In Bangkok we had always failed to see past the more sensationalised, adrenaline-fuelled water fights of the Songkran festival, so last year we decided to search for more intimate and meaningful celebrations in the rural parts of Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). This brought us to the small village of Thanon Hak, or “Broken Road” as in English, in the Nang Rong district of Buriram. To fit in we put on some ridiculous looking Songkran shirts, which are a bit like Hawaiian shirts, as we joined the mass exodus of Bangkok as city workers travelled back to their hometowns to celebrate the New Year with family and friends.
These celebrations are more family orientated than I knew and walking through the dusty streets of the rural village I was always met first by the younger generations as they wait on guard, with buckets of water and squirt guns, to politely soak any visitors or passers-by. Meanwhile, safe and dry in the compound, the older generations would be catching up over “moo kata” pork barbecues, and maybe some Hong Thong rum and big bottles of beer.
Intimate Family Traditions
Our first outing followed a circle of the village where we would pay our respects to the local elders with offerings of small cartons of soy milk. Mostly we would arrive to find betel chewing grannies, who look better suited to rustic wooden farmhouses, rather than their perches on the porches of what would be better described as mansions. With us we bring a ceremonial bowl filled with scented water with oils and flower petals, as well as small ceremonial cups for scooping and pouring the water. These are for a ceremony called ‘Rod Nam Dam Hua’ where, at each compound, we would kneel before the elders of the house, who often hold a garland of jasmine flowers cupped in their hands, as we scoop and pour the scented water over their hands. Then again we would take a second cup of scented water only this time to pour over their feet, before the elders bless us with words of good fortune for the coming year.
This traditional cleansing symbolises the washing away of bad karma from the past year, and the same meaning goes for the more renowned water fights of the Songkran celebrations.
The Local Temple Ceremony
Songkran, as with most life in rural Thailand, centres round Buddhism, and in one of the main ceremonies, known as “Song Nam Phra”, we would pour water over Buddha statues which have been taken and paraded from their temples in the surrounding areas. These Buddha statues are only ever moved once a year from their temples, on Songkran, so this is kind of a big deal. But the most important ceremony locally is at the village temple where we arrived to find a hall strung with sacred thread to connect each member of the congregation with the front altar and the monks who sit in prayer at the front of the hall.
We would also join them in prayer, before breaking off to the front entrance of the temple hall, where we meet the monks who have formed a line and sit waiting in chairs. We join the queue as we each take turn in paying our respects by again pouring the scented water over the hands and feet of each monk, and, in turn, we walk away with bagsful of good karma to start our New Year.