Sawatdee pi mai – the Thai phrase for Happy new year was heard on the streets of Thailand all throughout last week. Some even said it in English to me, right before dousing me with a bucketful of ice-cold water.
I was excited to experience Songkran for the first time. However, my excitement was tamed down a little bit by my memories of Loy Krathong, about which I had great expectations, but they fell short. I didn’t want to get disappointed like that again, so I put myself into the “let’s wait and see” position.
Luckily the Loy Krathong fiasko didn’t repeat, and my first Songkran was truly memorable and joyful. I got to experience it in four different ways – not bad for a Songkran noob. 🙂
1. The traditional way
My very first exposure to Songkran was completely unplanned, spontaneous – but don’t we all know that these can be the best sometimes? 😉
As usual, I was skating in the little maze of sois near my apartment on Saturday, when I run into a small but very noisy procession consisting of dancers and musicians in traditional Thai dresses, and some older folks singing and dancing with them. A bottle of whiskey also went around in the crowd, increasing the festive mood.
One of these mid-aged women came to me, holding a bowl of water in one hand, and some paste in the other. She came slowly, smiling, and upon my nod, she gently touched my face with the paste and poured the cold water slowly on my shoulders. What a nice way to get “initiated” into Songkran, no? 🙂
Afterwards she went back to the crowd, and I decided to follow them, out of curiosity. I also had more time to observe the crowd. A group of young school-age boys were dressed in blue clothes with golden ornaments, carried drums and other instruments and played music. A group of girls lead the procession; they wore traditional Thai dresses of red and gold, and danced. In the back were the older folks of whom I already wrote.
At last the group halted near a mid-sized sala (meeting hall). I was watching from the outside as they got seated, obviously waiting for a performance. The older folks were making merit at a nearby shrine laden with various fruits, meat and drinks, as well as with the standard candles and joss sticks. Some invited me to join them. After a brief hesitation, I did. After making merit, we headed towards the sala to join the group of students and spectators.
I was seated between a woman and a man, who were luckily not intimidated by the presence of the tall Farang. We soon started chatting, with my limited Thai and their limited English. Some German got mixed in too, as the woman has a German husband. The guy next to me, “Num”, was a karaoke shop owner, who planned to open one near my apartment right after the holidays.
Our chat was cut off when the performance was announced. Some more classical dance and music from the same school. Afterwards we waited for about half an hour… for what? Well, behind the stage there were nine seats that needed to be filled. So we waited for the monks to arrive. Seven were older monks, with one very old one leading. The other two must have been just initiated to monkhood, as they were quite young.
The monks got seated, with the oldest one in the leftmost seat, and then down in rank (I guess). He passed down a long, thin white thread that was layed down on the each monk’s hands, as to signify the spiritual connection. Then they started chanting, and the audience, including me, prayed.
They must have chanted for about an hour or so. They all did it from memory, no reading at all. It was quite impressive. There is something about Pali chanting that calms the mind.. the words flow into each other in harmony. I don’t know, difficult to describe, you should listen to it yourself when you have the opportunity.
The younger monks were mostly silent though. It was the strong, dry voice of the oldest monk that lead the chants, with the others following. The children in the audience were praying initially, but quickly lost interest and started playing.
After the chants were over, the monks rolled the white thread back, and the names of the merit contributors were read aloud. I was told that lunch followed, so I got up and skated away before they got to my name. I didn’t want to them to think that the Farang only joined for the free food, lol.
So, that was the first of the four ways I experienced Songkran. Look for more in the upcoming blogs – intense waterfigths are coming! 🙂