Well known as one of Asia's most fascinating spectacles, Songkran, the official Thai New Year festival in April has come to be seen by many foreign visitors as the world's biggest water fight. Yet despite the famous wet revelry, Songkran is still a deeply spiritual celebration for most Thai people and the ceremonies and rituals that surround the festival offer a fascinating insight into one of the world's most unique cultures.
Visitors travelling to Thailand between April 10 - 18 can experience these time-honoured Buddhist customs and ancient merit-making traditions in Bangkok at the 'Splendours of Songkran' Festival, held at nine royal Buddhist temples dotted around the capital. Even if the main reason to visit Thailand is to enjoy one of the kingdom's famous beach destinations, a day of culture in the capital is time well spent and the photographs will certainly inspire amazement when you get back home.
Wat Phra Si Rattanasasadaram (Wat Phra Kaeow)
Known in English as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, this ancient royal building was constructed as a representation of endless wealth and prosperity. For the Thai New Year, activities at the temple centre around paying homage to famous Emerald Buddha statue, which according to legend was created in India in 43 BC. Pilgrims sprinkle or pour floral-scented lustral water onto Buddha images and receive blessings from the temple's many monks.
Wat Phrachetuphon Wimonmangkhalaram (Wat Pho)
The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is better known to visitors as Wat Pho. The festival's opening ceremony at Wat Pho is an invocation ritual performed in the area surrounding The Giant Swing monument on 10 April. Following the opening ceremony, cultural activities for Thai New Year centre around the theme of “Songkran in the Four Regions of the Kingdom”. The events offer an opportunity for visitors to witness Songkran festivities staged in each of the main areas of the country, highlighting their differences and similarities.
Wat Suthat Thepwararam (Wat Suthat)
Wat Suthat is a well known Buddhist centre dedicated to enlarging personal vision and building character of the Thai people. Special activities at the temple include merit-making by paying homage to the various Buddha images in the grounds, as well as the ritual bathing of Buddha images and building sand stupas. The temple also hosts a Southern Thailand cultural showcase with performances, artistic presentations, and culinary delights from the Southern Region.
Wat Arunratchawararam Ratchaworamahawihan (The Temple of Dawn)
One of the best known landmarks and most photographed sights in Bangkok, the Temple of the Dawn is decorated with pieces of porcelain once used as ballast by Chinese boats trading with Bangkok during the reign of King Rama III. Activities during Songkran include merit-making and paying homage to the various Buddha images in the temple. This is also the best place to witness the 'rot nam dum hua' ceremony, a demonstration of respect for Thai elders. Young people show their respect by pouring water over older people's hands and asking for forgiveness for bad deeds in the past. Cultural presentations and performances take place at the temple during Thai New Year, offering a unique photo opportunity with the Temple of Dawn overlooking the Chao Phraya River in the background.
This temple was renovated during the reign of King Rama I as a shrine to honour the Mon soldiers in Prince Surasinghanart's troop who helped win 3 important battles. Activities at the temple are presented in two zones with live demonstrations of arts and crafts relating to the Thai New Year. A traditional Thai temple fair features food stalls with cultural performances and fairground games adding to the spectacle.
For true culture vultures, a 'passport' to all the temples in the Songkran Festival can be requested at the information desks in each one. Visitors who have their passport stamped at all of the 9 featured temples receive a coupon for a lucky draw. If visiting all the temples seems a challenge, then experiencing just one of the events offers an intriguing and enjoyable insight into the history and traditions of the Thai New Year.