Samui Wining & Dining
Watered Down

These days, the Thai New Year – Songkran – is one big water fight, but there is a more spiritual background to the story.


12Times change. Things move on. Styles come and go. Traditions change their form over the centuries. Even fables and legends shape themselves into new tales. But at the heart of every fable is a core of truth. And behind every ancient custom is an even older one, more firmly rooted in time. And what you’ll see all over Thailand on the 13th of April every year is an example of just such a tradition. It’s the shrieking public mayhem of the ‘world’s biggest water fight’, Songkran, the Thai New Year. But its beginnings are preserved in something altogether much quieter and gentler.


It’s all tied to the earth, the farming communities and the cycle of the seasons. It’s also woven into the ancient history of Thailand and the long-ago connections with the Tai people of China and the Brahmins of India. And it’s associated with the hottest time of the year when water is at its most precious; although today’s expression of all this is almost ironic. It’s now turned into a joyous free-for-all with more water being thrown around on this one day than in all of the rest of the year put together! But this is not how it all began.


It began as an expression of universal thanks for the harvested crops. It was a time of new beginnings and fresh starts, as the sun began to move towards a cooler season at the vernal equinox. And, somewhere back in the unrecorded mists of Thai history, there emerged a fable, aspects of which are still being celebrated. Visitors to Thailand look forward to the water fights. But for the (older) Thai people this is just a bit of superficial fun – essential, yes, but the icing on an altogether far more substantial cake.


The fable tells of a young boy; a very clever one. So great was his knowledge, humility and awareness that it made one of the gods jealous. Determined to take him down a peg or two, the god posed him a riddle; if he failed to solve it he died. But, try as he might, the boy couldn’t puzzle it out and went alone into the mountains to think. And, whilst meditating, he overheard two eagles talking. They were excited about the prospect of fresh food – one of the gods was about to kill some foolish young boy! The eagles chattered on and unwittingly gave away the answer to the riddle.


The boy returned and faced the god with the correct answer. And, being an honourable sort of god, he responded by cutting off his own head. But this was a terrible thing, as should it fall to earth there would be a conflagration and the seas would be burned away. So one of the god’s daughters hid it safely away in a cave. And every year the appropriate one of the seven daughters (one for each day of the week) still carries the head in procession around Su Meru, the home of the gods. And at the end of the Songkran period it’s returned back to the cave to rest for another year.


One of the festivities you’ll still see in temples throughout the Kingdom today is a beauty pageant that celebrates the god’s seven daughters and their annual duty. The spiritual and traditional aspects of Songkran run deep. And ‘Songkran’ actually has four stages, each lasting a day. ‘The Cleansing’, Wan Sangkhan Lohng, is heralded by a thorough domestic spring-cleaning, and with the sacred statues in the temples being aired and lovingly washed, too. And this is the day, now fixed at April 13th, when the ‘cleansing’ is also enthusiastically taken out onto the streets!


The day after is ‘The Preparation’, Wan Nao. This is when the womenfolk prepare food and offerings for what is to come. All these traditional dishes stem from the Royal Court; it is recognised that nothing less is correct for such an occasion. Aromatic soaked rice, khao chae, is laboriously cooked and presented along with bowls of jasmine-scented water, which is sprinkled on the rice as it’s eaten. And from the same Royal chefs of old come spiced shrimp balls, luuk kapi, Chinese radish patties, hua chai poe, and pork-stuffed peppers, phrik yuak. These dishes are carefully prepared and painstakingly decorated, before taken to the local temple the next day.


And the men aren’t idle during all this activity either. They’re busy, too, collecting sand! This will be needed for the big celebration the following day. (Years ago, the men would dig this out themselves, but today it’s usually delivered to the temples by the truckload! Such is ‘progress’.)


The 15th is the eventful day, ‘The Offering’, Wan Payawan. Everyone’s excited and up early, taking yesterday’s preparations to the temple. 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 each day. Many Thai people traditionally still regard this as the first real day of the New Year and make a special effort to set the pattern for the rest of the year by filling it with good deeds.


And on the final day, the 16th, there’s ‘The Respect’, Wan Paak Bpee, which is a formal acknowledgment of the elderly. At one time this was a lengthy and traditional ritual, but today it usually takes the form of sprinkling the elders with water and murmuring a few polite words of respect.


But throughout all of this, at the heart of it all, is water. It’s a potent symbol of fertility and represents purification and goodwill, whether it’s being respectfully dabbed on your cheeks or cheerfully hurled in your face! There are other traditions, too. Such as having your face dabbed with white paste or talcum powder to ward off evil, or having someone tying a string around your wrist for luck.


But be prepared! On Samui it lasts for just one day (unlike Chiang Mai where they hammer away for six!). Small plastic or zip-lock bags are the order of the day for keeping money, documents and your phone safe and dry. And maybe another bag for a change of dry clothing? Anywhere on a busy street is an excellent place to experience the fun; drive around if you dare! Have fun but stay safe. It only happens once a year and it’s absolutely not to be missed!


Rob De Wet 


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