A Traditional Songkran in Isaan

These are edited excerpts from our book A Potato in a Rice Field (Chapter 62-63): Our good buddy Jar joins us in Isaan through the Thai New Year, or the Songkran Festival as the occasion is better known, which marks a three-day celebration, where everywhere in Thailand goes a little bit mental with mass water fights. Water fights which traditionally symbolize the washing away of sin and misfortune from the past year, but this meaning is somewhat lost on the newer generations of Thailand.

So this year we aim to celebrate a simple and more traditional Songkran festival, where in the past I have always had a love/hate relationship with Songkran. Of course, the water fights can be fun when you’re part of them, but when you’re smartly dressed, and carrying a box of twelve Dunkin Donuts, then Songkran can be a horrible festival. How do you expect me to eat a box of water soaked donuts? You jerks.

But it is for similar reasons that many people avoid the Songkran Festival, opting to either stay indoors or to just disappear, through the longest holiday period of the year in Thailand. And I have done similar myself, where I celebrated the previous New Year next door in Myanmar, and I have also celebrated the Sinhalese New Year in Sri Lanka.

Because the New Year festival is not unique to Thailand, as it actually follows the Buddhist and Hindu solar calendar, which is known throughout South and Southeast Asia. So this also includes Cambodia, Laos, India, and other Tamil populations in Asia. But each country will celebrate the New Year in their own traditional ways, and this year we celebrate traditionally with the rural folk of Broken Road.

The ‘Seven Deadly Days’

We join a mass almsgivings before the celebrations begin, where many monks have ordained at a central Nang Rong temple, which is common for holiday periods, simply because people have free time to get involved.

But on the return journey, we find the roads are now chock full of traffic, and the usual turns and shortcuts to the house have been blocked and redirected by police. As the mass exoduses of the cities have already begun, when city workers travel back to celebrate New Year with their families in their hometowns.

So through the coming week, there would be hundreds of road deaths in what is dubbed the ‘Seven Deadly Days’ of Songkran, an annual occurrence he in Thailand. And as expected, the majority of road deaths result from speeding, drinking and driving during the holiday period, meaning we really just want to avoid the main roads.

But we do still have a run to the market, and the bank, and to an out-of-town wholesale supermarket, and we really are not well prepared. And what normally would be a thirty-minute errand takes almost two hours with tailbacks and traffic.

But it could be worse, as many of Fanfan’s friends have been travelling for twelve hours and longer, having left Bangkok the previous night only to arrive in Nang Rong at around midday today. And what normally would be a five-hour journey, or seven if you’re Jar, was now taking twice as long with the traffic. Which is just another reason to avoid the Songkran Festival.

The Water Fights

The Songkran holidays do not officially start until the 13th of April, yet the local kids and teenagers are already out on the street corners with hoses, buckets and squirt guns. So we decide to take a preliminary lap of the village to get an idea of the upcoming shenanigans.

Again, as designated driver, I sit comfortable and shielded in the front seats of the pickup, along with Meh, Fanfan, and niece Mai. As Jar involuntarily volunteers to sit in the back bed of the truck, which he was happy to do, although he didn’t quite realise the result of his decision at the time.

So vehicles would normally rush past these gangs of water wielding hooligans, but today we are in no real hurry. And so we take a more leisurely drive, to stop and park next to them, then watch as Jar is tortured each time by barrages of water. While trying to fight them off with just one small super soaker, and a few feet of manoeuvrable space. An initiation of sorts, and an introduction to Songkran, because similar soakings will continue relentlessly through the coming week. Although they may not be as one-sided in the days to come.

Otherwise I am in no real hurry to get wet this Songkran, because I’m honestly not a great sport when it comes to soakings, and I find it hard not to swear when people bombard me with buckets of cold water. But these are natural reactions, like Tourettes, I guess, so I probably shouldn’t be faulted for my inevitable swearing at small children. Most of them don’t understand English anyway. So it’s fine.

Otherwise, we are supposed to see these Songkran soakings as a kind gesture, where they wash away past sins and misfortunes, and we really should be thanking them for drenching us in water. Which just feels weird.

But I have found a way to avoid soakings in the past, where, by holding up my camera as if it were expensive, they move over to the next potential target (note, this doesn’t work with Dunkin Donuts). Although they often just get up close, instead, and pour water over my crotch. There really is no way of avoiding the water, and even those paid to protect pedestrians, like security guards and the police, are more likely to join in with their squirt guns.

The Annual Boat Race

The next morning marks the beginning of this year’s Songkran Festival in Thailand (13th April), with the annual boat race at the central lake of Nang Rong. Something I wasn’t overly excited for, as it meant driving in tailbacks and crowds, so we tried to pre-empt the traffic by arriving early via the back roads of Broken Road. Only to find ourselves with hours to waste before the actual boat races begin. So we fill this time with at the snack stalls, eating such delights as durian ice cream and rubbery grilled squid. Before hiding under the shade of nearby trees.

This was actually my first proper visit to Nang Rong town centre, and it was the first time I’d been near to other foreigners and expats from the surrounding areas. So, naturally, my first instinct was to bark at them like a dog “this is my territory”. But instead I pass them by amiably.

But my avoidance of other expats comes more from how locals in Thailand often try to pair us off. Where they’d introduce us, and try to match us off on some sort of weird play date. “Oh, you should meet Boris, he’s from Slovakia… do you watch football?” And it’s hard to say no when they’re standing right there in front of you. Fortunately, Fanfan knows better.

Anyway, as the crowds bulk out, we move to the banks of the lake where makeshift platforms and bandstands have been set up for cheer groups to support their local boat race team. And each stand will vary, where one will have grannies doing the traditional Rumwong, or “Ram”, dance to Thai folk music, with their feet stepping and hands weaving in front of them. Then next to them would be a younger rowdier crowd, banging techno, but still doing the ‘Ram’ dance. As people Ram to everything here.

But as we finally get comfortable at the lakeside, we are pestered away again, by some drunk, who, going by his clothing, may have been one of the event organisers. Or just a drunken imposter. Although this is fairly common when you are one of the very few English speakers in a foreign country. As people like to test their English on you, and it’s something I normally don’t mind, if they weren’t mostly drunks. “Where you from?” “The UK.” “Yo, London!”, “No, Northern Ireland” “Yo, Dublin!” I give up.

The Start of Songkran

We move away from the lake to go watch the other goings-on in the surrounding compound. And this is when we spot a large crowd huddled around a golden Buddha statue, which had apparently been brought in from a central temple of Nang Rong. And before it arrived here, it had been paraded through the streets of the town, only we missed the procession due to the distraction of the drunk guy. Anyway, only once a year are these statues ever moved from their temples, and this only ever happens during the Songkran Festival.

So the crowd gathers as local officials and important people of the town make speeches, and, I am guessing, they are announcing the beginning of the Songkran Festival. Because otherwise don’t understand Thai. A big gong is then bashed and this is followed by cheers of excitement. Then they each approach the golden Buddha, which is set up on an ornate pedestal, and, one by one, they pour scented water over the hands and feet of the statue.

As I watch on, a girl dressed in traditional Thai clothing approaches me, to present me with a necklace of jasmine flowers. Which I accept, bashfully. She then tests her English skills with me. “Where you from ka?”. “The U.K. krup”. “Welcome to Nang Rong ka” she says with a smile. Admittedly some conversations are more enjoyable than others. But we are now relatively bored by this time, having been standing around for hours, and so we leave via the back roads just as the boat races begin.

“Rod Nam Dam Hua”

We start with the more intimate Songkran ceremonies on the front porch of the grandparent’s house, where we pay our respects to the elders of the family. We arrive to find Ta sitting next to a framed photo of Granny Yai, and a number of other Buddhist and ancestral shrines. This ceremony is called ‘Rod Nam Dam Hua’, where we would each take our turn to scoop water, scented with oils and flower petals, into small ceremonial cups. We would then pour these cups of water onto each shrine, similar to before with the opening ceremony in Nang Rong, only we use a branch of a gooseberry tree to splash the water around a bit.

We start this ceremony with the Buddhist shrines, before moving to the image of Yai, and then finally to Ta who sits with a garland of jasmine flowers cupped in his hands. So we first pour the scented water into Ta’s hands, and then move to do the same with his feet, while Ta blesses us in Thai. The younger family members then take their turn to do the same to Meh, and then aunty Napow, and they, in turn, do the same to Ta. As it is always the younger generations paying respects to the elders.

Offerings to Elders

After the ceremonies ended at the family home, we leave the compound to pay our respects to the other elders of Broken Road, while bearing gifts of soy milk to hand out at each house. And I do recognize most of the local grannies by now, with their twiggy frames, and bright red betel-stained teeth. As they had always joined Granny Yai on the porch through the days. But this was my first time meeting them on their home turf, and while I somewhat expected them to live in simple wooden farmhouses, I am surprised to find many of them sat on the porches of what would be better described as mansions.

So we repeat the same Rod Nam Dam Hua ceremony from before, using the scented water to cleanse their hands and feet, and in return the grannies bless us. Of course, I have no idea what they actually say, but there is always laughter, and most of it appears to be at the expense of Meh.

So Fanfan translates the blessings for me, and, like always, they were wishing for me and Fanfan to have babies, before Fanfan “goes dry”. They were then wishing for Jar to meet a beautiful Thai lady, which I had originally told them he was desperate to find. Finally, with Meh, they had wished that she would buck up, and stop being scared of Yai’s ghost. As, to this day, I would still walk Meh between houses at night, so she can sleep next door with Ta and Aunty Napow. We even volunteered Jar to join them for a sleepover if needed. Although we are yet to tell Jar.

To me, Songkran feels near over, yet it was still the first morning of the first day. Songkran is tiring. So we decide to spend the remainder of the day at home on the porch, with an arsenal of buckets, hoses and squirt guns. But our street is one of the quieter in Broken Road, meaning people actually use it more, as they try to sneak around to avoid the busier roads. Although this doesn’t work, as niece Mai keeps dick at the front gate, and we wait for the ambush.

But it is all a bit dangerous, given those passing are almost always on bikes or motorbikes, and many are drunk. And one guy, who was hammered on Lao Khao, tried to speed up and to swerve around Niece Mai, only this just ended with him screeching his tires and near going headfirst into a bush. Before shouting abuse at Mai, and staggering off drunk with his motorbike. And the dangers are otherwise apparent, with the continuous wail of sirens passing nearby, bringing a stark reminder of just how deadly Songkran Celebrations can be.

“Song Nam Phra”

The morning is otherwise relatively quiet, at least until late afternoon when the excitement of the Songkran Festival kicks off again. And it starts with an eruption of muffled shouting from the local grannies, each shouting to the compound next to them, as they shuffle from their porches to the front gates. I follow along to find a procession turning into the lane, where the main procession car is said to be carrying a revered Buddha statue all the way from Bangkok. For two days now, this procession has been travelling through the various temples in Isaan, and now it is following this rather unlikely route past our humble street and compound.

So I go to join the grannies along the street, but first I must take off my shoes to take part in the “Song Nam Phra” ceremony, which translates as ‘Pouring Water on Monks’. Where we more or less throw water over the statue as it passes. But it is normal to remove shoes when entering a temple in Thailand, and when making offerings or joining ceremonies with monks. So I remove my flip-flops and wait to take my turn to throw water over the statue as it passes.

But it isn’t until after that I realise my flip-flops have been nabbed, by Fanfan, and between me and the house is a sharp stony pathway. And now I am pretty much stranded on the street, with an entire parade of water wielding revellers ready to pass me. And they all take their turn to pummel me with a continuous barrage of cold water, as I politely thank each and every one of them.

The Songkran Shirt

The next morning (14th April) we wake to find niece Mai picking flowers in the nearby garden, as she would mix them with scents and water, to use in more blessing ceremonies. As today we would go to pay our respects to the monks of the big temple. So I decided to make an effort for the occasion, by dressing in a traditional Songkran shirt, which is similar to a Hawaiian shirt, or at least it’s equally as ridiculous. And I had actually planned on buying one on the previous day, but Fanfan was having none of it, as I’d only wear it once and never again. Which is true.

But I have been somewhat jealous of Jar, where he’s been wearing Songkran shirts from the very beginning of the celebrations, as he’s kind of small, and can fit into the old shirts of Meh and aunty Napow. Whereas I need something more man-size, and even the larger size shirts borrowed from neighbours were too small for me. Or at least I can only wear them with the buttons opened. And I have to make do.

Meanwhile, the sound of loud “look tung” country music signals today’s temple event, and, before leaving the house, Meh teaches us how to do the ‘ram’ dance. In return, I teach her to do Chunk’s truffle shuffle. Before forwarding to the temple.

The Temple Ceremony

I feel like I have always fit in well in Broken Road, until today, as I could not feel any more out of place when arriving late to the temple. Like some ridiculous tourist, wearing a bright pink, ill-fitting Hawaiian shirt, with white powder paste caked all over my face. I do look ridiculous.

Today the temple hall also looks different, where, strung between the rafters, hangs a grid of sacred thread connecting between the congregation, and the monks who sit in prayer at the front of the hall. It’s almost like something from a sci-fi movie, as each member of the congregation connects a piece string to either their head or wrist, to help channel the blessings and karma through the temple. But we are too late to join the grid, and can only shuffle in to take a seat by the side of the hall.

It is a longer service than normal today, with prayers lasting twice as long as your average Holy Day, which includes the lead monk circling the congregation while sprinkling water over their heads, in blessing. When the service ends, we can then pay our respects to the monks of the temple, who have taken place in a line of chairs along the front of the hall. So we join a queue to cleanse their hands and feet with scented water, and we are blessed in return.

A Long Holiday

I was happy to end the Songkran Festival now, which isn’t really an option, as people won’t allow it. And were I to leave the house, to take a stroll to the local market, I’d not get far before another soaking. So I opt to spend the last days of Songkran eating barbecues and getting drunk on the compound and on the upstairs balcony. Which is tradition, I guess. As there is also a lot of drinking and partying going on through the Songkran Festival, when younger generations catch up over ice coolers with big bottles of beer, and glasses of Hong Thong rum. And we were always offered drinks when out and about in Broken Road. And I always accepted, given alcohol makes the wetness much more bearable.

But we were almost always wearing wet clothes through the entirety of the Songkran Festival, as it just feels pointless to change into dry clothes when they’re almost certain to get soaked again soon after. And these water fights continued for most of the coming week, and even when writing this I was wearing wet clothes on the front porch, while Fanfan and niece Mai poured water down the back of my neck, and smeared my face with white powder pastes. They were trying to give me whiskers, or something, to make me look like a cat. But the paste just became dry and flaky and fell all over the keyboard. Like dandruff. And no doubt, if I weren’t drunk at the time, it would all be very unlikable. I miss normality.

A Potato in a Rice Field: In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief. Find it on Amazon here.

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