In Search of Traditional Songkran in Chiang Mai

This first morning of the Thai New Year I went downtown to see whether I could find some activities in the temples, some traditions and rituals of songkran in Chiang Mai. The weather continues to be great, but unfortunately the amount of Covid cases is high. So, I wasn’t quite looking for a water – fight.

When it comes to the water-splashing event, we have been at either closed, private parties or sometimes joining the war down at the moat in Chiang Mai. But since the water – splashing festival is banned this year I was confident that I could enjoy strolling downtown without any water attack.

Getting ready for battle 6 years ago.
Rise to the occasion with strongly – coloured floral shirts. Woodstock style or traditional Lanna clothing, only two choices.

My first Songkran in Hua Hin 1999

My first experiences with Songkran was in 1999, jumping random pick up trucks assisting anyone I could in their battle. The first soak happened when I was walking from a pub in Hua Hin. Strolling around trying to find a tuk-tuk to Sailom hotel where I stayed. With my tour company, we usually stayed at this hotel a short taxi ride from the temple and clocktower in Hua Hin. The same night that we had our traditional farewell dinner by the sea, the unforgettable baked rocket lobster with cheese, I had continued to downtown to meet with some other tour guide friends. However, it was time to go home and I remember thinking about why they were already having water fights at some pubs. In my head, New Year and midnight were still hours away. I didn’t realise how wrong I was.

I walked through the steaming tropical night in my tailormade suit when suddenly two rather tall and mannish ladies armed with huge buckets of water stared me down and smiled with a broad grin. Then looking back at them, raising my finger as to make some point and said – No, No, not yet! New year starts tomorrow. One more lady about the same size then came running pointing to the watch she was wearing and exclaimed:

Soooo sorry darling!! Today is already tomorrow.

And then simultaneously three buckets of water emptied over my head.

The next morning I was more ready. Walking through Central Hua Hin, in sloppy sports shorts, water gun in my hand and the typical colorful Hawaii-type shirt worn on songkran. I was looking for action. But before I found any waterfights, damage hit from above. A mega splash on my head, then I looked up rather infuriated. My anger turned into a smile when I saw this tiny, skinny, grey – haired, Chinese looking lady who by all means would be considered very old in Thailand. She stood on a small iron balcony on the second floor of a shophouse.

She was smiling back at me.

Sorry, Never attack farang before she bursted out. You are the first on my list now..

I was glad then that I was her first farang target.

Songkran in Chiang Mai – water fights

A lot of focus amongst tourists and expats are on the water fight. No songkran in Chiang Mai without a water battle! Well, to be honest, the same goes for many Thais. But what was originally a very innocent water sprinkling and putting some white colour or chalk on someone’s face, in modern days it has turned out to an all out war. In recent years better restricted to certain areas, like the moat in Chiang Mai. But there will be kids outside their homes pretty much everywhere trying to splash you. If you go to a night club like Ta Chang in Chiang Mai you will be in a water fight and a sprinkler system will soak you wet from afternoon to midnight! There are many ways to do Songkran in Chiang Mai.

With the huge amounts of alcohol combined with water splashing and driving, it is not difficult to understand the peak Thailand sees of traffic accidents during songkran.

Anyhow, Songkran 2021 is from April 13-15th. No water splashing at the usual places at least. Only digital splashing encouraged!!! So below is my contribution:

More Traditional Songkran

However, there is a much more traditional aspect to Songkran as well.

The word “Songkran” comes from the Sanskrit word saṃkrānti, literally “astrological passage”, meaning transformation or change. It coincides with the rising of Aries on the astrological chart and with the New Year of many calendars of South and South East Asia, in keeping with the Buddhist calendar. The New Year takes place at virtually the same time as the new year celebrations of many countries in South Asia like China (Dai People of Yunnan Province), Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka.” Source Wikipedia.

During Songkran it is important to visit temples and sprinkle holy fragrant water over Buddhas. I went downtown today to see if I could find some more traditional rituals going on. At the astonishing Wat Ket Karam temple. I found some people paying respect to Buddha and a lady sprinkling water on a holy Buddha image. Not only Buddha images get sprinkled, elderly will as an act of respect also be sprinkled with perfumed water “rod nam dam hua“.

Attention is put to merit making at temples and cleaning the house. Travelling home to visit relatives and spending more time with family.

Paying tribute to Buddha Wat Ket Karam
Sprinkling holy perfumed water
Wat Ket Karam dating back to 1428 AD. Here with new year “Tungs .

On my walk, I also stopped at the old city gate of Thapae where there was a cultural event going on.

Tung, literally flags of great variation that you see during festivals in the North of Thailand. They could symbolise many things; like a greeting from a temple inviting you to join a festival, a greeting for Royals and for Songkran a tribute to people’s ancestors and after a Buddhist ceremony they will be stacked into sand and sand pagodas made within the temple area. Often they are decorated with animals.

Lanna flags by the moat and old city wall.

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