Songkran, the world famous water festival that takes place over Thai new year. With nothing but envy I’ve read countless blogs posts on the festival and how much fun the worlds biggest water fight is. Hammering passers by with a stream of fresh water from a super soaker resembling something built by Tony Stark becomes fare game for a single four day period a year. It sure beats NYE in sunny old England where you pay £10 to gain entry to the same dive of a bar you drink in every week, where you then you proceed to slurp down your usual print of watered down hops but now at a creatively inflated rate, whilst your mate slurs in your ear that this year is going to be their year despite zero intention to change anything about the way they live their life, and all to a wonderfully melodic backdrop of old lang syne. Sigh* I despise new year at home.
Ahem, sorry about that. Moving on …
What is Songkran?
The word Songkran derives from Sankrit, meaning ‘passing’, ‘moving’, ‘to change’ or ‘stepping forward’. It depends on who you talk to, but they basically all mean the same thing so you get the idea. Usually associated with Thailand, Songkran is actually celebrated in quite a few countries around South East Asia. In Laos specifically you will sometimes hear it called Pi Mai Lao and if you ask me the Laos new year celebrations are actually very well timed because April is the hottest month of the year in Laos and its so so hot that the soakings are more than welcomed by most.
Why is Songkran held in April? Well, its all to do with astronomy and the Zodiac, things I know little about unfortunately. Songkran never used to be fixed dates like it is now though, once upon a time it was calculated using astrological calculations by people a lot smarter than I. Now though the dates are set in stone, although its well known for the celebrations to start before the 13th and carry on way past the 16th. I can easily understand why.
April 13th to the 16th
Depending on who you speak to or what resources you read from the details of the 4 days of Songkran can overlap or get switched. Whilst probably not 100% correct, here’s a basic guide on what happens each day.
13th – Wan Sungkharn Long, the last day of the old year. On this day buddists will visit their local temple and provide food for the monks. They will also sprayeach temples images of Buddha with scented water, the images having been temporarily moved from their usual resting places to allow easier access for locals. The water they gently spray over the Buddha images is then collected and taken home to pour over other family members. This provides good luck to those who receive the water.
14th – Wan Nao or the ‘day of no day’, a day that falls in between the old year and new year. On this day it is common for many people to visit their local temple (again) and build sizable stupas from sand (looks a bit like a padoga) before offering the mounds to the monks. The mounds are said to symbolise the mountain, Phoukao Kailat, where King Kabinlaphom’s head was kept by his seven daughters. Some people also choose to build their stupas on the banks/beaches of the Mekong as the tide is very low during April. Wherever built, most of the stupas will be decorated with flags and flowers, and are said to hold wishes of the individual builders for the new year and to stop evil spirits from passing into the new year.
At home the people of Laos will have a good clean, this includes the youngsters of each family who will not be allowed to rest on this day of no day. It is believed that if a young person is to snooze or even stay still they will get sick in the new year.
15th – Wan Payawan, the start of the new year. Images of Buddha are moved back to their usual resting places within the temples. A wise move as this is traditionally when the water fights start. At homes around the country cermemonies known as Baci take place. These ceremonies are said to allow Kwan (spirits within the body) to follow the body into the new year as transition from one year to another comes with the risk of Kwan leaving.
16th – Wan Park Bpe, a day to respect your elders.
The Values of Songkran
As you’ve probably guessed from the above, new year/Songkran/Pi Mai is not just about getting wet. Is a religious celebration and holiday for more reasons than simply have a good time in the sun. There are values behind the ringing wet madness.
- Family – The appreciation of your family is big in Laos. Many people will take time off work over Pi Mai to travel home and be with their families during the celebrations. Children are taught to respect their elders and apologise for any wrong doings they undertook in the past year and in the ‘worse’ cases ask for forgiveness.
- Society – Songrkran is for all people and the festival is a way of bring not only family, but friends and neighbours together. It is a festival the community can celebrate together and enhance goodwill and unity amongst themselves.
- Religion – Attendance at your local temple and paying your respects to Buddha and the local monks is very important during Pi Mai.
But seriously, what is with all the water?
So, as much fun as it is drenching that random backpacker across the road with a hose, whats the point? I mean why? Yes its a jolly good time, but what does the water symbolise?
Well, the outright theme of Songkran is purification and whats more pure than water right? The use of water is symbolic of cleansing and back in the day, once upon a time said cleansing involved the mere sprinkling of water over the hands. This act would wash away bad luck and cleanse spirit, body and mind. Well obviously things have moved on since then and a sprinkling is now a rare occurrence, a good old soaking from head to toe is now the standard, but whilst most people are fair game for a small tidal wave over the head, the elderly and monks are treated with a little more respect than say a tourist. A tourist will get the full bucket of water over their head, the elder or monk wont get quite as wet.
Whats with all the white powder?
I’m yet to work that one out myself. I assume its again to do with cleansing.
Luang Prabang was probably my favourite place in Laos. Despite being more than pleasantly surprised by Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang as described by so many other travels bloggers just has an ora around it. It might sound trendy to say so because everyone else raves about the place, but honestly I’m not just saying this to try fit in with the cool gang, it is genuinely a beautiful place to visit.
My girlfriend and I arrived in Lunag Prabang after a long and bumpy mini bus ride from Vang Vieng. Dropped at a bus station just outside of town we had to arrange a tuk tuk into town but were luckily able to share the cost with a few others. We figured that our hotel couldn’t be far from the town centre and tried to guess where our tuk tuk might drop us off in town. We studied our wee paper map in the back of the tuk tuk, it was already in tatters but soon turned to mush when what felt like a tidal wave of water came crashing through one side of our ride. A stunned silence spread throughout our tuk tuk. No one said anything, but everyone eyes screamed the same thing, namely – ‘WHAT THE F*CK WAS THAT?’. Clothes soaked through, hair a dripping mess, and disappearing into the distance a sea of smiling faces with empty buckets in one hand and using the other to either wave at us or high 5 amongst themselves, we had just had our first taste of Songkran. Turns out the people of Laos quite like a big old water fight.
Whilst I had the most incredible amount of fun over the next 4 days, sitting in bars, beer in one hand and super soaker in the other soaking anyone, whether or on foot or in car, that dared cross my path, there was also plenty else going on in celebration of the new year apart of water fights. There was the ‘Miss Lao New Year’ contest. There were markets, parades and a general carnival atmosphere throughout the town. The Parade centres around Luang Prabangs most celebrated Buddha image (a statue) which is carried down the main street from the former Royal Palace to Vat Mai.
Although not my own new year as such, this was by far the most exciting, fun, creative and livest new years celebration I’ve ever been a part of. I just wish I could take it home … but a water fight in December back in England might just make a few people sick. Shame.
Skip to about 1.30 of my vid below to see just a snippet of the action … or if you have 3.58 minutes in your day to spare, maybe watch the whole thing and make a me smile like this :)