Thanks to modern tourism development, Thailand’s Songkran festival is mostly known for its massive water fights and other secular entertainment. Modern festival-goers may not know this, but Thailand’s annual Songkran festival is rooted in Buddhist tradition, celebrates the Lanna New Year and is the most significant of all Lanna festivals. In the past, Songkran was a time for communal celebration and a chance for young people to meet in public, as well as a time for young people to pay their respects to the elders.
Today, there are far fewer people undertaking traditional Songkran activities, such as building sand pagodas and donating food. Most notably, the relatively peaceful practise of exchanging water from small bowls for blessing has transformed into water fights using large bowls, buckets and pipes, as well as large water guns: all supported by big water tanks carried on pick-up trucks. Accompanying the water fights are loud music from DJs along with dancing.
Now on the one hand, these modern transformations demonstrate a watering-down (no pun intended) of decades of religious and cultural tradition to appease modern secular audiences. But on the other, the huge expansion of water use during festival time, the transformation from a person-to-person exchange into a large-scale act of play, has not only encouraged young people to get involved, but it has also attracted thousands of domestic and international tourists.
So unsurprisingly, many modern tourist guidebooks refer to Songkran as simply ‘the water festival,’ with only a passing acknowledgement that the festival also celebrates the New Year. These guidebooks focus on the water fight, mention the inevitability of getting soaked and rarely contain any detailed information about the Buddhist and Lanna aspects.
However, these new aspects (which end up as ‘traditions’, similar to Spain’s La Tomatina’s tomato fight), are not only commercial but allow the community to participate on a greater level. The growing numbers of participants, both locally and internationally, and the continued introduction of new events, such as the Miss Songkran contest, displays the desire for Thailand to encourage participation on a cosmopolitan modern scale.
Thus, over the years, Songkran has purposely been transformed from a relatively low-key but significant event to an occasion of riotous spectacle.
The overwhelming success of Songkran’s tourism has quickly been recognized in many other regions of Thailand, to the extent that it is unashamedly replicated in many other places. The grand procession and wild water fights take place wherever it is introduced. Variations on this theme are now visible in places such as Pattaya, Phuket, Phra Pradaeng and Ratchaburi. In Bangkok, the occasion is used to showcase a diverse range of cultural activities, but for young residents and the city’s many tourists, the water fights are the most persistent and notable of all the activities.
Thus, throughout this transformation process, the traditional meanings in the Songkran festival have not been wiped out. It still marks the passage of one year to the next for the local Thai population, and remains a time for giving thanks and blessings between people. The core practices are still performed, such as the building and decorating of sand pagodas and the splashing of water. It’s just that these practices have been amplified and elevated to become the festival’s defining characteristics.