Forget January the first, and forget Chinese New Year. This year we think it’s time more people embraced an Indochinese tradition, and began celebrating Songkran; the Thai new year.
First things first, let’s address the elephant in the room; the date. It’s hard to miss the fact that the traditional Thai new year’s celebration falls over four months after the rest of the world (and modern Thailand) has celebrated new year.
The reason for this stretches back hundreds of years.
You see, back in the 16th century new years was celebrated in most cultures at around the date of April the first. However, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII decided that the world needed a new calendar, one that celebrated new years on the first of January.
However, in the Indochinese region the traditional celebration for completing an orbit around the sun was maintained until the 19th century. This is why the traditional Thai new year falls so far apart from the one that is celebrated nowadays.
Oh, and think it’s 2016? Well, according to the Thai Buddhist calendar we’re actually in the year 2559, so eat your heart out Marty McFly!
The word Songkran comes from Sanskrit, meaning the passage of the sun from one zodiac sign to another. So, while there are twelve songkrans in a year, this is the most significant – signalling the movement of the sun into the sign of Aries. The date of the celebration is also closely aligned to the vernal (spring) equinox. Songkran is also celebrated in the nearby Indochinese countries of Cambodia, Lao and Myanmar.
Although Songkran originally fell on astrological dates, it has now been fixed on April 16th (although celebrations often extend all week long!) The themes of Songkran are very similar to Easter celebrations – it’s about new life, rebirth and the welcoming of a new phase of the year.
Songkran falls on the hottest month of the year in Thailand so one of the key features of the celebrations? A water fight! If you find yourself in Thailand over the 13-16th of April; be sure to protect your things with waterproof covers. It’s not uncommon to have strangers on the street playfully splash you with water, shoot you with water pistols or even a garden hose!
The significance of splashing each-other with water is as a symbol of a wish for a year full of luck, happiness and blessings. Songkran is a time of spiritual and physical cleansing and the origins of this custom are in the cleaning of statues of Buddha. By then washing individuals in this ‘blessed’ water it was seen as a sign of good fortune.
Not to mention, in the sweltering heat of Thai summers it can be a welcome relief to feel the splash of cool water on your skin. If you engage in any Songkran water fights just be sure to play by the rules! Water should be temperate or cool and splashing anyone in the eyes is very unwelcome.
Oh, and if you do decide to incorporate a visit to a Banana Tree as part of your Thai new year celebrations – no water fights in the restaurant!
People aren’t the only ones that get to have fun during Songkran… you might get sprayed by a cheeky elephant too.
The elephant is an important animal within Thai culture. They’ve long been revered and the highest honour you can achieve is to be awarded the Order of the White Elephant. So it makes sense that these gentle giants get to join in the celebrations as well.
Elephants are painted in bright colours and are given large barrels of water to suck from…
Songkran isn’t all fun and games – it is also a time for families to come together and for communities to show their respect and regard for each-other.
Rot Nam Dam Hua is the practice of sprinkling water over the hands of elders. This is far removed from the jubilant water fights occurring in the streets, however. A genuine sign of respect and affection, this is often practiced by young individuals returning home to spend Songkran with their family. Respect is also paid to ancestors and many families will visit temples and gives alms to monks during the period.
A time of renewal, during Songkran people get rid of all of the possessions that brought them bad luck in the past year and take the time to make new year’s resolutions and look forward to year ahead.
The Northern city of Chiang Mai is famous for its Songkran celebrations – not least because they go on a full two days longer than in the rest of the country. We approve.
Chiang Mai old city is surrounded by four miles of square moat, which makes it the perfect refuelling station. Families lower buckets on strings into the moat to chuck at passers-by and tuk-tuks and pick-up trucks collect gallons of water to keep the celebration going.
But if you’re in the UK…
OK. So you may not be in Thailand in the heat of the summer and you might not fancy a water fight with your friends when the temperature in England is 10 degrees and it’s probably raining anyway. But if you want to celebrate Songkran, enjoying some fine Indochinese cuisine at your nearest Banana Tree restaurant is a great way of nodding your head to cultural traditions. And of course, getting your fill of delicious Thai food!
You might not be enjoying the 35-degree heat or being sprayed in the face by an elephant, but at Banana Tree we keep the Indochinese celebratory spirit going all year round!
So, this year, why not surprise your friends and celebrate Songkran? As if you needed another excuse to make a date, plan a party and book a table at your nearest restaurant.