Samui Wining & Dining
Splashing Out !

We dive under the surface of the wettest day of the year to discover some very serious fun!

2-3If we were being watched by little green men from Mars, I wonder what they’d make of some of the things they’d see. At the end of each December, for instance, half the world goes into a shopping frenzy and everywhere there are gigantic light-spangled trees and jolly old men with long white beards chanting “Ho ho ho!” And, at the end of the following month or the beginning of the next, when the rest of the world dresses in red, bangs gongs and tours the streets with lanterns and processions of carnival dragons and lions. Or later, in April, somewhere down in South East Asia, when an entire country takes to the streets with hosepipes, buckets and water guns, and drenches to the skin every living thing that’s moving or not!

     The problems didn’t begin until somewhere around the 15th All of which goes to say that there’s actually a lot of meaning beneath the surface of these strange activities, and what you see is definitely not what you get. Well, if you’re more than just a casual observer, that is.

     The word ‘songkran’ originally comes from a Sanskrit word that means ‘moving or changing’. But the event of Songkran has now become the Thai New Year, and is celebrated on the 13th of April. Or so it might seem – because what you’ll see on that day is very much the fun-filled surface of a much more sober tradition that runs to four days

      And what you’ll see is ... mayhem! A combination of what looks like a street riot and a dedicated Club 18-30 water-fight. All the streets will be lined by more people than you thought Samui could hold, and all the roads will be clogged with a crawling mess of pick-ups, cars and motorbikes. Barrels filled with water are the order of the day – both at the roadside and in the back of the trucks. And every single person will be enthusiastically busy in their determination to utterly soak everybody else!

       But this is all a long way removed from the heart of the matter. And the truth is that this extreme form of ‘celebration’ only comparatively recently began to develop in areas that had many tourists – although today most of Thailand’s cities have now adopted it. But, in quieter and more rural areas – of which there are a great many – the old traditions still run deep.

       Traditionally, there are four stages to Songkran, each of them one day long. On the 13th there is ‘The Cleansing’, Wan Sangkhan Lohng, and the beginning of a new year is heralded by a thorough spring-cleaning. Rooms are cleared, floors are scrubbed and walls are painted. People flock to the local temples and remove the sacred Buddha statues for ritual cleansing, washing them lovingly with jasmine-scented water. And then they all take to the streets, in a colourful parade of floats, monks, statues and bands.

       The following day is Wan Nao, ‘The Preparation’ – and there’s not much to be seen! The women stay inside the house, preparing food and offerings for the next day. The ancient and traditional dish of aromatic soaked rice, Khao Chae, plays a central part. As do luuk kapi (shrimp balls), phrik yuak (pork-stuffed peppers), hawm thawt (fried shallots) and hua chai poe (Chinese radish). Although there’s nothing particularly symbolic about these items, they have their traditional origins in the ancient Royal Palace – and, anyway, no good celebration is complete without lots of food!

        Meanwhile, the men are busying themselves by helping out, or by assisting to arrange the collection of sand. Sand? Yes! Sand will play a big part in the following day’s rites. Years ago, the men would dig this out themselves, but today it’s usually delivered to the temples by the truckload.

        And the 15th is the big day – Wan Payawan, ‘The Offering’. Everyone’s up early and taking yesterday’s preparations to the temple. And, as well as these offerings, people also make merit by releasing captive birds and fish. And then everyone happily sets to building their sand pagodas; which is seen as a further way to make merit, and has its origin back when temples used to cover their floors with fresh sand.

 

Water is a potent symbol of fertility
and plenty, and also represents a
purification and washing - away of sins.

 

         Many older Thai people actually regard this day as the first real day of the New Year. And this is the day that must be filled with good deeds and exemplary conduct, as whatever you do on this day will affect the rest of your year.

         Water is a potent symbol of fertility and plenty, and also represents a purification and washing-away of sins. And so it is that, after the offerings, silver bowls of perfumed water are passed around – and each person sprinkles a little of this on the others!.

        And on the fourth day, there’s ‘The Respect’, Wan Paak Bpee, which is a formal acknowledgment of respect to the elderly. In years gone by, this was a lengthy ritual, but today it usually takes the form of sprinkling the elders with water and murmuring a few polite words of respect.

        And there are other traditions, too. Such as finding your face being painted with a white paste, to protect you and ward off evil. Or having someone tying a string around your wrist, whilst blessing you and wishing you well. The paste and the strings are supposed to be left in place until they disappear of their own accord, but most people tend to give their face a wipe afterwards. The evil spirits have probably been subdued by all that water!

        You’ll find that most of the hotels and resorts on the island will be offering something extra by way of celebration, too. There’ll be no extravaganzas like you’ll see for the international New Year on the 31st December, but there’ll be small bowls of water and friendly little blessings, and probably also a special menu for the day. It’ll certainly be a lot more refined that the streets outside!

        But do go outside, and join in the fun – keeping your phone, camera and money tight in a plastic bag! Splash and get splashed and marvel in the sights. It only happens once a year. And if you come across any little green men, give them a good soaking. And then take them aside and talk to them – they need to know that all this fun has a serious side, too!

 

 

Rob De Wet



 


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