Making a splash in Chiang Mai

Six decades ago, revellers made a gruelling bus or train trip to the northern capital for the Songkran festival

Many people think of Songkran as the Thai New Year, but they may be confused as to why it falls in the fifth month rather than the first, which according to the Thai lunar calendar would be about December. It seems illogical: if the calendar year is a 12-month cycle, the starting point should be the first month.

The way it was: Songkran in Chiang Mai. photo: Bangkok post archive

But if we forget the term "new year", things get clearer. Songkran day is calculated according to the cycle of the Thai zodiac, and it is the day on which the previous cycle has ended and the new cycle begins. Thailand celebrates the international New Year but also Songkran.

Looking at them superficially, many people think of both New Year and Songkran as holidays when workers are given a whole string of days off. Some years the government announces a five-day holiday for Songkran, which gives people a perfect opportunity to forget stress and enjoy themselves. Those from the provinces can return there for a visit to see relatives and get together with old friends. People who like to travel can head off to explore places they have never seen. Others use the time to make religious merit.

But for people in Bangkok who have no special plans, it is a time when the city is wide open and empty. There are water-throwing festivals. Besides the drenching that goes on along the sides of the city's roads, the government specifies certain places where people can cut loose with water throwing. Silom Road and Khao San Road are special favourites. Local authorities in the provinces also define certain areas for Songkran water wars.

Not everyone celebrates the holiday in this way, however. There are still many who understand the traditional significance of the festival and who know that before Songkran day it is traditional to do a thorough house cleaning and to buy the items needed to make offerings at the temple.

On Songkran day offerings are presented to the household Buddha image and to the bones of ancestors, which some families keep on a shelf or below the table holding the Buddha image. Afterwards they leave to make merit at the temple.

If we look back about 60 years, the Songkran holiday was just as important as it is now, although businesses only gave their employees two days off, mostly for those who had come from the provinces to work in the capital, usually as labourers. Another such holiday was Chinese New Year when Chinese-owned businesses and shops closed down to allow employees to return home to visit their families.

Even though the Songkran holiday does not last long, the number of days poses no problems for people in Bangkok who want to take full advantage of it. Most take additional leave, and children are off from school at the same time. The idea is to use the holiday to go off and have fun, make merit, enjoy some water throwing and do some shopping together.

The most popular place to celebrate Songkran in the past was Chiang Mai. The city was like heaven in those days, but there were only two ways to get there -- by train or by bus. The train ride was an ordeal; it was slow and packed with passengers for whom there were not enough seats. A photo you saw often at that time showed passengers sitting on the stairways leading up to the cars and on the roofs of the cars.

Bus travel was preferable, but someone had to make the arrangements in advance, calculating the average travelling cost for each person, including the rental of the bus, expenses for food and fees for trips along the way to different interesting places. Usually there was no charge for lodging because everyone would sleep at a temple in Chiang Mai. But it was necessary to make merit or to present robes to the monks. The temple had to be contacted and reservations made months in advance.

The travelling time itself was something to be endured. The bus waited to pick up passengers at Victory Monument, and the vehicle itself was an adapted Dodge truck. The seats were wooden planks set very close together, and the roof was very low. The windows were glass sheets that rattled throughout the whole trip.

The bus would leave a 7pm, travelling along Phahon Yothin Road and passing through Ayutthaya at Wang Noi and then through Saraburi. It would travel on laterite roads all the way to Lop Buri, passing through Khok Samrong district (site of a US military base during the Vietnam War), then onward through Chai Nat, Nakhon Sawan, and Kamphaeng Phet until arriving at Tak province around dawn. When it got light, every hair on the head of every passenger and every fibre in their clothing would be red from the dust off the laterite roads. From Tak the bus passed through Lampang province to Lamphun province before finally arriving in Chiang Mai in the evening. The temples where people stayed were mostly on Thapae Road. They had bathrooms and spread long mats in the all-purpose pavilion for sleeping.

The people in Chiang Mai wore sarong-like phaa sin and spoke the northern dialect. It was a whole different world. The Songkran festival was at its best along Thapae Road and in the Ping River, whose water would be so low that it was more like a stream than a river. People could walk right across it or stay in the middle and splash each other with water. There was no viciousness or excessive roughness in the play. It was fun and done with propriety and good manners.

The following day was merit-making day. There was a ceremony where sand was carried in water bowls from the Ping River to fill in an area inside the temple. The sand was sculpted into a stupa. Then a colourful paper flag was placed on top. That was one way of making merit because in those days the grounds of the temple were low and were just bare earth. The sand made the grounds higher and cleaner than the plain ground. After that there was more water throwing, and the northerners liked to bring food for everyone to eat and enjoy.

There were many places to go for fun. One was the reservoir surrounded by mountains (located behind what today is Chiang Mai University) called the huay kaew. Other possibilities were trips to San Pa Tong, the biggest district where weaving was done, to buy blankets, scarves, cloth hats and other items, or to Baan Baw Saang in San Kamphaeng district to buy paper umbrellas.

The journey back to Bangkok was no less gruelling than the trip north. This was Songkran as it was celebrated in Chiang Mai 60 years ago. Today there is also plenty of travelling, making merit and water splashing, but visitors who remember what it was like in less hectic times will find it much changed.

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