April 13 in Thailand is called Songkran Day (วันสงกรานต์ — Wan Songkran), or Thai New Year’s Day, marking the start of the three-day Songkran Festival (เทศกาลสงกรานต์ — Thetsakon Songkran). This is the major holiday of the year, the third of the New Years celebrated in Thailand (“Western” New Year on January 1 and Chinese New Year in late January or early February being the others). Many Thai people return to their hometowns for reunions with their elders during this period. It coincides with the rising of Aries on the astrological chart, the New Year of many calendars of South and Southeast Asia. The festive occasion is in keeping with the Buddhist/Hindu solar calendar. As this is during the hottest time of the year, water is associated with the Thai New Year. Of the three days — April 13, 14 and 15 — the first day is known as วันมหาสงกรานต์ (Wan Maha Songkran), the second as วันเนา (Wan Nao), and the third as วันเถลิงศก (Wan Thaloeng Sok). The 14th is also observed as Family Day.
The Songkran celebration is rich with symbolic traditions. Mornings begin with merit-making. Visiting local temples and offering food to the Buddhist monks is commonly practiced. On this specific occasion, performing water pouring on Buddha statues is considered an iconic ritual for this holiday. It represents purification and the washing away of one’s sins and bad luck. As a festival of unity, people who have moved away usually return home to their loved ones and elders. As a way to show respect, younger people often practice water pouring over the palms of elders’ hands. Paying reverence to ancestors is also an important part of Songkran tradition.
The holiday is known for its water festival. Major streets are closed for traffic, and are used as arenas for water fights. Celebrants, young and old, participate in this tradition by splashing water on each other. Traditional parades are held and in some areas “Miss Songkran” is crowned. where contestants are clothed in traditional Thai dress.
Songkran is celebrated slightly differently in the different regions of Thailand. In the Central Region, people clean their houses as the New Year approaches. Everybody dresses up in colorful clothing. After offering food to the monks, the people will offer a requiem to their ancestors. People make merit with such offerings as giving sand to the temple for construction or repair. Other forms of merit include releasing birds and fish. Nowadays, people also release other kinds of animals such as buffaloes and cows. The water festival in Bangkok often continues for three days.
Thais in the Southern Region have three Songkran rules: Work as little as possible and avoid spending money; don’t hurt other persons or animals: and don’t tell lies. The water festival is generally limited to just one day (the 13th).
In the Northern Region of Thailand, April 13 is celebrated with gunfire or firecrackers to repel bad luck. On the next day, people prepare food and useful things to offer to the monks at the temple. People have to go to temple to make merit and bathe Buddha’s statue and after that they pour water on the hands of elders and ask for their blessings. In cities such as Chiang Mai, water-play continues for at least five days and often for longer.
The Eastern Region has activities similar to the other part of Thailand, but people in the east always make merit at the temple throughout all the days of the Songkran Festival. Some people, after making merit at the temple, prepare food to be given to the elderly members of their family.
Songkran is also celebrated by the Malaysian Siamese communities in the states of Kedah, Kelantan, Penang, Perak, Perlis and Terengganu. Many Thai temples worldwide host Songkran festivities with particularly large celebrations at Wat Thai in Los Angeles and Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon, London. There are also mid-April New Year’s celebrations in many regional countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India.
Aside from the traditional methods of celebrating Songkran, the holiday has become known in recent years for the huge water fights with brisk trade in large water guns (“super-soakers”) being made in the days leading up to the New Year. If one ventures outside during this time, it is almost impossible to avoid becoming quickly doused by water. Apart from the water cannons, popular methods include the simple spray hose and bowls filled from large barrels. Ice is often added to the barrels of water to increase the discomfort of the recipient. In Phuket, where I live, the local fire department often uses one of their water pumping trucks to add to the water flying through the air. On a hot, sunny day, this can be quite welcome.
Effective in 2017, it has become illegal to ride in the beds of pickup trucks. The primary reason is the number of accidents caused by the trucks carrying huge barrels of water to use on other vehicles and pedestrians during Songkran. Police statistics show that the death toll from road accidents doubles during the annual Songkran holiday. Between 2009 and 2013, there were about 27 road deaths per day during non-holiday periods and an average of 52 road deaths per day during Songkran. Thailand has the second-highest traffic fatality rate in the world, with 44 deaths per 100,000 residents. Approximately 70 percent of the accidents that occurred during the long holiday period were motorcycle accidents. About 10,000 people per year die in motorcycle accidents in Thailand.
During the 2014 Songkran festivities, 322 deaths and 2,992 injuries occurred from April 11-17. Drunk driving and speeding were the leading causes of accidents, in which most involved were motorcycles and pickup trucks. During the “seven dangerous days” of the Songkran festivities in 2016, from April 11-17, 442 persons died and 3,656 were injured in road accidents, up 21.4 percent from 2015. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) says a total of 110,909 people were arrested and 5,772 vehicles impounded at road safety checkpoints across the country between April 9-16, 2016.
On April 7, 2015, Thailand Post issued four stamps commemorating the Songkran Festival with the subtitle “The Beginning of Thainess Year.” These were given the issue number of TH-1067. The four three-baht stamps were released in sheets of 10 of each design and in a souvenir sheet of four stamps. There were 500,000 copies of each design printed using the lithography process by Thai British Security Printing Public Company Limited, Thailand. They measure 48 x 30 millimeters.
The stamps were designed by Miss Mayuree Narknisorn of Thailand Post using original photos provided by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) with the objective to promote the Thainess Year.
The four designs are:
a) Sprinkling water onto a Buddha image and monks
b) Pouring scented water on the hands of revered elders and asking for blessing
c) Forming sand Pagoda to contribute to Buddhism
d) Splashing water to reduce the heat of summer and have fun together
The set was the first in a planned annual series of Songkran stamps.