CHIANG RAI – Having fun is a big part of Thai culture, and having fun a midst scorching heat is no exception. The hottest month of the year, April sees the entire country go bananas in friendly water fights and street parties that last nearly a week.
During Songkran, most office buildings, banks as well as family-run shops and restaurants shut down completely, while big shopping malls usually remain open. Bangkok experiences a mass exodus, as at least half of its residents travel back to their home towns for family re-unions.
In their place are tourists, who fly into Bangkok particularly to enjoy one of the most colorful and festive times of the year.
Songkran is the occasion for family re-unions, temple visits and annual house cleaning. Many Thais observe the holidays by spending time with families and friends. Traditionally, Thais perform the Rod Nam Dum Hua ritual on the first day of Songkran, which is officially the National Elderly Day. During the ritual, young people would pour fragrant water into the elders’ palms as a gesture of humility and to ask for their blessings.
The second day of Songkran is officially the National Family Day. Families would wake up early and give alms to the monks, then ideally the rest of the day would be spent sharing quality family time together. An important religious ritual on Songkran is ‘Bathing the Buddha image’, in which devout Buddhists pour fragrant water over Buddha statues both at the temple and at home. More religious Thais would engage themselves in Buddhist ceremonies and merit-making activities throughout the holidays.
Contradictory to what you may have witnessed throughout Songkran, fun-loving Thais don’t just throw water at each other for no good reason (besides having a kick out of seeing other people soaking wet). The real meaning behind the splashes is to symbolically wash off all misfortunes in the past year, thus welcoming the new year with a fresh new start.
Traditionally, Thais would politely pour a bowl of water on members of the family, their close friends and neighbors.
As Songkran has taken a more festive note, a bowl becomes a bucket, garden hose and water guns, and the spirit of holiday merriment is shared amongst all town residents and tourists alike.
Before Thailand adopted the international New Year’s Day in 1940, Songkran was calculated based on the solar calendar, which varied from one year to the next. Now Songkran in Bangkok is from 13 to 15 April of every year. Depending on where you are in the country, the dates and period of festivities may vary.
- Do give alms and make merit (or just witness the rituals if you are not a Buddhist)
- Do use waterproof bags to protect your valuables
- Do watch your belongings
- Do use public transportation if you are heading to one of Songkran ‘hotspots’, as traffic will be paralysed
- Do try wishing the locals a happy new year in Thai – “Sawasdee Pee Mai!”
- Do smile and have fun
- Do not douse monks, babies or the elderly
- Do not drive when you have been drinking
- Do not throw water with ice or dirty water
- Do not throw water at motorcyclists, to prevent road accidents
The Pollution Control Department (PCD) has named 11 rivers which are unfit for the water-splashing activities for Songkran revelers due to their high concentrations of Coliform bacteria.
The 11 rivers reportedly contain an excess of 4,000 units of fecal coliform, which is an indicator of water quality from natural sources. Fecal coliform bacteria are the most common microbiological contaminants of natural waters. They in the digestive tracks of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and are excreted in the feces. Some of these bacteria can cause illnesses such as ear infections, typhoid, hepatitis A, and cholera.
The rivers with alarming levels of Coliform bacteria include the Yom River in Muang district of Sukhothai province, Kwan Phayao in Muang district of Phayao province, the Chao Phraya River in Muang District of Nakhon Sawan province, the Loei River in Muang district of Loei province, Lampao River in Muang and Kamalasai districts of Kalasin province, and the Chumphon River in Muang district of Chumphon province
The water in the city moat in Chiang Mai meanwhile is of moderate quality. Experts said that the water was usable for the water-splashing activities but suggested revelers avoid its direct contact with skin wounds. Merrymakers who use water from natural sources are advised to test the water quality by observing its color and smell and their skin’s reaction to it.
Experts also suggested that revelers wash their bodies immediately after finishing the Songkran water-splashing activity.
According to the Bureau of Epidemiology of Thailand, Food poisoning and diarrhea are the most common diseases during Songkran.
Dr.Sopon Mekthon, Director-General of the Department of Disease Control, these illnesses are common during this period due to a very hot weather which makes food spoiled easily. Moreover, an influx of people going back home to the provinces often stored food overnight and ate it the next day after it was rotten.
The Director-General warns 10 most risky dishes are those containing uncooked ingredients which include minced meat with vegetables and chilli (in Thai – Larb Koi Dib), raw shrimp spicy salad, spicy salad with cockles, fried rice with crab meat, dessert containing coconut milk, fermented rice flour noodles with curry (in Thai –Khanom Jeen), rice steamed with chicken soup, papaya salad, vegetable salad and ice produced not up to standard.
To prevent the diseases, the Department suggests to not cook the food with half-done boiling method, especially pork, chicken and eggs, not leave the food after cooking for more than four hours and also to heat the leftovers before consumption.