Samui Wining & Dining
SPLASHING OUT AT SONGKRAN
Why the Thai New Year is just that bit different on Samui!

Why the Thai New Year is just that bit different on Samui!It’s a funny old world. Just think about it for a moment. I mean, in December, half of the planet goes on a gigantic shopping binge, and 10% of them turn into jolly old men with long white beards chanting “Ho ho ho!”. And then, a couple of months later, another huge chunk of the world dresses in red and gold, bangs gongs and drums, and pretends to be dragons or lions in elaborate street processions. Or ‘Songkran’, when an entire nation wakes up in the morning, then dashes onto the streets. More than 50 million of them, with buckets and hosepipes, and spends the whole day splashing, soaking and drenching every living creature in sight.

          

Joking apart, Songkran is probably the highlight of the entire Thai year. It’s the celebration of Buddhist New Year, not just here but in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, too. But very few things in Thailand are straightforward. The word ‘songkran’ stems from the Sanskrit word meaning the passage of the sun from one sign of the zodiac to the next – thus there are in fact 12 ‘songkrans’ every year. But the only one that is significant is the major one, the ‘Maha Songkran’, which falls on the longest day, on the occasion of the Vernal Equinox. And, as well as Thailand, such nations as India, China and the widespread pagan roots of early Christianity, all share the symbolism of this day.

          

It might be charmingly mystical, but there’s one very basic drawback of gearing all your events to the lunar calendar. Every major festival, when it comes around the next time, happens on a different date. And so, in 1888, Thailand fixed the date and moved to April 1st every year. This was somewhat unfortunate. The Western world had already gone down this route some 300 years before, with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Indeed, the first day of April was already long-established as ‘All Fools Day’, a time of mockery and practical jokes, Page-18-2originating in France, in order to scorn those who didn’t accept the Gregorian calendar. Thus, in 1940, Thailand, similarly, changed its official New Year to January 1st.

          

Which, you may think, sorted things out very neatly. But not quite. And this remains a constant source of confusion for newcomers to Thailand, and in particular, Koh Samui. Because, you see, the origins and significance of the longest day all stem from societies that depended upon crops and harvests. Most of the world was like this until the Industrial Revolution. But a huge area of Thailand – the Northern and North-East regions – still are. As such, they still have reason to celebrate the fact that the hottest time of the year has passed. And the core of this celebration is the symbolism of patting friends and relatives on the face with cool, life-giving water. Well, it used to be!

          

However, the climate in Thailand is totally different in the Southern region. ‘Monsoon’ means wind. And Thailand gets two of them, in different areas and at different times. Thus the rainy season in Phuket and the Andaman Region is from June to October. But Samui is in the Gulf of Thailand, way over to the East. We get our rain between November and January. This means that while the farmers in the north get their hottest days in April, ours are usually two or three months later. And, even though everyone celebrates Songkran at the same time, Samui’s Songkrans tend to be cooler, and have even been rainy from time to time.

          

As mentioned, the origins of this festival lie in a gentle show of thanksgiving. But, somewhere back in the early 90s, things began to change. This was the era in which more and more ‘farangs’ (foreigners) were coming to Thailand for extended periods, particularly younger ones on a long break, travelling on gap years before university. They just loved throwing water about. And within a few years,Page-18-3 the customary greeting of gentle dabs of water to the face had been replaced by a drenching, and the traditional silver bowl of water became buckets, hosepipes and water guns. The Thai’s are a fun-loving race, and their young people were quick to follow. With the result that, today, this respectful occasion has turned into the world’s biggest water fight, with some tourist areas, such and Chiang Mai and Pattaya, stretching out the water-torture into as much as five full days.

          

Well, this is what it looks like on the surface. And yes, just about every one of Samui’s Thai residents will be out on the streets on April 13th, bucket in hand, during some part of the day, at least. But what you won’t see is what they’ll also be doing. Traditionally this is a seven-day observance. But more or less everywhere now this has been cut down to five. The first day does indeed focus on ‘The Cleansing’ (Wan Sangkhan Lohng), but it’s more about a thorough spring-cleaning, with the sacred statues in the temples being cleaned and washed, too.

          

And then, over the next four days, the men and womenfolk prepare traditional offerings that are taken to the local temple. They also make merit by releasing captive birds and fish. And then everyone makes 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. Many people still regard this as the first real day of the new year (15th April) and make a special effort to set the pattern for the rest of the year by filling it with good deeds. And then there’s a special ceremony on the fifth and last day, to bestow respect upon the elderly.

          

So get out and join in the frolics! But keep your phone, camera and money safe in a plastic bag, along with a dry pair of shorts and a T-shirt – be prepared! It only happens once a year. So enjoy yourself, but keep it in mind that all this fun has a serious side, too! t

          

 Rob De Wet


 


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