The day started out like any other day here in Thailand, me not knowing what was going on. I was told to meet at the village’s only wat (Buddhist temple) at 7:30 in the morning. This was a full hour before I typically show up at the municipal offices where I smile and act busy and hope no one talks to me so as to further prove my incompetence of the language. I arrived early to hover in the shade and observe from the periphery what was going on. A double arc of plastic chairs was fronting the temple and the chairs were beginning to fill with mostly older women wearing purple. Familiar faces, those folks I share office space with, began to arrive and I came out from the shadows drawing nearer to them. The town officials were having a small ceremony this morning as a prelude to the upcoming Songkran festivities taking place over the next week.
Songkran is Thailand’s New Year’s. It is celebrated on April 13 and lasts for three days. Actually April 13 is known as the Major Songkran, with Songkran being the astrological passing from one sign into the next. There are 12 songkrans per year with this Major Songkran as the most celebrated, the one moving into Aries, the one that most closely coincides with the Vernal Equinox, and the one that marks a time for spring cleaning and paying respect.
This morning’s celebration was the village’s way of showing respect to the monks at the wat and to its community elders. Dtarn had prepared a basket of food for me to offer up to the monks: small bags of rice, noodles, packets of cookies, juice boxes, and water, things that could easily be gathered up and presented to the nine monks one at a time, things that could be repackaged and offered by the monks to those in the community in need.
After some prayers and chanting, the monks lined up in front of the gathering to receive their gifts. The nine monks carried small bowls or plates to receive the offerings. A dozen or so men from the community assisted, taking the alms from the small plates and bowls and emptying them into larger containers. As these were filled, they were whisked away and new receptacles were brought in to receive more offerings for the monks, for the community.
This ritual had been practiced many times before. I stood in a group near the end of the semi-circle and after we had made our offerings and collected the now empty baskets and plastic bags, I looked up. The people at the beginning of the arc had already dispersed and their plastic chairs were already stacked and moved away. Quickly the plaza in front of the wat was empty and the village elders had moved to another section of the plaza out of the sun, now sitting in rows of plastic chairs lined up next to the canal.
Water plays a major role during Songkran. It is a time for families to clean house and to wash images of the Buddha. I met Dtarn and some of her friends for breakfast the morning of Songkran and there was a small altar set up against one wall of the restaurant with a half dozen small Buddha statues; Buddhas in various positions: seated, standing, reclining. Each of us dipped a small cup into a bowl of water strewn with flower petals and poured a little water over each of the images. The water is symbolic of washing away past sins and evils and now takes place on a much larger scale around Thailand during Songkran. The ‘blessed’ water that cleans the Buddha is now used to soak other people on a rather large scale and is seen as a way of paying respect and bringing good fortune to them. * This practice has expanded throughout the years and now comes with Mardi Gras-esque cavorting and legal restrictions (laws against throwing ice, laws against using high-powered water cannons, laws establishing safe-zones). With April being among Thailand’s hottest and steamiest months, getting dowsed with a bucket of water thrown from a passing pick up truck isn’t as awful as it might seem, as long as your cell phone is wrapped in plastic.
But back to this workday morning at the wat. The municipal workers, of which now I am a part of, were going to show their respect to the village elders, in a tradition known as rot naam dam hua. The elders were seated in four rows, about 50 of them all told, women outnumbered men but that’s usually the case and each was dressed in some of their finest clothes and pasims (colorful Thai sarongs). A few of the faces looked familiar, faces I had passed on the street or faces of people I had purchased fruit from. I was handed a small plastic bowl filled with water and flower petals. I joined the others in ritualistically pouring a little water onto the outstretched cupped hands of the elders while smiling and offering thanks. In return the elders blessed me with their still wet hands, anointing my forearms, my shoulders or my head and wishing me well in the coming year, or at least I think that’s what they were saying. Walking from chair to chair and smile to smile, I humbly showed my appreciation to the elders of the community I will get to know more thoroughly these next two years. This is a more appropriate way for me to ring in the New Year than throwing water around.
*Poland and Ukraine carry on a very similar water-throwing tradition on Dyngus Day, Easter Monday.