Thailand enjoys three New Year celebrations in one year. Typically, Thailand has a history of absorbing elements of cultures from outside of the country and marking them with a uniquely Thai twist.
Take religion for example, Buddhism came to Thailand and South East Asia from India. The ideas of Buddhism became so intertwined with existing animist ideas in Thailand that it has become difficult to draw a line between what is a Buddhist practice in Thailand and what is an animist one. The ideas of external visitors have merged with those that are native to Thailand to create something new and distinct in character.
This is similar to the way that Thailand celebrates three New Year’s Eve’s within 365 days. The traditional Thai New Year is observed in April, the Chinese New Year, usually in February, and the Western Calendar New Year in December. That’s a lot of parties!
Thai New Year (Songkran)
Songkran marks the New Year according to the traditional Thai calendar. The date normally falls around the 13th of April which is one of the hottest times of year in Thailand. With temperatures reaching up to 40°C and beyond it’s no surprise that the favoured way to celebrate has become a good old fashioned water fight!
The celebration, often referred to as the “water festival”, marks not only the beginning of a New Year on the traditional Thai calendar but the end of the dry season and the coming of the rains. Traditionally, the dry season was a time of water rationing, with the rains coming, this was no longer necessary and splashing water became a way of blessing others with good wishes for the coming year.
This tradition has expanded to encompass a seemingly nation-wide water battle. Soaking anyone and everyone has become common practice and songkran is a time for Thai’s and visitors to really let their hair down! It’s not all water guns and the hurling of buckets of ice water though. There is a traditional element to the songkran celebration which is very well maintained.
The temple is often the centre of many Thai festivals and ceremonies. On songkran day the public will make merit by taking offerings to the monks at their local temple. In a slightly animistic element of the celebration birds and fish are let free from captivity as another means of accumulating more merit, or what Western people may consider “good kamma”.
The reverence of elders is also central to songkran events. Water scented with flowers is poured over the hands of elders as mark of respect and to show good wishes. In addition to this Buddha images are bathed and splashed with the sacred water and are often removed from the temples to be transported through town in a bright a colourful parade. Also during songkran Thai people bring sand to the temple to replace the grains which they have removed with their feet when coming and going to the temple during the year. This sand is then made into large sand chedi, or Thai pagodas.
Chiang Mai in the North is a renowned hot spot for songkran celebrations on a big scale. The festivities there can last for up to a week and centre on the city moat from songkran eve, songkran day and the following day. Concerts at the city malls are held each year and the temples are buzzing with activity. Songkran in Chiang Mai should not be missed!
Video: Traditional Aspects of Thai Songkran Celebrations
Chinese New Year (drut jeen)
Usually falling in February, Chinese New Year is especially important to those Thais, of which there are many, who have Chinese heritage. While it is not a national holiday many companies will treat it as such and allow their staff time off to celebrate, though children are still expected to attend school.
Celebrations are usually held in the evening, although some activities, such as making offerings to teachers of Chinese origin may be held during the day. People will also make offerings of paper money and gold to the Chinese ancestors and their deities. Businesses let off firecrackers outside their premises and Chinese lions parade the streets, entering each business to provide good fortune for the coming year. In addition to this Thai people will offer money in small red envelopes to youngsters as is done in China at this time of year.
Nakhon Sawan is heavily populated by those of Chinese origin due to its geographical location on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, making it a centre of ancient trade. Revellers come clad in red shirts bearing the animal symbol for the New Year to watch a large illuminated parade which snakes through the city. The main attraction is a large Chinese dragon so well made and controlled by the people of the city that it appears to be brought to life. Nakhon Sawan is the place to celebrate Chinese New Year in Thailand!
Western Calendar New Year (bee mai)
January 1st is now the official New Years Day of Thailand and has been since 1941. This is celebrated in much the same way as it is in the West but incorporates and element of Christmas too – the giving of gifts and cards.
While Christmas is a concept which is familiar to many Thai people, especially those living in the cities and exposed to the advertising and decorating of shopping malls and airports, it is not a concept which is fully understood. In fact it is not uncommon to see a Christmas tree put out for Thai New Year in April and shopping centres will be decked out with Christmas trees from December and well into the New Year.
New Year is a time to be with family, enjoy making and eating food as well as exchanging small gifts. Unlike the Western Christmas, Thai New Year celebrations maintain a wider focus on family than commercialism and the given of wild and wonderful gifts. On December 31st Thai people gather with family and friends either at home or at public countdowns to ring in the New Year. It is also a time for companies to offer promotions and bonuses to staff as well as a time for individuals to make merit at the temple.