Like any first-time tourist landing in Bangkok in April, I knew a little about the Songkran Festival. I’d seen the pictures of a nationwide, free-for-all water battle, fought annually by wet warriors daubed in powder and armed with space-age water pistols and huge smiles. It looked fun.
Desperate to take part, I checked into a hotel on Khao San Road, which I was told was the heart of the Songkran action. Soon I was in the world’s biggest water fight, dripping wet and enjoying a Bacchanalian battle with fun-loving locals. “This,” I said to myself “is Songkran!” How wrong I was.
The following year I accepted an invitation from my neighbour Jeab, to celebrate the Thai New Year in her sleepy hometown of Phitsanulok. The trip was to show me a whole new side of Songkran – the real Songkran.
Together we joined the annual exodus from Bangkok when millions leave the city to spend precious days with their families. And in a scene echoed all over Thailand, Jeab and myself were welcomed in Phitsanulok by smiling parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins. They took us home where lanterns adorned the trees, grills emitted the scents of roasting chicken, and jolly uncles pushed cold drinks into our hands. It was a great party.
So waking at dawn to pay alms to the local monks wasn’t easy. But I soon forgot my sore head as I joined the family handing out food to saffron-clad monks. By taking part in this solemn and ancient ceremony, I felt a connection with Thailand’s Buddhist traditions. Later Jeab’s mother invited me to join another Songkran ritual anointing the family’s own Buddha image with nam op, (a blend of jasmine, citrus and sandalwood) – an annual ceremony always led by the lady of the house.
I got my water fight, too. After lunch, the family’s truck was loaded up with cousins and under a relentless sun we battled the citizens of Phitsanulok with buckets of water. The small town atmosphere made it more fun than Khao San, as everyone knew each other. We came home drenched, happy and ready for another feast.
The next day, Jeab drove me to see the stunning Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat where more scented water was being poured over the Buddha statues; a ceremony Jeab told me was called song nam pra. I was invited to join in.
We then wandered the temple grounds, and I was excited to find what I thought was a sand castle competition. Rolling her eyes at my naivety, Jeab explained that these decorated sand pagodas were actually built by visitors as a way of returning any earth inadvertently carried away from the temple on the soles of people’s feet. I found this to be charming and insisted on making my own clumsy pagoda, helped by the local children; it was a fun afternoon.
My final day in Phitsanulok saw me invited to the riverside home of Jeab’s grandmother. The whole family was there, three generations paying court to this wonderful grey-haired lady with smiling eyes. She beamed at us, delighted that all her loved ones were back together sharing food and stories. I didn’t understand the chatter but I felt the love, and those two hours in this lovely woman’s home summed up for me what Songkran is all about – family and tradition.
I’ve enjoyed two more Thai Songkrans since then and still enjoy the water fights, but for a real sense of Thainess I seek out a small town experience and encourage other tourists to do the same. This is the most Thai of all the kingdom’s festivals and should be celebrated with the Thai people.