Hindu God King Kabinlabrahma, who was instantly envious of the young boy’s talents. Kabinlabrahma descended to Earth and posed Thammaban with a riddle: he asked him where the grace of man was in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. He warned Thammaban that if he could not answer the riddle within seven days, he would cut off his head.

Poor Thammaban was distraught and just wanted to be left alone to play with his toys; he had never asked to be so gifted. He puzzled over the question for six days, sure that he would lose his head, when he overheard two birds talking in the branches of a tree.

The birds said that man’s grace was in his face in the morning so people wash their faces with water. In the afternoon grace is in body and so people bathed and powdered their bodies with sweet scents. In the evening it was in their feet and so people washed their feet in water.

When Kabinlabrahma returned after seven days, Thammaban gave him the correct answer. Kabinlabrahma was so upset that the boy had solved his riddle he decided to end it all and cut off his own head. Despite being an ugly four faced monster, Kabinlabrahma had seven smoking-hot daughters. Before he committed hari-kari, he told his seven daughters that his head must never be thrown up in the air or else a drought would follow. If his head fell on the ground, it would cause blazing fires and devastation. If it fell into the sea, it would dry up. In other words, he was telling his daughters to take damn good care of his ugly head after he chopped it off.

Kabinlabrahma's seven daughters

The seven smoking-hot daughters

His daughters, like good Thai girls, obeyed his wishes and placed his head on a silver platter, carried it clockwise around Phrae Sumane Mountain and then placed it safely in a cave on mount Krailat. Ever since, Kabinlabrahma’s daughters took it in turns to parade his bowling ball of a head around the mountain. The daughters are known as Nang Songkran and the tradition has become the Songkran festival.

Each one of the daughters is associated with particular foods, colours, stones, animals and flowers. Their names are: Tungsa, Koraka, Ragso, Monta, Kirinee, Kimita and Mahatorn. All their names are appended by the title “Devi” and, according to this lovely art work, they’re drop-dead gorgeous.

No-one knows what happened to Thammaban. Some said he got a job at McDonalds and kept his talents a secret all his life to keep other envious gods at bay.

The History and Tradition

A traditional family gathering at Songkran

A traditional family gathering at Songkran

The name Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word “Sankranta” and means “a move or change.” As with many things in Thai culture, the Songkran festival has been inherited from the Indians, changed beyond recognition and is now done in what the Thais fondly call “Thai-style.” Traditionally, Songkran is a time for people to return to their home towns, pay respect to their elders, spend time with the family and visit the temple. Although this still continues, it is becoming increasingly focused on having fun, playing with water and getting drunk.

The throwing of water originally started out as a ritual to cleanse the spirit and wash away any bad karma from the previous year; a bit like cleaning your house in spring and hoping it will stay that way. At first, people would simply pour water over each other’s heads or bodies as part of this ritual. However, due to the hot weather in April, people recognized the cooling benefits of soaking each other with water and – I imagine – some mischievous little boy – probably from Isaan – decided one day to soak people with a big jug of water for fun. Because Thai people are fun-loving, rather than giving this kid a proper spanking, they joined in with the game and Songkran as we know it was born. This, over hundreds of years, developed into a game of water wars that is now played the length and breadth of the country.

Modern Day Interpretations

Sometime around April 13, small children and adults will don their flowery shirts and proceed to set up base camp on the side of the road. Mummy, always happy to encourage recklessness and stupidity, will fill them a nice ten-gallon tank with water and plonk it by the side of the road so the little cherubs will never go short of water to harass passersby with. As the Songkran spirit increases, these innocent little groups of water pistol-clad children turn into intoxicated adults with a much deadlier aim, and, I may add, a much smaller brain.

A typical Songkran scene

Songkran Mafia

The fun reaches a climax when gangs of 20 or more young males stand on the back of a Toyota Vigo and drive around the streets with no other purpose than to soak everybody and anybody with water pistols and buckets of ice-cold water. Music blares from the car’s boom box as the drunken driver swerves deftly in and out of the cars and zones in on his target: a pickup truck full of Isaan grannies, returning up country to pay respect to their families. Traffic jams are the objective at this time of year and occasionally three or four cars will hold up the entire road while rival gangs throw enough water at each other to dry up the local reservoir.

The Thais, much like the French, are known for their fine taste in alcoholic beverages. At this time – and every day of the year – the Thai males like to drink white whisky. This classy little tipple is made from rice and costs the equivalent of £1. They usually start drinking at a sensible hour, such as . . . 6 a.m., and continue for the entire day until they can no longer walk, see, or speak; which takes a lot. Even those sweet little Thai ladies, who normally claim to be teetotal, let their hair down and drink Leo beer in a sawn-off Pepsi bottle. They won’t be shy in sharing it with you, as they won’t be shy in sharing a lot more if you stick with them for the rest of the day.

But why not, I hear you say? What’s wrong with such gay abandon? How often do we, in our regulated Western countries, get the opportunity to be so free from regulation and concern? Songkran, for all its madness, helps us to forget our commitments to work, family, society and become euphoric.

Songkran is now developing quite a bit of international clout and people come from all over the world to say “I’ve been there and worn the flowery t-shirt to prove it.” Yes, these delightful foreigners like to say such things as: “I’ve done Samui”, which means they went to Koh Samui for three days and, in their minds, they have now “done it.” Yes, never mind the locals, who toil and struggle to make their lives there, you, Mr. Farang, have “done it.”

Farangs doing it Thai-style

Farangs doing it Thai-style

So, at Songkran time, you will see small groups of bemused farangs, walking happily down the street, getting drenched just like everybody else. If Songkran were a shoot-em-up, then you, Mr. Farang, would be a bonus point. The Thais will make a bee-line for white faced individuals and ignore any of the Thai people standing nearby while they “Songkran” a farang for the first time in their lives. But don’t be angry, dear farang, try to understand that you increase their enjoyment of Songkran tenfold. Although the Thai males can seem a little heavy-handed at times, they really never meant to kill anyone. So try to contain your Western anger and just smile and keep reminding yourself of Buddha’s teachings on acceptance and patience, you are, after all, in a Buddhist country.

So, the question of how Songkran got to its present-day form has now been answered: like many other things in life, it evolved, took a little spice from India, added some herbs from elsewhere, then mixed it all up in a big Thai cooking pot. Nowadays, the religious aspect of the festival seems to be losing ground to the self-indulgent practice of water fighting, alcohol abuse and disregard for human life. It seems that the pandemic of madness that has seized most of the world is slowly finding its way into countries that had once managed to hold off the encroaching tentacles of Westernization. But with all these Eastern festivals and religions seeping into our own culture, we really have to ask if we’re not being equally “Easternized.”

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