Buddhist New Year is the time to see Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city, at its most animated, from the religious processions to the wet ’n’ wild antics of the local residents
WORDS: TIM MOORE
PHOTOGRAPHS: MATT MUNRO
FOR LONG MONTHS, summer has been building to a crescendo in northern Thailand, slowly filling the bowl of mountains that surrounds Chiang Mai with soupy heat. By the middle of April, a sticky, wilting haze dulls the glint from the gilded Buddhas that gaze serenely out from the city’s 300 temples. The scents of frangipani, mango and hyper-spiced street food have been slow-cooked to a ripe miasma; the contents of the four-mile moat that girdles the Old City simmered to a green broth. Something has to give and it can’t wait until the rains come down in late May. At dusk on April 12, the downtown pavements begin to mass with excitable water warriors, fingers on plastic triggers, thumbs pressed over hose tips, buckets abrim. Ahead lies a four-day, man-made monsoon, which will saturate the city’s streets and all who sail in them.
By tradition, officially stretching from April 13 to 16, Songkran is the spray-and-pray festival that marks the Buddhist New Year on April 15. It’s a bewildering, but glorious fusion of dignified religious faith, familial devotion and deafening, technicolour aquatic madness. As a celebration of towering national importance, Songkran is like a Western Christmas and New Year rolled into one, with a soggy side order of trick-or-treat Halloween mayhem. Every dawn, families file soberly into temples with offerings and votive decorations. Every afternoon, rather less soberly, they rush through the streets toting triple-chamber water pistols. The first activity endows good karma and the second, good luck. Though it might not seem so at the time, a head-to-toe slapstick soaking is the best start a year could bring.
Around 95 per cent of Thais are Buddhist, and Chiang Mai – capital of the old Lanna kingdom, the nation’s rural heartland, for 500 years – prides itself as a repository of spiritual and communal tradition. Nowhere is Songkran celebrated so wholeheartedly: here, the festivities are strung out for an extra day and with an enthusiasm that draws crowds from right across the land. Initiate conversation on the street – ideally during the buckets-down ceasefire that tentatively holds from 8pm to 10am – and you’ll often find yourself talking to one of the countless northerners who’ve relocated to Thailand’s more prosperous south, returning to their ancestral homeland for a uniquely profound New Year experience. It’s an opportunity to renew and reaffirm traditions, and the family bonds that Thais hold so dear. Even at Songkran, blood is much thicker than water.
“We just don’t have temples like this in Bangkok,” says Chiang Mai-born Kompun, admiring the weathered dragons that guard the 19th-century Wat Ton Kwen. “And the people up here are more kind and respectful, they always have time for you.” With its sombre dark-wood gables and scattering of silent, orange-robed monks, the temple is a model of ascetic restraint, just a few miles outside the city, but a world away from the power-shower delirium. Only the colourful and intricately-cut paper flags that sprout from towers of sand acknowledge the festivities. Kompun and her son Wasin have already added their contributions: the flags are themed to their respective zodiac signs, and an enshrined Songkran tradition is to bring a bucket or bag of sand to the temple, replacing the earth that worshippers have carried out on their feet over the previous year. Now, she sprinkles saffron-perfumed, jasmine-petalled water on the golden head of the temple’s Buddha. “It’s a blessing, to wash away the old year and make a good start for the new one.” With a nervous smile, she admits she won’t be participating in the super-soaked anarchy that has burst forth from this graceful, symbolic act.
Clean-slate renewal and ritualized ‘merit making’ are the twin spiritual cornerstones of this festival. The former manifests itself in the redecorating of temples, intensive spring cleaning and the wearing of garish new clothes: families congregate in matching Hawaiian shirts and drape floral garlands around each other’s necks. The latter, the earning of good karma for the coming year, begins in earnest on the penultimate dawn of the old one, on April 13, when a long line of monks files through the red-brick columns of Tha Phae gate, one of the four entrances to Chiang Mai’s 13th-century Old City.
A dense crowd presses around them, toting offerings that are devoutly held forth with a respectful bow or, on desperate occasion, slam-dunked over a sea of heads into the monks’ silver bowls. These swiftly overflow with an extraordinary blend of the decorative and the practical: lotus-blossom bouquets, neat banana-leaf parcels packed with sticky rice, bags of crisps, drink cartons, torches, disinfectant, toilet rolls. Thailand’s 38,000 temples are almost entirely reliant on donations from the faithful and Songkran is their greatest alms-harvest.
“I see some monks who maybe like the free food too much,” laughs Kruba Noi, a slender novitiate who, at 19, has worn the orange for eight years. His temple lies out in the rice fields, an hour from Chiang Mai in the village of Baan Mae On, and his Songkran is largely spent accepting alms from kneeling, shoeless farming families and chanting convoluted, quick-fire blessings in return. On request, he must pay tribute to ancestors, angels, household spirits and deceased pets. It’s tough vocal work: by the end of a long morning, he’s mumbling nineteen to the dozen, like a drowsy livestock auctioneer.