Songkran is always a special occasion, but this year it coincides with the king's 84th birthday. In the Buddhist tradition, based on a twelve year lunar cycle, every twelfth birthday is especially important, which makes this year, 2554, one of extra significance.
Songkran – a festival whose name is derived from the Sanskrit for 'astrological passage' and which marks the change of season – takes place in early to mid April. It is best known outside Thailand for the water festivals held in the streets with everyone participating in the 'battle' as a welcome relief at this, the hottest time of year. For the Thai people, there's a lot more to it than that, though: it's a time to get together and renew family ties, to honour ancestors and to celebrate local and national culture.
Thai culture is rich with tradition and ceremony, and Songkran is a time to cleanse and decorate the temples, make offerings to the monks, and take part in rituals such as bathing the statues of Buddha with perfumed water as a sign of respect. It is marked by many other traditional folk ceremonies and ancient rituals – such as pouring fragrant water on the hands of elders – which reflect the essence of 'Thainess', the characteristic life-style and cultural values of the Thai people.
The monarchy is a fundamental facet of Thai life, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world's longest-serving monarch, having come to the throne in 1946. This year's Songkran will honour and pay particular homage to the king, and numerous special ceremonies have been organised in Bangkok and throughout the country. Songkran is celebrated in a similar fashion all around Thailand, but there are regional differences with local folk traditions playing an important part.
In Bangkok itself, a visit to Nagaraphirom Park affords the opportunity of discovering how the new year is welcomed in four different regions. Typical local dishes and desserts will be served, and there will be cultural events and activities. Everyone who visits the Nine Sacred Places – nine auspicious royal temples – and gets a card stamped to prove they have completed this 'merit-making pilgrimage', will be given a coupon to enter a lucky draw. This mixing of luck, merit and religion is typical of the fun-loving Thai spirit.
The Songkran celebrations in the northern capital of Chiang Mai are the most famous of all and attract visitors from around the world. Parades, beauty contests, Buddhist merit-making ceremonies and rituals, Lanna Thai folk games and performances, local crafts, culture and cuisine will all feature in the city-wide activities.
Elsewhere, the range of events and activities is varied, including a procession of floral floats and traditional folk entertainment in Khon Kaen, the building of sand stupas – which are traditionally associated with good health – in Nakhon Phanom, a wealth of activities from the cultural heritage of the Mekong River zone at Nong Khai, and the water battle between elephants in Ayutthaya, the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam.
Then there's the procession with the golden image of Buddha in Suphan Buri, and parades, beauty pageants and boat races in Samut Prakan. In Koh Si Chang in the Chon Buri province, there are a host of local folk games and activities including a courtship ritual in which the men carry the women down to the sea and then back to shore where they perform traditional dances. In Phuket, the cosmopolitan beach celebrations will include bike processions and concerts, and in Hat Yai, the celebrations, including a beauty contest and Thai boxing, will take place at night.
Thai Tourist Board