Boon Songkran Photo Essay

These photos are from the Boon Songkran (บุญสงกรานต์) celebration at Wat Phothiwararam in Udon Thani city in April 2019. Thanks to everyone for making us feel welcome and especially to Khun Mon for answering my many questions. For more information, there’s an explanation of Boon Songkran and an overview of heet sip-song, the twelve Isan merit-making traditions.

While Songkran, the Thai New Year, is famous for its water wars that last at least three days – this year the government officially set the holiday for five days, April 12-16 – the core of Songkran remains a religious celebration of remembrance and renewal that takes place among family and community at homes and temples; and this, not playing water (as Thais call it), is the focus of this article.

people on the street and in a truck throwing water at each other
people in colorful shirts sitting in back of a pickup truck
children throwing water at the photographer

Ancestors and Elders

The most important part of Songkran is paying respect to parents and grandparents. Flower-scented water is gently poured over their hands and short blessings for the new year (wishes for health, happiness, wealth, etc.) are exchanged.

man pouring water over hands of an old woman

Buddha statues also get bathed with scented water; not only at homes and temples, but hotels, shopping malls, hospitals, schools, and the like also put them out on tables giving people extra opportunities to make merit. At home, most people will also sprinkle a little water on any other possessions the family deems holy such as amulets, relics, or monk statues.

pouring water on Buddha at a house
pouring water over a Buddha at a shopping mall

People also pay respect to their ancestors at home and/or at the temple. Food is given and the vault containing their ashes, if there is one, will be spruced up and decorated with flowers.

monk with ancestor vault at temple
women with ancestor vault at temple
family with ancestor vault at temple

Some families give their spirit houses a spring cleaning and the gods who stay there get a gift of food and flowers. People pray to these gods for protection in the year to come.

hanging flower garlands on spirit house
praying before a spirit house
food offering for spirit house

The Boon Songkran Celebration

While the government long ago designated April 13 as the official Songkran day, not every temple follows this. Wat Phothiwararam always celebrates on the 16th so that more of the temple community can come.

From the 13th to the 15th, the temple hosted the same merit-making activities that all temples do at this time: having monks sit out to receive donations, and letting people bathe Buddhas with water. Many people partook, and it was a busy three days at the temple.

pouring water on Buddhas at temple

At Wat Phothiwararam there were no special activities for the monks in the morning – they just did their alms rounds through the streets and went about their day as always.

The main Songkran activity at most temples in Thailand is building chedi sai (“sand stupas”). The sand was packed with paddles, feet, hands, and hoes and shaped by templates, trowels, and hands. And at all times the sand needs to be kept wet, so someone was always on spray duty throughout the construction.

people building sand stupas
digging sand out of large pile
man pouring water on sand stupa
using template to shape sand on a sand stupa
using template to shape sand on a sand stupa
patting down sand on a sand stupa
man standing on sand
patting down sand with a hoe on a sand stupa
people building sand stupas
people building sand stupas
people building sand stupas
man carving design into sand stupa
man carving design into sand stupa

Besides sculpting sand, the other half of making chedi sai is preparing the flowers. Each blossom is inserted into the sand with a toothpick.

women preparing flowers for sand stupas
woman preparing flowers for sand stupas
preparing flowers for sand stupas
woman cutting banana leaves
woman putting flowers on sand stupa
women putting flowers on sand stupa
woman putting flowers on sand stupa
man putting flowers atop a sand stupa

And people who weren’t sculpting stupas or fixing flowers were preparing and serving food to everyone who came to the temple to help out or to just have a look.

women serving food
banana leaf snack packets
woman cutting papaya

Music was blasted through large speakers. And this being Isan, many people broke out into spontaneous dancing during the day.

woman dancing

Building ceased at 2pm and then it was time for the judges (teachers from a nearby school) to have a look. The chedi sai building was a contest between nine neighborhoods around the temple, although even with cash prizes (2000B for 1st place, 1700B for 2nd, and 1500B for 3rd) few people seemed to take the competition seriously – many people helped out with other teams’ stupas. While style and beauty were major factors, other criteria included size (no shorter than 1.2 meters and no narrower than 1.5 meters), creativity, good teamwork, and respecting the Buddha.

finished sand stupas
finished sand stupa
finished sand stupa
close-up of flowers on a finished sand stupa
judges looking at a sand stupa

Wat Phothiwararam’s second act was gila puen mueang (“local sports”). It’s not a typical Songkran activity, but about a decade ago, people decided to do something fun that would attract more people to the temple, and this competition became an annual tradition here with some new sports introduced every year. Winning wasn’t the point and anyone who wanted to join could, regardless of age and ability.

man putting chalk on the group to make a racetrack
Carry a Child and Follow Your Wife

This was a simple water balloon-hugging relay race.

man running with a water balloon
man running with a water balloon
Golf Drive

Another relay race, this one needing to hit a golf ball to the opposite side of the track using a water bottle tied around the waist. The original plan was to use carrots instead of water bottles, but they were old and thus broke easily.

three men playing golf game
women playing golf game
women playing golf game
Banana Hammock

A water balloon toss using cloth. The team with the most catches in two minutes wins.

tossing water balloons
Close Your Eyes, Paint a Face, and Eat with Difficulty

The highlight of the afternoon, this was a race with five tasks along the course. One pair of people (all the other games were between teams of four; two women and two men) had to do each other’s makeup (The racers didn’t need to close their eyes for this, the results just made it look like they had.) then eat a banana, eat a slice of watermelon, eat a hanging piece of bread (no hands), and find a coin under a pile of talcum powder.

man with face painted eating watermelon
eating bread
man blowing powder to find a coin
Superman Run

Another relay race, this one requiring each runner to put on a cape-and-underwear costume before running.

women in superman run
women in superman run
women in superman run

When the games were done, the winning neighborhoods for both competitions were announced: Chumchon Sang Kaew 1 won the best chedi sai, Chumchon Sang Kaew 3 was the sports champion, and Chumchon Wat Phothiwararam got a one-thousand-baht prize for having the most people attend. The awards, and also certificates of appreciation for the judges, were given by the mayor and other local dignitaries.

teacher receiving certificate
finished sand stupa
The winning sand stupa.

The games over, it was time for a bit of Buddhism. There were the usual blessings and suat mon chanting and prayers from the monks, and the sand used to make the chedi sai was formally given to the temple; this is a regular part of Songkran, though here it was symbolic since the sand was already at the temple. The people also made a considerable cash donation to the temple fund.

monks leading ceremony
monk blessing people

The Songkran celebration finished, as it does at most temples, with the monks sitting in a row so people could pour water over their hands and shoulders. And often the monks splashed back – both giving and getting a monk dousing brings great merit.

men and women pouring water on monks
men and women pouring water on monks
men and women pouring water on monks
men and women pouring water on monks

After the monks, many people stayed around the temple to pour water over their friends and neighbors, and in case that wasn’t enough, a fire truck was there to get everyone completely soaked – very refreshing after a day that topped 38C (100F). This led to a lot of dancing in the rain.

water falling down on people like rain
fire truck spraying water
man dancing
two women pouring water over each other's shoulders
large group of people dancing

Boon Khao Kam (Month 1)
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Boon Khun Lan (Month 2)
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Boon Khao Jee (Month 3)
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Boon Pha Wet (Month 4)
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Boon Songkran (Month 5)
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Boon Bang Fai (Month 6)
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Boon Samha (Month 7)
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Boon Khao Phansa (Month 8)
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Boon Khao Pradap Din (Month 9)
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Boon Khao Sak (Month 10)
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Boon Ok Phansa (Month 11)
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Boon Kathin (Month 12)
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