Ask tourists planning to visit Asia whether they are familiar with ‘water festivals’ and 9 out of ten will spontaneously refer to Thailand, while half of them probably adding a name to it, “Songkran”.
But is it? Is Songkran (or Songgran) a water festival?
Actually, not quite and not only. Songkran really ís a festivity, that’s for sure. It is the name for Thailand’s New Year (and Lao’s popular name for that matter); and, indeed water plays a role in it, though it’s a tiny part of it. What grabs the attention of many a tourist is a blown up spectacle which has at its core a generous, if not superfluous, splashing of water for fun that is part of Thailand’s New Year celebration. However, Songkran’s origins go back as far as pre-Buddhist times and stemming from the Dtai people, whose descendants still live in Northern Vietnam as the Tai Dam (aka Black Tai) ethnic minority.
Whatever the case, forms of Songkran are found in various countries neighbouring Thailand, coinciding with the advent of the New Year. In Myanmar it is called Thingyan; in Cambodia Chaul Chnam Thmey and in Lao, Phi Mai. All happen during the same period. Some water splattering form part of it as well.
The water festivals of Southeast Asia are the stuff of legend, especially the Songkran celebrations of Thailand, which attract millions of revellers all over the country to join in on the mass water fights that take place from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and all the way down to Phuket. The celebrations of course have much more to them than this though with the mass water fights owing much to the sacred water blessing rituals such as the ‘rod nam dum hua’ ritual, which is when the younger generations pour scented water over the hands of their elders in a bid to gain their blessings.
The Songkran festival is very much the same in Laos only with more ceremonious events happening over the first few days between families and at temples before the water fights begin on the streets. Vientiane is a good place to experience the festivities or the islands in the south of Laos if you fancy something a little more laid-back. Cambodia’s celebrations are almost identical to Songkran save for the name which is ‘Chaul Chnam Thmey’.
In these celebrations are called ‘Thingyan’ and follows much the same formula as Songkran. In Myanmar, the festival lasts between three to five days and the water fights are more of a progression soaking, such as when the people stand on bamboo stages along the streets and soak those that pass beneath.