Thursday, March 19, 2009

Songkran

In Isaan and the rest of Thailand preparations are being made to celebrate the Songkran Festival. Songkran is celebrated from April 13 to April 15 each year - a lot more and much less.

The Holiday is officially three days but because this is Thailand it often is more like 7 days than three days. In fact some areas celebrate it on slightly different days. In Pattaya, Songkran is typically celebrated on the 18th and 19th of April.

This blog will deal with the celebration for the closing of Songkran last year in Tahsang Village on 20th of April.

Songkran is Thailand's New Year's, Easter, and Mardi Gras rolled up into one. Like Christmas the religious aspects of the holiday have been overwhelmed as well as somewhat subverted by secular interests along with overt commercialization.

Songkran originally marks the beginning of the solar New Year - the sun moving into the Aries zodiac. It is at this time, in the middle of Thailand's hot season which also coincides with the end of the dry season, that Thais and other Southeast Asian peoples traditionally travel to their homes to visit as well as to pay their respects to their elders. In Isaan, with its young people scattered and working all across the country, additional time is apparently required for the people to get back home by train, bus, or most likely in the bed of pickup trucks. This ends up being quite a migration. Unfortunately it results in mayhem as well as blood on the roads. During the Songkran holiday over 500 people are killed in highway accidents - the local newspapers keep a running score against the originally government forecasted death toll. The causes of the accidents are the same as those in the USA for New Years or Memorial Day - speed (literally and figuratively), fatigue, alcohol and stupidity. Additional Police roadblocks and checkpoints are set up during the week in attempts to reduce the number of accidents.

This year we will be celebrating Songkran here in Udonthani just as we did last year. It will be one year since I retired and relocated to Isaan. The spirit of renewal as well as change remains strong.





Last year we went out to Duang's home village, Tahsang, for a celebration on April 20th. It was the celebration for the end of Songkran. For almost a week prior to the 20th we ran the gamut of water throwers as we drove along the roads. Songkran is a water festival. Originally young people demonstrated their respect for older people or people of higher social status by gently pouring scented water over their hands with sometimes water being sprinkled on their necks or faces. This besides being a show of respect helped to cool the people from the heat that often ranges from 95 to 100 F during the middle of April. The use of water at this time is also associated with the need and wishes for the return of the rains at the start of the rainy season.

In urban areas subject to many foreign tourists, the sprinkling of water has evolved into all out water warfare. Pickup trucks roam or rather clog streets with 55 gallon drums of water in their bed. The barrels are manned by people of all ages with pots, pans, bowls, squirt guns, and scoops that they toss the water onto other vehicles, pedestrians and motorcyclists. Just about everyone is fair game for a "shower" - including police! It can be a great deal of fun. It can also be annoying - the difference is "who" and "how".

Often you will encounter a charming Thai child whose parents will ask your permission first. The child will overcome their initial fear of a foreigner give you a wai (respectful greeting gesture) and sprinkle your hands or squirt you in the stomach with a little water. Difficult to get upset about that. And then there are other occasions. Occasions where you are confronted by drunken Westerners who forcibly throw water directly in your face.

Sometimes the revelers will place perfumed talc on your face as part of the Songkran ritual. This also has some religious apects in that Monks use a paste made out of chalk to make incantations on the roofs of cars to protect them.

My favorite Songkran was in Maehongson two years ago. We were in a car driving along steep and narrow roads in Hill Tribe village areas. We would end up on lonely stretches of road before coming to a settlement of perhaps 5 to 10 houses. There would be a roadblock typically manned by 3 to 10 small children. As you stopped the car or if you were unfortunate motorbike, they would pour or toss some water on the car. They were getting such a kick out of it that it was entertaining for us. I kept wondering how long they had patiently waited for another vehicle - we didn't see too many others on the road. I also thought of how little these little rascals had available to them for entertainment. At other times of the year, we often saw them working in the fields.

Since Thai New Year, Songkran is the start of renewal and the marking of change, people go to the Wats and bathe the Buddha statues with water. This earns the people merit and also reinforces their desires for the return of the rains which are required for planting the crops.

Homes are also cleaned at the start of Songkran along with burning old clothes. Making merit is also associated with Songkran. Making merit involves getting dressed in your best clothes and marching to the local Wat to pray, listen to a lecture from the Monk, offer food and gifts to the Monks.


We arrived to Tahsang Village early in the morning. People were in a festive mood which only increased as the day went on from drinking beer and local moonshine. The woman were busy setting up and organizing their food trays for the Monks. The children were busy being children - some of them setting off firecrackers. Some of the men were occupied setting up a large farm truck to be a mobile sound system. Other men were busy collecting donations to place on chunks of banana stalks - I refer to them as the "Money Tree".




Banana plant stalks about four feet long are cut and long and slender pieces of bamboo slivers. People place paper money in the split bamboo slivers to create a money tree. Once the food, sound system, money trees, children, rockets, and after some drinks, the village set off in a grand parade to the Wat. Lao Loum (Isaan) music blared from the big sound truck as we all danced to the Wat. It was quite a sight to see and hear - but typical of so many celebrations here in Isaan.





Many of the Wat's statues had been placed outside underneath a temporary shelter at one of the Wat's ruins. People of all ages prayed and respectfully poured water over the statues. As part of their prayer offerings, they lighted a yellow candle and burned three incense (Joss) sticks.

The food offerings were brought inside the Wat and presented. After some chanting as well as a lecture by the Monk, the people went outside and the Monks retired to eat their meal.

Chairs had been placed outside on the Wat grounds by volunteers. The elderly members of the community sat down in a long row of the chairs. Younger people as well as some children came forward and reverently sprinkled water on the elderly hands. The elderly people then gave their blessings and best wishes to the young people. It was very touching and more in line with the original traditions of Songkran.


Women then went back into the Wat to retrieve any leftover food from what was donated to the Monks. Monks are not allowed to cook or to store food so whatever they do not take for their two meals, is given to the people or Wat dogs. We ended up with a big picnic on the Wat grounds.










After eating, some activity started off to the side. On the Wat grounds overlooking the flood plain, young men were building a wood trellis - which actually turned out to be a rocket launch pad. Underneath trees and underneath the patio of a building where the Monks slept, other men (older men but not very wise) were busy assembling and fueling the rockets.













The rockets that I had seen in our parade were now being fitted out. They were pieces of blue PVC cylinders strapped to long pieces of bamboo. The men were busy filling them with gunpowder. I surmise that they were calming their nerves by smoking cigarettes as they worked at tamping the gunpowder into the rocket tube. The Monk was busy watching over the action and apparently many Monks are the repository of technical information regarding rockets. There are competitions during the rainy season between Wats with each Wat having their own secret recipe for rocket fuel.






Everything went well and their were no mishaps. All rockets were launched successfully several times and all fingers, toes, and eyes were accounted for at the end of the day. Again the firing of the rockets had religious connotations in that they are offerings to make the rains reappear.



It was a very pleasant day. A day that we hopefuly will enjoy once again upon our return from Maehongson.

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