The gayest of Thailand's festival is Songkran which starts on April 13 every year and lasts for 3 days.
To the Thai people, this festival is one of water throwing and although it has religious significance, it usually turns into great fun. Everyone gets soaking wet and since it is the hottest season of the year, the custom is quite refershing.
Songkran is not only observed in Thailand; it is also celebrated in Myanmar, Laos and Kampuchea.
The word Songkran is from the Sanskrit meaning the beginning of a new Solar Year. However, in modem times, New Year is celebrated on January 1st, the same as in Western countries. In some ways, Songkran resembles the Christian Easter. Young and old dress in new clothing and visit their Wat where food is offered to the monks. It is a feast day for the monks, music is often played in Celebration while the food is enjoyed.
On the eve of songkran Day, housewives give their homes a thorough cleaning. Worn-out clothing or household effects and rubbish are burned - it is a Public Spring Cleaning Day, supported by the religious belief that anything old and useless must be thrown away or it will bring bad luck to the owner.
During the afternoon of the 13th, Buddha images are bathed as part of the ceremony. Young people pour scented water into the hands of elders and parents as a mark of respect while seeking the blessing of the older people. In ancient days, old people were actually given a bath and clothed in new apparel presented by the young folks as a token of respect for the New Year.
Another unique Songkran custom is the releasing of live birds and fish purchased in the markets. It is believed that great merit is gained through this kind act. In Paklat (Phra Pradaeng), near Bangkok, particulary, beautiful girls in gay dress form a procession and carry fish bowls to the river where the fish are released. Naturally, young men of Bangkok like to make a trip to Paklat every year.
The releasing-of-fish custom goes back to the days when the Central plains of Thailand were flooded during the rainy season. After the water subsided, pools were left and as the pools gradually dried up, baby fish were trapped. Farmers in those days caught small fish and kept them at home until Songkran Day when they released them in to the canals, thereby gaining merit as well as preserving one of the main items of their diet.
The country people usually celebrate the Songkran Festival but the merriest celebration of all is held in Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand some 500 miles to the north of Bangkok.
If a visitor happens to be in a village, out on a country road or up in Chiang Mai, he can well expect a drenching. All people, particulary the younger ones, throw water on one another during the three-day holiday.
In Chiang Mai, there are processions of beautiful girls (one of Chiang Mai's claims to fame), dancers, floats and bands playing. A Queen of the Water Festival is chosen amidst much noise and gaiety. The river, which runs thorough the city, is crowded with people wading in the water and scooping it up with pans and buckets to throw in one another. The visitor to Chiang Mai must plan his trip well in advance as the city is crowed with merrymakers during the Songkran Festival.
Certain areas of the Kingdom have their own unique types of games, songs and dances to celebrate the Festival, It is only natural that the farmers make more celebration as their farmwork is at a stand-still until the rain comes, when they can begin plowing for the new rice crop.
It is an old belief that the Nagas or mythical serpents brought on rain by spouting water from the seas. The more they sponted, the more rain there would be. So, one might believe that the Songkran customs, of throwing water is actually a rain-making idea, the same as in Europe where water is thrown on the last crop of corn on the farmer bringing in the last load of corn, in the hope of having ample rain for the next year's crops.
In a more serious vein, another Songkran custom is a religious service in memory of the dead. Monks officiate at a ceremony wherever ashes or bones of the dead hav been deposited. In some places, bones of the dead are brought by people to the village Wat where a joint ceremony is held.