For much of Asia, mid-April heralds the end of the dry season. The hard work of gathering the harvest is over and there’s time to party before the rainy season begins. This natural pause in the farming calendar marks New Year in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, and the symbolism of washing away the old and nourishing the new is celebrated literally with high-spirited water festivals. Each country has its own distinct New Year traditions, but they all have one thing in common: if you are out in the streets, you’re going to get very wet!
The most well-known of the water festivals is undoubtedly Songkran, which turns the streets of Thailand into one giant party. The celebrations begin by giving homes a thorough clean, and those who have moved away return home to help. Merit making, which forms a big part of the celebrations, involves visiting local temples each morning to make offerings to the Buddhist monks and pour water onto images of the Buddha to ward off misfortune. Young people pour fragrant water into the hands of their elderly relatives as they ask for blessings on Rod Nam Dum Hua, the official National Elderly Day. Once the formalities have been observed, the mayhem can begin! Many smaller shops, restaurants and banks close up as everyone gets out into the streets to join in.
What began as a custom of gently pouring water over the head of a loved-one to wash away bad luck, has evolved to include bigger and bigger containers and now hoses, water balloons and water pistols too, leading to a full-on water fight which can last for a week! Chiang Mai is renowned for celebrating in especially wild style, while Bangkok’s festivities can be surprisingly low-key as many residents leave the city for their home towns, but wherever you go you are guaranteed to get a soaking. When the festival eventually draws to a close, captive fish and birds are released to symbolise compassion and good karma. One particularly beautiful incarnation of this ceremony takes place on Phuket, and is well worth the experience if you can get there.
During the Lao festival of Pi Mai you can expect a mixed bag of solemn religious customs and uninhibited water fights. It begins with a ‘Day of Renewal’ devoted to the same washing of the Buddha and cleaning of homes and temples as in Thailand, and this can be a quiet time for visitors. The following ‘Day of no Day’ is a limbo between the old and new year; everyone has the day off work to watch the grand parades full of colourful costumes wind through the streets. If you’re in Luang Prabang you can expect some serious crowds to gather to watch Prabang, the city’s Buddha, being carried to the temple of Wat Mai.
Some people take this opportunity to pour water over the sacred statue and collect it as it runs down, believing it to have become imbued with blessings. The banks of the Mekong are covered with hundreds of decorated sand stupas, built to block evil spirits from crossing into the next year. Visitors are often invited to help build one too, which can be a great way to get the whole family involved in the new year traditions.
On Baci, the final day, Laotian people tie white thread around their wrists to keep the sacred spirits, or kwan, from leaving the body, then celebrate with a meal together. Interspersed with all these relatively sedate traditions is, once again, the custom of wishing someone a happy new year by pouring water over their head. Here it is sometimes mixed with flour, which leads to everyone getting very wet and messy! The older generations are spared the dousing, but young people might instead pour water on their hands and ask for a blessing.
Not to be confused with the Cambodian Water Festival held in November to herald the start of the fishing season, Khmer New Year shares many of the same traditions as the other South-East Asian water festivals. Moha Songkran, the first day of the celebrations, sees Cambodians returning to their family homes to assist with the grand cleaning as well as presenting offerings of fruit, incense and lotus flowers to the guardian spirit of the incoming year.
The second day (Wanabat) is all about giving gifts to family and friends, and receiving blessings from the monks, while the third day, Tanai Lieng Saka, (meaning ‘new beginning’) is a time for families to celebrate together and wash statues of the Buddha with perfumed water. The water-throwing element tends to be more subdued here and, though you are still likely to get pretty wet, there is more of a focus on playing team games and rediscovering childhood freedom.
You might find yourself getting picked for a game of Chab Kon Kleng, where a mother ‘hen’ has to protect her ‘chicks’ from getting pecked by the ‘crow’, or Chol Chhoung, where two teams throw a ball to each other and must dance to the other team’s singing if they get hit! Siem Reap is renowned for its celebrations and can have in excess of one million visitors over the festival.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is the centre of the festivities, and you can take part in tug-of-war and ball games, play giant chess and see demonstrations of the Cambodian martial art, bokator. There are many stalls selling traditional snacks too, such as ‘kralan’, a sticky, sweet rice cake stuffed with beans and coconut, which is great for keeping up your energy levels while you play.
The annual festival of Thingyan is a time where the whole of Myanmar lets its hair down. Strict rules governing gatherings are relaxed and there is a general air of fun and playfulness. During the day on Thingyan Eve, time is spent in quiet religious observance following the stricter precepts of Buddhism, but by the time evening falls the air is electric with anticipation of the celebrations to come.
Women decorate their hair with bright yellow paduk flowers, music stages pop up on every corner, colourful parades fill the streets and, as night falls, the party really gets going. As soon as dawn breaks the next day, the festival officially begins and you can expect a lot of water! Huge water cannons drench the streets and passing cars, people pour herb-infused water onto the ground for luck and children soak their relatives, friends and pretty much anyone they see with water pistols.
All these water fights soon work up an appetite, and there are stalls dotted about selling mont lone yay paw - sticky rice-dough dumplings stuffed with jaggery (a type of palm sugar.) In keeping with the mischievous New-Year spirit, some of the dumplings are stuffed with birds-eye chillis instead, so beware!
On New Year’s Day, when all the water throwing is over, the younger generations make promises to do good deeds throughout the coming year and seal their promise by, rather beautifully, washing the hair of their elderly relatives. Offerings are made at temples and things gradually return to tranquillity. If you visit South-East Asia during these New Year festivals, we recommend jumping in feet-first and enjoying the moment.
Here are some things to bear in mind while you’re having fun:
- Though most people are fair game in the water fights, babies, the elderly and monks are always avoided.
- Keep your mobile phone, passport and any important documents in a waterproof zip-lock bag, as they are in danger of getting water-damaged.
- Leave anything precious or valuable in the hotel safe.
- Don’t go out if you don’t want to get wet! There’s no way of avoiding it, so if you’re not up for the games perhaps spend the day indoors with a good book.
- Make sure you drink some of the water as well as throw it, and protect yourself from the sun. These festivals take place during the hottest time of year and it’s easy to get sunburnt or dehydrated.
Take a look at our website or get in touch with one of our travel specialists who can put together an itinerary around your favourite water festival, and in the meantime why not head to your local park to brush-up your water balloon skills…