Songkran has become watered down in many urban centers, as you can see from all the malls where Buddha images are set up to be rinsed by patrons who go through the blessing motions with little heart and no soul.
My favorite place to usher in the Thai new year is in the northeast, preferably a small town. Those farming communities have not lost the original spirit or the fervor of the festivities.
A few years ago I was out in a town in Korat which is no more than a flyspeck on any map of Thailand. A friend was visiting from Canada. I wanted to show him the real Thailand.
On our first morning there, I woke up around 9am to see him staggering drunkenly into the house. What happened? “Oh, I been drinking moonshine with Granny under her house since 6am.”
We had not even eaten breakfast yet and Tim was totally hammered.
The days start early out here. By the first cock’s crow the villagers are up and feasting on toads, lizards, insects, bats, and snakes before they make their way out to the rice paddies. In between harvests, they still get up early, the men to drink and gamble, the women to cook, wash and sew.
ESCAPE FROM MENIAL DRUDGERY
Festivals are some of the few breaks from this hand-to-mouth life of drudgery.
Over the three days of Songkran there are temple fairs with live bands and circle dances, ceremonies to anoint Buddha images and pour water over the hands of elders to bless them, special family dinners and non-stop drinking.
You can’t book a tour of these places. There are no hotels, no guesthouses, no restaurants. Pretty much the only way to get out there is to hop a ride with a local friend or the traveling party of a Thai spouse. It helps to speak Thai, certainly, because there is not a lot of English spoken out in the boondocks.
If you can circumvent these obstacles, the payoff is enormous: you will meet some of the most generous and genuinely hospitable folks in the country while savoring a few slices of rural life served as raw and real as it gets.
This is the heart of the heartland and it pulsates with the country’s lifeblood of agrarian and animistic traditions.
You won’t see any of those fancy, multi-colored water cannons out here to dampen the festive spirit. For one thing, nobody could afford one.