It’s 42 degrees Celsius and we’re in the thick of it.
Water assails us from every side, jettisoned from brightly coloured water guns – big and small, buckets, cups, bottles, every manner of receptacle, even water hoses!
Against my burning skin, the unexpected slap of cold water is at first an unpleasant jolt. Then, relief quickly sets in, as in this hottest season of the year, my body begins to cool down.
It is Songkran, the Thai (and South East Asian) New Year, an ancient religious festival and the biggest holiday of the year that formally takes place between April 13 and 15, but in Thailand’s northern ‘Rose of the North’, Chiang Mai, stretches for more than a week.
As we walk the main Rajdamnoen Road leading from Chiang Mai’s ceremonial gate – Tha Pae, lined with thousands of holiday-makers, we’re hit again – this time a deluge. I’m now soaked to the bones.
Seeking a reprieve, we retreat to ‘Mango Heaven’, a drink joint not far from the gate where, not surprisingly, every manner of mango concoction is sold – from fruit drinks, lassies and milkshakes, to mango cake dishes, to the sumptuous khao niew mang muang (sticky rice with fresh mango, smothered in coconut milk).
‘Mango Heaven’ has a thatched roof over its outdoor bar and we’re lucky enough to grab a seat. Perfect! We can now stay dry – well, nearly – sipping luscious mango smoothies, whilst watching the fun and games on the streets, as well as the grand procession that is about to begin.
I look around. Thousands of people, both Thai and foreigners, both young and old, from farmers and labourers, to teachers and bank managers, to temple care-takers and monks, as well as little old ladies dressed in traditional long, often hand-woven skirts and blouses line the road. All are drenched and carry some kind of water-throwing receptacle. All mingle together – on this special day there are no class, social, national or age divisions here.
What’s immediately noticeable is that most people are smiling widely, and laughing. There is an air of abandoned gaiety and happiness. New Year’s revellers are fully in the present moment, enjoying this harmless and good-natured play that seems to unleash the ‘child’ in all of us. There’s no malice or bad intention. The event is indeed what the Thais specialise in, so much a part of their culture – sanuk, having fun.
“This is how countries should conduct their wars!” the photographer shouts out over the din of traditional orchestras and boom-boom box pop music.
While my daughter and I giggle and chortle at the naughty antics and funny faces of the water-throwers, I occasionally sneak a hit at a muscled, heavily tattoo-ed American tourist, decked out for combat with two giant red water guns on either hip. He looks back at me, as I try to look innocent and gaze in the other direction, and immediately spots the culprit, sending double cascades of water my way. There’s no way to avoid it!
Suddenly, the mammoth Tha Pae Gate opens with a thud, and the procession begins.
It is led by a large, flower-festooned float carrying the Phra Buddha Singh, one of Chiang Mai’s most sacred religious statues. On either side of the golden Buddha, priests dressed in white robes and pointed caps support the statue, whilst spectators – little old ladies making sure they are first! – surge forward to ‘wash’ the Buddha. They pour scented lustral waters over the Buddha’s shoulders and hands, in a symbolic act of cleansing and purification.
Pretty northern maidens, exotically dressed in beautiful, intricately woven silks and cottons, with heaps of glittering jewellery draped over their bodies and colourful flowers decorating their preposterously piled hair (or wigs!), process in unison before the float. They occasionally stop to perform a traditional dance, usually the fawn leb, the fingernail dance that imitates the long fingers of the celestial being thewadaa. How they can stand the tight-fitting, long-sleeved outfits processing in the fierce sun and crushing heat is a wonder.
As people ‘bathe’ the Buddha statue, so the priests, now totally soaked, take up traditional ladles and sprinkle holy water over the crowd, in a symbolical New Year’s blessing.
This act of washing, cleansing and blessing is re-enacted throughout the afternoon, as the three-hour procession, with scores of elaborately decorated floats and the most sacred of Buddha images, snakes its way through the steaming, narrow, temple-lined street, to one of Chiang Mai’s most revered temples, Wat Phra Singh. It is also re-enacted in most temples throughout the province, as the most precious of Buddha images are taken from their resting places and displayed, ready to be washed by the devoted.
Village, city and provincial institutions, as well as other government and NGO organisations, schools, universities, media and private companies, are represented, each having created their own unique floats – elaborately festooned with flowers – all carrying a religious theme and a statue of Lord Buddha.
Scores of traditional orchestras, their thumping drums, crashing cymbals, other-worldly gongs and wailing bamboo flutes – heard from afar, are part of the procession, as are school bands.
It is this mixture of religious ritual and ceremony, as well as prayer at temples – fastidiously observed and lavishly presented in traditional dress and decoration, with the art of having fun that makes so many Thai festivals unique.
Indeed early that morning, on the official first day of Songkran, April 13th, long before the water-throwing began, thousands gathered at Tha Pae – to tamboon, make merit by giving offerings to monks.
A few hours later, the focus switched to Wat Phra Singh where city VIPs, Chiang Mai royalty and the general public gathered to witness the ‘coming out’ of the Phra Buddha Singh, accompanied by chanting monks, traditional orchestra and dance, and religious rituals to mark the New Year.
Simultaneously, devotees, holding a clutch of flowers, incense and candles, perambulated the temple’s towering golden chedi (pagoda) three times, reciting the ‘Triple Gem’ of Buddhism – ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma (his teachings) and Sangha (monks).’
This, along with prayer in the main viharn (prayer hall), and blessings from monks, takes place in temples around the city and province, and much of the country. Many temples host the making of small, and in some cases large, sand pagodas. Here lay people symbolically express their commitment to help monks in the maintenance and renovation of their temples. Some days before the official Songkran, I attended the official launch of a giant sand pagoda at a splendidly decorated Wat Chet Lin, officiated by the governor of Chiang Mai.
Along with reverencing and ritually bathing Buddha images, paying respect to elders is another important aspect of the Thai New Year. In homes, villages, schools, community and government organisations, as well as even the work place, a special ceremony called rod nam dum lua takes place in which younger members of the family, community or organisation kneel before elders, making offerings, pouring scented waters over their hands, and asking for blessings for the New Year.
Chiang Mai is known for its elaborate New Year’s celebrations, and many Thais and foreigners travel from afar to take part in it. During the weeks leading up to Songkran and the week-long festivities, the city experiences an astounding outpouring of cultural expression.
Northern Thai traditional theatre, opera, dance, drumming and music competitions take place, along with arts and crafts fairs, and even a ‘Miss and Mr. Songkran’ Beauty Contest! Some temples hold their boys’ initiation into the monkhood at this time; and numerous other ceremonies concerning the worship of relics, historical monuments, northern Thai kings, royal families and ancestors take place.
As with so many other festivals in Chiang Mai, the ancient seamlessly blends with the 21st century, in a part of the world where culture and tradition are cherished and lived.
© copyright: Linda Pfotenhauer
Photo: Jessica Pfotenhauer