Thailand is unlike the West in that it only has three seasons – cool, hot, and rainy. Traditionally, the Thai New Year began in April. This is because old Siam operated on its own Lunar Calendar derived from Buddhist sources and this continued until His Majesty King Rama 5 equalised our New Year with the West, in 1888.
In addition, Thailand’s largest ethnic minority is the Chinese and they observed the Chinese Lunar Calendar, which had an entirely different New Year’s Day. So, nowadays if you live here full time, you get three chances to celebrate New Year’s: Once on January 1 for the Gregorian Calendar, an entire week in February for the Chinese Luni-solar Calendar, and three days in April to honour the traditional Siamese Lunar-Buddhist Calendar.
So, when you go home, make certain to tell your friends that you’ve come back from the future. This is because, although Siam did equalise the New Year to the day and month, it is still observing the year from our traditional Buddhist calendar. So, it is officially the year 2561 in Thailand; 543 years ahead of the West. This year is still used for all legal documents in Thailand, such as university documents, graduations, national ID’s, and any legal documents.
As for Songkran, while it may be a fun-filled water festival today, it was originally a quiet Burmese holiday called Samkranti. In ancient Siam, people would return home and honour their elders with water. Water washed away the ills of the last year in exchange for the blessings of a new year. Many Thai people still return to their childhood villages and towns during Songkran.
Quietly, the old traditions hang on in the countryside. Buddhist monks still bless people and beloved possessions with coloured talcum powder. Water is poured over the palms of family elders. Fireworks are lit to ward-off bad luck, Buddha’s statue is bathed and animals are released to the wild.
Yet, modernisation is bringing notable changes. Thanaphat Jarukasemratana, aged 31, says, “My family always make holiday at Songkran. We go to Portugal.” He explained that his family are mainly from Bangkok, so they get together every Songkran and explore a foreign country.
Meanwhile, as some Thai’s now travel abroad, parts of Phuket become the scene of giant parties that are popular with foreigners. Yet, Mr Jarukasemratana does not expect foreigners to know about the old Songkran ways and encourages them to have fun and learn about Songkran traditions while they are here.
Yet, there is an increasing amount of confusion as to what tradition really holds and, just as many Westerners sometimes confuse their traditions, there are also some Thai people who don’t really know all that much about their own traditions.
For example, legend has it that Buddha was reincarnated many times before he lived the life of Prince Siddhartha, who became the man you recognise as Buddha. According to the murals of Wat Yai Intharam of Chonburi just one life prior to Buddhahood Buddha was living as Prince Vessentara. In this life, Buddha was known as “The Charitable Prince” and was renowned for his charitable deeds. But, along the way, he met a very bad man that the Thai people call Chuchok. (Choo-Choke)
Mr Chuchok’s image is the one we used for this article and, if you pay close attention, you’ll occasionally see Thai people paying homage to his image. But why, you may ask, do Thai people salute, wai, or otherwise honour a bad man? The answer is because some people no longer know that he was a bad man.
The tradition has gotten somewhat confused and there’s a solid explanation as to why as you will find out in the next All About Buddhism column. To be continued…
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. For suggestions or questions: firstname.lastname@example.org