Splashing Songkran celebrations in Luang Prabang

parade in de stratenThe celebration of mid-April’s traditional New Year in Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia — also known as the Water Throwing Festival — is reputedly most exuberant in Thailand’s Chiang Mai, but the people from the Northern Laotioan capital, Luang Prabang, claim to show as much fervour during the festival.

Besides a smaller scale and less commercialization, the setting of the colourful activities in Luang Prabang  is almost beyond compare. This jewel on the bank of the Mekong is no less than an open-air museum packed with lovely, picturesque French colonial buildings interspersed with brilliantly decorated Buddhist temples. Walking through the narrow, quiet lanes in the town centre is like a voyage into the past and, notwithstanding the considerable  numbers of foreign tourists, this feeling is intensified during the celebrations.

Considering  the communist regime’s many years of neglect of Buddhism and the suppression of pre-Buddhist beliefs, the revival of the traditional New Year festivities — an intriguing mixture of Buddhist rituals and fertility cuts — is remarkable.

However, as in Chiang Mai, a water war dominates the main streets. The major weapons are cups and buckets of water and water pistols as big as machine guns. However, battles between trucks equipped with drums and jars filled with water are an increasingly common sight as Luang Prabang’s inhabitants become more affluent. The water-play continues throughout the festival, which lasts over a week. It provides relief from the intense April heat, but is essentially a ritual intended to stimulate the oncoming monsoon rains. The transition period between the hot, dry season and the rainy season, during which the rice will be planted, is also a time of bawdiness and relaxation of the rules governing conduct between the sexes, and of general merry-making.

The festive mood is best appreciated on the sandbar stretching along the right bank of the Mekong River opposite the town. Numerous small boats provide a continuous shuttle service to this islet which is transformed into an open-air food market, a hive of activity where hundreds of visitors enjoy a snack or a glass of lao khao — the indispensable rice liquor that fuels the fun.

Along the water front, the mimic battle continues. Youngsters frolic around the beach, throwing each other in the river and smearing each other’s soaked bodies with talc powder — carefully selecting their victims from among the girls or boys they find most attractive. Both soot and bright red powder are used to paint the faces of their favourites, making them look like American Indians on the war-path.

This side of the sandbar is also the place where communities from villages and urban neighbourhoods join together to build stupa-shaped sand castles. After decorating its base with sand balls, the edifice is peppered with white talc powder, and colourful paper banners carrying zodiac signs are planted on top of it. The stupa is a major symbol of the Buddhist faith, representing Mount Meru and the Three Worlds of the Buddhist Cosmos. The banners, on the other hand, symbolize the cosmic cycle, appropriate at this auspicious day when the sun passes  from the sign of Pisces into the sign of Aries. In Southeast Asia this hot season event is traditionally considered the beginning of the New Year. Actually, songkan, the Lao word for New Year (in Thai it is songkran), is derived from a sanskrit word which refers to this passage.

Building a stupa, even one made of sand, is considered an act that confers great merit. On Luang Prabang’s sandbar this religious dedication, however, is combined with riotous fun and frivolity. Some groups dance around their completed sand stupa, uttering obscenities, and are sometimes led by an effeminate man gesticulating with a phallic-shaped piece of wood. It’s fun and Buddhist devotion mixed with rain-making fertility rites.

The firing of bamboo-rockets at the other side of the sand bar — only separated  from the right bank of the Mekong by a shallow creek — is a similar amalgam. Accompanied by the rhythm of drums and gongs, communities dance while carrying their roughly ten-metre-long, decorated bamboo rocket to the site where a wooden scaffolding has been erected — Luang Prabang’s Cape Kennedy. There they enjoy watching the fate of the other rockets, until it is their turn to place their missile on the scaffolding. The leader of the group shouts a final instruction to the only man on the scaffolding, who, after a minute change on the position of the gunpowder-filled rocket, will ignite the fuse dangling from the container. If the take-off is successful, the bamboo rocket will be propelled  into a spectacular flight of several hundreds of metres before crashing into the deserted northern part of the sand bar.

Although the rocket firing is a contest between temple congregations, a failure during the take off — many rockets explode during the process — is not regretted, and is even seized on a source of fun. Usually, the team will chase the man who had supervised the construction of their rocket and, when they catch him, toss him into the river.

Sand stupa.

A sand stupa on the sandbar in the Mekong opposite Luang Prabang.

It is believed, however, that rockets in flight bring rain to the fields surrounding the launching, and they can actually be considered as nagas — mythological, rain-producing serpents. What’s more, considerable phallicism is suggested by the rocket — ‘a lighted phallus, its masculine fire able both to attract and subdue the female element,’ as one anthropologist put it. In the past, this was expressed more overtly when the men parading the rockets even carried wooden phalluses and brandished the rockets at female spectators and boasted of the sexual potency of the missile. But even today, I observed a man ‘stimulating’ the rocket before launching by ‘tickling’ it with a twig of a willow tree — a species that always grows near water.

Usually the fun on the sandbar is combined with a visit to the nearby Sakkalin Suvannakuha Cave on the bank of the Mekong, to pay hommage to the ancient, decaying Buddha images kept there.

Such homage is also paid on a truly lavish scale in the famous Pak Ou Caves, at the confluence of the Nam Ou, some 30 kilometres upstream from Luang Prabang. There thousands of Buddhas — many of them gilded, wooden statues of considerable age — peep from the dark over the majestic Mekong. During Songkran, a stream of visitors pour water onto them through a naga-ornamented wooden sluice pipe. This cleansing lustration was traditionally led by the king, who arrived at the caves in a barge procession.

In 1975, when the right bank of the Nam Ou was already occupied by the Pathet Lao, the communists agreed to a cease-fire to allow the king to continue this tradition — for the very last time, since, after they took power, the monarchy was abolished. Recently, there has been a revival of these rituals in the caves, albeit without the presence of a king, with most visitors now pouring water over the images from plastic bottles.

Meanwhile, in the centre of Luang Prabang, the Pha Bang, the country’s most revered Buddha image, has left its place in the Royal Palace Museum and is taken to Wat Mai, a nearby temple. Traditionally this colourful procession was also led by the king. At Wat Mai, the sacred Buddha statue is ritually bathed, first by the town’s three guardian spirits (represented by spirit mediums), then by high officials and other VIPs, and finally by the common people. Beside their bowl of water, many bring a phakhun, a tiered offering made folded banana leaves decorated with flowers, while thian wian hua, tall, slender candles, are lit in a circle around the railing of the altar.

Luang Prabang’s famous guardian spirits add much colour and fun to the festival. They are represented  by figures wearing large red-hued wooden heads with thick tresses of sisal rope hanging over most of their bodies. Two of them, Grandfather and Grandmother Nyeu, wear round heads displaying big teeth and heavy eyebrows. They are thought to portray the ‘tribal’ Khamu ancestors who lived in the area before the Lao settled there. The third figure, Sing Kaeo Sing Kham, wears a lion’s head and is thought to represent the Khamu king.

Old Buddha images in a cave.

Decayed Buddha images in Sakkalin Suvannakuha Cave.

Throughout the year the masks of these ancestor spirits are kept at Wat Aham, but during the New Year the spirits receive offerings and are taken in a great procession through the main streets, before they perform the initial lustration of the Pha Bang image. These guardian spirits are much venerated by the local people, old folk sometimes pulling ‘hair’ from the masks and proudly distributing  it among their relatives. Interestingly, the guardian spirits of Chiang Mai (or at least Doi Suthep)  are also considered of tribal ancestry, in this case the Lawa who inhabited  the area before the arrival of the Northern Thai. The annual offerings to these spirits, including a recently revived buffalo sacrifice, takes place at the end of the hot season.

In Luang Prabang, as in Chiang Mai, the cleaning of the houses is another aspect of the New Year. The people will put on new clothes, and senior monks and elder relatives in town will also receive a water offering. Lustral water flavoured with the pod of an acacia tree, will be poured from tiny silver or alluminium cups over the elder person’s hands, folded to represent a lotus bud (the wai). This is considered both as a gesture of respect and a request for forgiveness for the junior’s sins during the past year.

‘In all these situations this cleansing of water is used to transmit something,’ writes anthropologist Richard Davis about similar rituals during Songkran in Thailand’s Nan province. ‘It carries away dirt, pollution and evil influences; it conveys the power of magic spells and Buddhist chants; it communicates aggressive and sexual impulses in the water throwing; and it conveys the good intentions of the host in welcoming a guest.’

Actually, a cleansing activity of gigantic proportions is the mythological preamble to the foundation of Buddhism. Before the Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment, Mara, the personification of evil, launched a major attack, accompanied by his legions of followers, to distract the ascetic prince from his high endeavour. Then Mother Earth came to the rescue. During Buddha’s previous lives, she had gathered a drop of water in her long hair for each of his countless meritorious deeds. When she thus wrung these oceans of water from her hair, she created a giant tsunami, in which Mara’s evil forces were all swept away. Their destruction is a popular theme in temple murals.

Numerous other activities occur during Luang Prabang’s New Year. There are boat races on the Mekong, and one evening a Chinese dragon-style naga will descent from Phou Si, the hill right in the centre of the town, and dance in the former palace grounds.

Also early one morning, thousands will climb the stairs leading to the gilded chedi on top of Phou Si, leaving offerings to the spirits of balls of sticky rice all along the path and upon the rocks on which the chedi has been built. At the stadium near Wat That Luang is a large, daily fair with such archaic attractions as human-powered carousels, as well as the modern promotion and sale of brands of toothpaste and soap from Thailand.

The large procession from Wat That Noi to Wat Xieng Thong — the latter being the town’s most famous and beautiful temple — is considered the highlight of the celebrations. During this parade Grandfather and Grandmother Nyeu and their Lion King dance through the streets together with hundreds of enthusiastic revelers; farmers mime their their fishing skills; tribal Hmong demonstrate their traditional games; and young men adorned with flower garlands love to caper around as effeminately as they can. Hundreds of monks join the procession, and there are floats with senior monks seated under a canopy, as well as others with giant models of nagas. Officials with strained looks shout instructions to a man with a long bamboo pole who lifts the power lines across the street out of the way to prevent the tops of the floats running into them. And of course, the water throwing and talc and soot smearing go on and on.

After the Pha Bang image is returned to its altar in the Royal Palace Museum, ten days of festivities have finally come to an end — for many in the usually ‘easy-going’ town where time stands still it is almost a relief. As the proverb says: ‘Enough is enough.’

©SJON HAUSER: text and images

This story was published in Guidelines Chiang Mai, April 2005: 22; 50-51.