Last week marked our first Songkran in Thailand.
When we lived in Bangkok almost 10 years ago we fled to Hanoi in the lead-up to the New Year, staying away until the Thai capital returned to its normally torpid, hot-season self. If not for our continuing work in Chiang Mai's Gat Luang neighborhood we would have passed Songkran 2011 as we've passed every other Songkran that we've lived in Asia: far, far away from Thailand.
It's true -- there is a not-so-pretty side to Songkran. To whit: A furor broke out when three Thai girls were videotaped dancing topless in Bangkok. On Chiang Mai's Tha Phae Road a farang standing next to me suffered damage to her eye when a high-powered water gun was aimed at her face. (According to traditional Songkran etiquette splashing is for below the neck.) An obviously inebriated bikini-clad farang hopped onto a float in last Friday's provincial procession to the Chiang Mai governor's house. (Note: Thais are generally non-confrontational and unfailingly polite. Just because Thais do not tell you that your behavior is offensive does not mean that they don't think it.) A nationwide death toll of 271 between April 11 and 17, (The silver lining: that's down 25% from 2010.)
But there's another side to the Thai New Year as well.
We began the first day of Songkran by joining the members of Gat Luang's Namdhari Sikh temple in a ceremony marking the Sikh New Year, which begins on the same day as the Thai New Year. After prayers, some sung to the accompaniment of a harmonium and drums, we ate a Sikh New Year breakfast of chickpea daal, paratha, raita studded with bits of wheat dough, and sugar-soaked jelebi hot from the wok -- all prepared in the temple's kitchen.
Then more food -- in another local kitchen we learned to make several northern Thai dishes from the recipes of a family with connections to Gat Luang that go back more than a century. (Recipes will be included in the book, but look for one here later.) One of the dishes was gaeng hang lay, a Burmese-influenced pork and ginger curry that's soured with tamarind. Because it's cooked for half a day, it is considered special occasion food -- especially appropriate to the New Year celebrations.
We then hurried to Tha Phae Road for the annual procession of Buddha images. The statues are brought out from wats around Chiang Mai, paraded through the streets, and washed by observers with splashes of water from silvery cups. The procession finishes in the Old City, at Wat Pra Singh, and then each Buddha is carried back to its home wat.
The third day of Songkran is devoted to dtam hua -- paying respects and making merit. Wat Saen Fang sits on the edge of Gat Luang, set back from Phae Road. The wat's prayer hall and other buildings are Burmese in style, and the old wooden house that now serves as the monk's quarters was built by a Burmese family whose wealth came from the Chiang Mai logging trade.
Around 7am worshippers began arriving to make merit, first in the prayer hall -- for themselves and their living relatives -- and then in the entrance to the monk's quarters (the wat's abbott is pictured above). Some brought baskets of packaged foods, while others brought out pots and bowls from their car trunks and prepared trays of home-cooked dishes. (The opening photograph is an example of the latter -- gaeng hang lay is at about 11 o'clock on the silver tray on the right). An offering is made for each departed ancestor, whose name is written on a piece of paper and handed to the monk so that he can utter it during his prayer over the offering.
Finally, wat members plant paper flags in a sand chedi next to the prayer hall, to wish for a long life. The sand chedi are constructed the previous day (the second day of Songkran). They were once made from sand carried by by community members from the Ping River, but these days trucks make the sand delivery. Why the sand? Throughout the year earth is carried out of the wat as community members come and go. This is a way of returning what one has taken from the wat.
Dtam hua of a different sort took place in the afternoon of Songkran's third day. Every year each municipality in Chiang Mai sends representatives to participate in a procession to the Chiang Mai governor's residence. Partipants carry a variety of most agricultural gifts -- nowadays, mostly symbolic items such as dried betelnuts strung together in the shape of giant lotuses, or large trays of earth planted with herbs and vegetables. The procession starts in the Old City at the Three Kings Monument and ends on the governor's front lawn, where participants may join a line to be blessed by the governor.
Dtam hua is a Songkran tradition repeated in homes, workplaces, schools; the young dtam hua to their elders, staff dtam hua to their employers, students do the same to their teachers. And it's a tradition that northern Thais hold dear. This year Chiang Mai's newish governor -- a descendent of King Rama IV appointed, as most of Thailand's governors are, rather than directly appointed -- caused a stink by announcing that in order to avoid troubling the people on their holiday he would cancel this year's dtam hua procession. Vociferous objections arose from all directions, and the dtam hua procession was held as usual.
If you were in Chiang Mai this year and didn't get past the goings-on at the moat you might not know that Songkran is a deeply spiritual time for many Thais. We're thankful for these peeks at the other side of the Thai New Year. We might even return in 2012.