Northern Songkran Traditions

Catching up with life…

Happy New Year! 🙂 It’s nice to be back after such a long absence. Work is going as usual, but I’ve been quite busy lately with a number of exciting projects. Cherry and I are making our own website which also includes a personal blog that we update regularly. Add an overseas trip sometime in June, and you see why our hands are full!

Oh, I think I didn’t talk about Cherry here yet. Well, she’s a PhD student at CMU; she’s kind, smart, fluent in English and she’s also the girlfriend of this lucky guy SiamJai here. 😉 You can find out more about our lives in our personal blog, Life Wonders. I will still keep writing about Thailand here, but personal life articles go over there.

So now back to the main topic of this post; Lanna-style Songkran.

If you think of a Chiang Mai Songkran, the likely picture in your mind is about throngs of drenched people standing at the canal, merrily swinging buckets full of chilled klong water, soaking each other and the nearby cars stuck in traffic jam. I know – I did just that. 😉


However, it wasn’t always this way. The now-popular waterfight overshadows the more intricate patterns of Songkran customs, dating back to the times this land was called Lanna. Today I want to tell you about some of the traditional ways we’re celebrating Songkran in the North.

The Northern Songkran festival was originally spread over four days, with each day having a different theme:

1. วันสังขารล่อง (Wan Sangkhan Lohng, Apr. 13): the cleansing
sandcastle Let’s start the new year fresh and clean! Northern Thais take this literally, and so they spend this day cleaning their houses and taking sacred Buddha images from temples for ritual cleansing ceremonies. They wash the statues gently with lustral water scented with fresh petals of the jasmine flower. The statues are then displayed in a colorful parade of monks, floats and bands. These parades are a great spectacle, and an excellent opportunity to listen to authentic Lanna music.

2. วันเนา (Wan Nao, Apr. 14): the preparation
If you were to see this day in the times of Lanna as an outsider, you’d be disappointed. Nothing special from the visitor point of view. Locals stay inside, busy preparing everything for the big day – tomorrow. Women and girls cook and preserve food for the next day’s offerings, while men and boys are out there collecting sand from the Mae Ping for building sandcastles. (Nowadays, offerings are bought at supermarkets, and sand is arranged by the temples themselves, and hauled by large trucks to the scene). People make sure that at the end of the day everything is ready for the highlight of the celebrations…

3. วันพญาวัน (Wan Payawan, Apr. 15): the offering
offering This is it; the big day. Everyone wakes up early in the morning, taking the previously cooked and preserved food and fresh fruits for a mass merit-making at the temples. Besides offering food and everyday supplies, people also make merit by releasing captive birds and fish.

Although the calendar says otherwise, popularly Wan Payawan was regarded as the beginning of the new year, and thus much emphasis was placed on proper conduct and good deeds for this day. You see, people believed (and some still do today), that whatever they do in the beginning of the new year will affect the rest of the year. Thus they take particular care and they refrain from bad speech, bad thoughts and actions, as well as abstain from sex. These rules are similar to those of the Vegetarian Festival, and for similar reasons.

Once the offerings were done, people started sprinkling water at each other. This is not to be mistaken with the respectful sprinkling of the elderly – it was a bit more playful and relaxed. Yet, it was still much more reserved than today’s all-out waterfights. People carried silver bowls filled with water, dipped their hands into it, and sprayed water gently over each other by shaking water from their fingers.

4. วันปากปี (Wan Paak Bpee, Apr. 16): the respect
respecting the elders Perhaps the most known aspect of Songkran traditions is performed on this day; the formal respect of the elderly by sprinkling lustral water on them. But in the days of Lanna, there was more to that.

The day began with remembering the ancestors in the morning – perhaps a Chinese influence. Then the younger people gathered around the family elders. (Remember, in those days Thais lived in extended families, many generations under one roof). They approached the elders with bowls of scented water, which they poured on their hands (not over the shoulders as popularly assumed), while saying words of respect. The excess water flew into a red bowl that was placed underneath the elders’ hands. At this time, traditional mor-ham shirts and other items were also presented to the elderly.

After the participants asked for the elders’ forgiveness for any disrespectful behavior in the past, the elders dipped their hands into the lustral water and wet their own heads, while blessing the participants. Finally, they all went to the temple together to perform สืบชะตา, a ceremony to prolong life.

(Thanks to and for some of the information used in this blog. All the pictures are from personal collection.)

Until next time,


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