Songkran – The Water Festival

Written by admin on January 7th, 2014. Posted in Thailand Traditional Festivals

Throughout the kingdom, Thais, expatriate residents and foreign visitors joined Songkran (traditional Thai New Year) celebrations held nationwide from 13 to 15 April every year. Good-natured fun permeated the holiday season. Across the country, it was a time for religious ceremonies and merit-making; for laughter, entertainment and good times shared with family and friends; and, of course, for water splashing — lots of it.

While better known for its good-spirited water-splashing, meaningful aspects of this time-honoured tradition are still observed in their original form.

SongKarn‘Songkran’, a word of Sanskrit origin, translates as ‘move into’; Songkran marks the end of a 12-month cycle and the beginning of a new solar year. The underlying significance of Songkran is the process of cleansing and purification — the purging of all ills, misfortune and evil, and starting the New Year afresh with everything that is good and pure. Water is symbolic of the cleaning process and signifies purity.

Songkran is also a time for reunions when family ties are renewed. Family members and friends come together to celebrate Songkran. Religious ceremonies and folk rituals associated with Songkran are principally performed to bring good luck and prosperity.

The meaningful aspects of Songkran expressed through various ceremonies and rituals are varied and culturally rich. Songkran activities in various locations around the kingdom uniquely reflect local beliefs and practices. Each offers varying elements of interest.

Ceremonies performed on April 13, the first day of Songkran, mark the end of an era. To ‘send off’ the outgoing year, merit-making rituals are performed and offerings are made to Buddhist monks. Spring-cleaning and personal cleansing are also part of this ‘renewal’ process. Later in the day, Buddha images are bathed with scented lustral water as gestures of respect. Religious ceremonies include a procession of Buddha images through city streets, affording local residents the opportunity to participate in the bathing rites. An annual ‘Songkran Queen’ parade and floral floats form part of popular festivities staged to greet the traditional Thai New Year.

ParadeSongkran is also a time for thanksgiving. Individuals reflect upon the many acts of kindness and thoughtfulness each has personally experienced and reciprocate by expressing gratitude. Thanksgiving is demonstrated in ceremonial aspects such as Songkran’s bathing ritual when scented lustral water is poured over Buddha statues and the hands of elders and respected individuals.

The ritual that accompanies this show of respect is highly elaborate. Deep respect and reverence are shown to the highest institution of the Kingdom — the monarchy and members of the royal family — as well as learned individuals and elders recognised for their worldly experience and wisdom. This gesture of respect includes a colourful procession characterised by song, dance and festive fun. Younger folks show their respect and seek the blessings of elders and individuals of seniority by making offerings. The seeking of their blessing or forgiveness for past wrong-doing is also implied.

Acts of kindness and generosity towards others are reflected in the preparation, exchange and sharing of food and desserts by members of the community. Sprinkling water on each other is a gesture of hospitality as individuals attempt to cool each other off in the intense summer heat.



Community spirit is reflected in activities such as the spring-cleaning of temples, the presentation of merit-making offerings to monks, bathing rituals during which Buddha statues are bathed with scented lustral water or poured over the hands of monks, the construction of sand stupas and the decoration or beautification of temple environs. It is also believed that through acts of merit-making, loved ones, long-departed, are endowed with blessings and good fortune. Members of the family and community share in the fun, spreading happiness and goodwill to all.

RatchadamnernThe ceremonial and ritual aspects of Songkran concluded, friendly water-splashing ensues. After dark, celebrations feature various performances and forms of entertainment. The ‘ram wong’ circle dance, a traditional Thai folk dance, enables everyone to join in the fun.

Songkran embodies the essential caring and unity at the core of Thai society. These are the enduring qualities that make Thailand forever a warm and welcoming destination.

Loi Krathong – Festival of Lights

Written by admin on January 7th, 2014. Posted in Thailand Traditional Festivals

When the tide is high and rivers brim on the full moon in November, Thais pay tribute to water. The Loi Krathong festival sees most of the population head to canals, streams or rivers like the Ping or Chao Phraya to bless this element so central to their culture, and to seek forgiveness for using and polluting it in the process. Thais say this thank you with flowers. Only we don’t present bunches or even garlands; we fit the plants architecturally into krathong — elaborate natural rafts that they construct from materials found in the traditional Thai garden or field. Most urbanites, however, buy ready-made krathong from pierside stalls.

What is a Krathong?
Unlike offerings to altar, vehicle or shrine, a krathong needs to loi (float), so they’re made of nature’s Styrofoam: slices of yuak gluay (banana trunk). Environmentalists and traditionalists have fought recent attempts to substitute plastic Styrofoam, and have largely kept the festivities green. In a contemporary compromise, inventive souls now bake multi-colour dyed bread krathong to subsequently feed the fish and turtles, though the crust makes it hard to pierce with pins or flower stems. Two-inch slices of yuak kluay provide better buoyancy and fibrousness for attaching the decoration, which is suffused with auspicious meaning. This miniature vessel embodies many levels of Thai arts and beliefs, helping to keep the craft skills alive.

Leaf origami
This time of year, the country’s banana trees get shorn of their most pristine leaves (bai tong). Over a meter long, they are de-spined and spliced into square sections suitable for cutting out to wrap the float and to fold into shapes derived from lai thai — the intricate patterns that form a symbolic language seen throughout temples, palaces and traditional arts.

Around the edge, nimble fingers are required to pleat blades of tang maprao (coconut leaves) into boxy geometric protrusions that come to resemble an open lotus pad. Bamboo pins keep the origami under tension in case it springs undone.

On top rises a lotus bud shaped spire built of bai tong. At its core, a chedi (stupa) shaped cone of leaf typically contains cooked sticky rice. The rice not only symbolises a staple derived from aquaculture, but its broad-based weight steadies the raft and its glutenous mass secures the myriad pins attaching the pointed side decorations. Called jeeb krathong (splayed leaves), the decorations evoke the jeeb finger gesture intrinsic to Thai dance. Tipped with dok phud (white jasmine buds), these sprays of twisted banana leaf also get dubbed nom maew from their resemblance to cat’s nipples.

On board the raft you find various lucky flowers, though none with negative connotations like lan thom (frangipani), which sounds like the term for sorrow. Dok bua (lotus buds) are most prevalent, along with yellow dao reuang (chrysanthmum), red dok kulaab (rose) and baan mai rue roy (globe amaranth), a bristly, non-wilting bloom that comes in white or purple. Orchids — sometimes dyed with even brighter hues than nature intended — are increasingly common stow-aways.

Completing the offering are the requisite candle and triple sticks of incense of Buddhist worship. Since the idea has arisen that you can wash your troubles away on launching your krathong, many Thais place a tiny piece of themselves — such as a hair or nail clipping — into the craft, along with a coin for good fortune.

Historic symbolism
With its central spire and decorative points at four cardinal points, a krathong can be seen as a mini Mount Meru. Stylisations of this sacred abode of the gods resonate throughout Thai royal and religious iconography. This Hindu heritage is also seen in the identity of the worshipped water goddess, Mae Khongka, who translates as Mother Ganges. The festival falls close to the Hindu festival of lights, Deepavali, and krathong likewise appear like tiny lanterns, with their candles and incense embers twinkling as they bob downstream. The compound effect of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of such lights draws many a sigh at the redemptive power of beauty.

Nang Noppamat
Legend has it that princess Nang Noppamat at the court of Sukhothai, the first independent Thai kingdom, initiated the ritual of Loi Krathong. Eight centuries later, the national focus that night falls on the reflective ponds at Old Sukhothai’s ruins. There fireworks and son-et-lumiere shows spotlight outsized artificial krathong acting as centerpieces to the ponds where thousands of devotees each float their krathong.

The ngan wat (temple fairs) that accompany this joyous period nationwide typically include beauty contests to crown a live Nang Noppamat. The pageants act as heats for would-be Miss Thailand contestants, and provide an embodiment of ideal femininity for festival parades and ceremonies.

At the related festival of Yipeng in Chiang Mai, northerners launch the airborne equivalent of a krathong. Khom loi (floating lanterns) comprise a paper balloon with a burner lit below the narrow opening at its base. Teams of participants hold the bag while the air expands inside, until it surges aloft. Frequently trailing a firework it joins countless other khom loi to create a man-made firmament on a night when moonbeams occludes real starlight. Awed by the spectacle, people launching khom loi don’t so much wish upon a shooting star, as upon a floating star. Thai faith is all about slowing things down to a pace where one can contemplate.

Loi Krathong Today
Scholars often attribute Loi Krathong’s modern incarnation to ladies at the court of King Rama III in the early nineteenth century. Like other Rattanakosin-era arts, it evolved into highly elaborated forms that are both standardised in concept and astonishingly diverse in artistic realisation. No two krathong look the same, yet they all conform to one impulse shared by all Thais, young and old, rural and urban. Indeed the rush of traffic to waterways on the Loy Kratong day underscores a deep need in Thai townsfolk to re-connect to their ancient water culture, to plants, to beauty, to nature.