My weapon of choice was a bright green, double-barrelled, pump-action, water pistol. Never has New Year been so much fun!
Everyone is armed. Old and young, all have buckets, bottles, hose’s, urns, water guns and even the fire tender is on hand to add to the total sum of water. Much of the liquid is gold coloured and yellow flowers float in it. The crowd is sprayed, monks and police officers are as wet as everyone else is. The smiling Thais love to see Farangs (foreigners) joining in the celebrations and fun.
What is all this festivity about? It’s a festival called Songkhran in Thailand and each April Buddhists observe the Buddhist New Year.
Buddha images are doused with water and carried in processions around the temple and streets to the accompaniment of music, laughter, and water water water! The water blesses and purifies everything. Homes are cleaned with ready for family and friends visiting to celebrate new beginnings.
My first day, of the three of the fun and games, was at the temple Wat Phochai in the little city of Nong Khai on the banks of the mighty Mekong River (bordering Laos) and off the tourist trail, I was one of only five or six visitors there so became a real target for being constantly blessed – by being doused.
“Farang, farang” the cry goes up.
“No! No!” I join in the fun, “Khon Thai. Khon Thai” I call. They laugh at this visitor thinking she is Thai. By nine in the morning I’m soaking wet – long before I’ve reached the temple steps.
The atmosphere is a mixture of reverence and fun, prayers and laughter, dancing and music.
‘Come with us – come’ a woman calls. Captured, or adopted, by a family as they dance out of the temple grounds, I too dance after the pied-piper-like man playing his khaen, a flute-like reed instrument.
At their home we dance in the yard and eat whole fish, soup and sticky rice. The children play with my gun, spraying everyone as we dance, ensuring we stay dripping wet.
The men, particularly gentle and graceful dancers, teach me the moves. “Like this” says the father and I awkwardly copy him.
Early in the afternoon I join a truck with the staff from the First Global Community College, and become part of an endless procession through the streets. Armed with large, water-filled urns and my gun, we drive into town. It’s our turn to throw water over everyone we meet; other trucks, pedestrians, police on point duty.
‘No exceptions’ they tell me ‘everyone gets wet’.
Amid all this water the sky joins in – in the middle of the dry season an unexpected storm arrives. Squashed, sun-dried frogs and snakes re-hydrate. Red orange, purple and yellow petals fall to the ground under the onslaught, and a few kind water throwers add warm water to their water containers. By now it’s getting chilly and we stop for coffee, sheltering under a garage roof along with a huge pig!
There is a serious side to all the jubilation too. I’m honoured to witness adult children pouring water over their parents cupped hands, asking for forgiveness for past wrongs and blessings for the future. They also gave gifts, a new shirt for Dad, a shawl for Mother along with gold candles, and money.
For three days the water, powder, tooting horns, music, laughter, prayers and blessings continue. It was wonderful to be absorbed into the celebrations and see some authentic Thai life. Many, perhaps most, travellers hate being wet for so long: for me it was the best New Year I ever celebrated.
Matariki is the Maori name for the small cluster of stars that can be seen low on New Zealand’s north-eastern horizon just before dawn in the last days of May or in early June. The first appearance of these stars, which are also known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, heralds the beginning of Maori New Year celebrations.
Traditionally, Matariki was an opportunity to honour the past and plan for the future. Today it has become a time to celebrate the remarkable country we live in; share kai (food), stories and songs; create art and enjoy cultural
Chinese New Year: travelling in Penang, Malaysia, (a couple of years ago) temporary stages were all around the city during the days leading to the Chinese New Year. Large semi-solid structures are at temples or outside affluent establishments or homes where people have financially supported the theatre or opera that is about to be staged.
For a few days before New Year opera plays nightly. Outside a supermarket two colourful dragons cavort, their fluttering eyelashes making the dance look flirtatious. As in many warm climates, evenings are when places come alive in a different way to the daytime busy-ness. Locals wander the streets talking to neighbours, eating meals in noisy gaggles and now in the Chinese New Year, watch local theatre.
As with all travellers, I too watch the theatre of life that unfolds itself daily, hourly, minute by minute and as part of that kaleidoscope, watch the shows. To a Western ear the sounds are often discordant, loud, and too highly pitched. Each evening I wander the streets of Georgetown, watch the opera and gradually my ears become accustomed to the tone.
Men, often dressed as women, are in colourful clothes and the story usually seems to be about long-lost loves or love betrayed; well that’s how I, with no knowledge of any Chinese language, interpret them.
Four or five men, sitting behind screens, make up the orchestra, and during long speeches or songs from the stage, I could hear their conversations and watch as huge plumes of cigarette smoke drift from around the screens and out to the audience.
The audience emerges from the shadows of alleyways, shops and homes as the band tune their instruments. I am given a sheet of newspaper to sit on, others sat on their rickshaw, bike, or chair carried from home, while yet others sat on newspaper too. Most smoke. Adding to the pall of smoke is the token money burnt in temple grounds as people make offerings to their ancestors.
If you can, spend some time on the road early in the western-calendar year. Leave New Zealand ( or whatever country you live in) after your New Years eve party and picnic the next day, then start counting. Counting the celebrations you can indulge in. Chinese New Year is usually first, both it and Islam’s end of Ramadan, the next new year, aren’t fixed dates but are lunar events so check for the dates. Then finally, in mid April – the Buddhist New Year.
Four fabulous New Years in a short space of time, all celebrated in very different ways and all wonderful times to be travelling and learning more about how other cultures enjoy the change of year.
To the Chinese community – Have a happy New Year!
NOTE: See photos of the Chinese New Zealand in Christchurch elsewhere on this site