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Songkran: a homecoming, away from problems

April 13, 2001

THE Songkran festival, which begins today, will give Thais a respite from the otherwise gloomy outlook for their lives.

Economically speaking, things are certainly going to get worse throughout this difficult year. Three years after the crisis, the curse has yet to fade away. Despite a political change, it will take time before the new government can prove whether or not it is for real.

For the time being, Thais should bask in high spirits with fresh water. The Songkran festival, in fact, ushers in a New Year according to the old Thai calendar.

It is supposed to be the hottest day of the year. It necessarily follows that an act of water splashing embodies a full blessing (sirimongkol) for the New Year.

But there is more subtle side to this auspicious event. Water splashing should rather be seen as a rite or an ecstatic participation of the Thai masses in the celebration of life.

The Thais will go out to fully express their passion in a frenzied way. In other words, the three-day festival - in some parts of the country the celebration may last longer - is at once reduced to the sphere of the unbounded, the lawless and the irrational.

For a reader of Nietzsche, the Songkran festival rekindles the Dionysian force, which shapes the creative passion of the higher man. This is in contrast to the Apollonian element, which represents the critical or rational side of human beings.

The Songkran festival is a homecoming event for many Thais, who are obliged to leave their hometowns to work elsewhere. A sense of nostalgia overwhelms those who cannot make it to their homes during this time.

Suddenly the villages, left empty most of the year to the elderly and the children they look after, spring back to life by the reappearance of the young and the energetic.

The festival starts out in a sublime, amiable way. Thais will go out to pour water on the hands - never the heads - of the elderly or phu yai as a sign of paying respect. The water is kept in a small bowl with flowers in it. The Thais will wish the phu yai good luck and a long and healthy life. Then they also ask blessing from the phu yai in return.

After this necessary rite, things will begin to get rough. While singing and doing traditional dancing, most of the time under the influence of alcohol, the Thais seek to realise their crudest instinct for ecstasy and a state of denial or mai pen rai (never mind).

Even in the face of hardship and extreme danger, the Thais always manage to utter the words mai pen rai. The festival gives them a respite to deny the existence of their problems.

But water splashing can also become mean. Some Thais might look straight into your eyes when they hit you with the water. It is a way of getting their revenge against the society. Only during this festival does the unlawful becomes lawful.

After the end of the festival, the Thais will return to a clear head. The old problems, left untouched by the mai pen rai mentality, come back. But they face these problems, mostly money problems, as if they were old friends.

In total despair, the Thais can always manage to smile. They wait for a better life, come tomorrow.

Soon Songkran will come back in an endless cycle of hope and despair, of joy and sorrow.






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