Three days of happiness and joy were spread all over Thailand in April when the country ushered in the Buddhist New Year.
Yes, the annual Songkran Festival was in full swing and the capital, Bangkok, the venue of the biggest event, was festooned with colourful displays, making it one big fairground.
There were parades with volunteers dressed in red, and eye-catching floats that added colour to the event.
Hundreds of thousands of Thai men and women daubed in powder and armed with huge smiles and space-age water pistols invaded the streets for a free-for-all water battle.
Their main point of action was the five-kilometre Patpong Street, the capital’s entertainment district, where the wildest crowds set the city agog.
Though called the street of ill repute because it is one of the several Red Light areas, many Thais claim that kind of business took a back seat in Patpong during Songkran as many call girls had gone home to be with their families.
With so many foreigners milling around during the festivities, one doubts those claims.
Bowl of water
Veteran Boonrith said that pouring water during Songkran starts with a bowl of water tipped over the members of the family, close friends and neighbours. But as the festivities become more vibrant, the bowl turns into a bucket.
Battling Bangkokians sprayed liberal quantities of water on whoever they came across — locals or foreigners. The spraying of water symbolises the washing away of misfortunes of the past year, cleansing and rejuvenating their bodies.
This was one occasion where no one took offence if water was splashed on them. After all, it was just fun to add excitement during the longest holiday in Thailand in the hottest month of the year. A soaking is a respite from the scorching heat as the mercury rises to around 40° Celsius.
Though Songkran festivities lasted three days only, during which Bangkok’s offices, banks and even family-run shops shut down, the city’s street parties lasted nearly a week.
Interestingly, every year, there is a mass exodus when many Bangkokians leave the capital to celebrate Songkran with their families in the towns and villages.
This did not dampen the spirits of the other residents as foreign tourists jetted in to enjoy one of the most colourful and festive times of the year alongside locally-based foreigners.
Songkran is celebrated with equal passion throughout the cities, towns and villages across the country, including the sea-side cities of Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Phuket.
Though the whole of the south-east Asian region marks the Buddhist New Year, festivities in Thailand are billed among the top.
The Festival of Songkran originated from Myanmar (Burma). Today, it is celebrated not only in Thailand but also in Singapore, Vietnam and Laos.
Behind all these showers of water, pomp and pageantry Songkran has a solemn message. It is a period of deep reflection, prayers and generosity.Buddhists prayed, gave alms to saffron-clad monks and connected with their religious traditions.
Youngsters took to the streets, enjoying what was billed as the “world’s biggest water fight”, dripping and enjoying a battle with fun-loving people.
Elders joined in also, but they were soon drawn into the rituals performed at home. Many relatives come visiting for family re-unions. All the devotees head for the temples and the annual house cleaning has to be carried out.
Bangkok has more than 400 temples or wat, as Thais call them, but among the most majestic and popular ones are Arun, Phra Kaew, Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Saket and Traimit.
Cacophony of noises
Traditionally, Thai Buddhists perform the Rod Nam Dum Hua ritual on the first day of Songkran, which is the National Elders Day.
On this day, younger members of the family pour fragrant water into the palms of the elders as a gesture of humility. The next day of the festival is spent with families and members wake up at dawn to give alms to monks.
This year, lanterns adorned trees in family compounds and there was a cacophony of noises from the householders, invited neighbours and guests. They anointed Buddha images with nam op — a blend of sandalwood, citrus and jasmine.
The lady of the house led the ceremony as those in the gathering chanted prayers or went into solemn reflection. The bathing of the Buddha ritual forms the core part of the rituals, where devotees pour fragrant water over the statues of Buddha both at temples and in their homes.
Then it was celebration time.
Cold drinks were handed out to everyone and you could take in the scents of roasted chicken.
Like every year, the New Year was also the perfect time for Thais to enjoy their specially-cooked meals of pad Thai, som tam (papaya salad), geng kheaw wan (green curry) and mango sticky rice.
The affluent ones enjoyed a sumptuous feast of dishes such as spicy grilled pork salad, hot-peppered sautéed squid and fish cakes.
Boonrith says that he, like thousands of other Thais, cannot wait for next year’s Songkran Festival.
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