A dense crowd presses around them, toting offerings that are devoutly held forth with a respectful bow or on desperate occasion slam-dunked over a sea of heads into the monks’ silver bowls. These swiftly overflow with an extraordinary blend of the decorative and the practical: lotus-blossom bouquets, neat banana-leaf parcels packed with sticky rice, bags of crisps, drink cartons, torches, disinfectant, toilet rolls. Thailand’s 38,000 temples are almost entirely reliant on donations from the faithful and Songkran is their greatest alms-harvest.
“I see some monks who maybe like the free food too much,” laughs Kruba Noi, a slander novitiate who, at 19, has worn the orange for eight years. His temple lies out in the rice fields, an hour from Chiang Mai in the village of Baan Mae On, and his Songkran is largely spent accepting alms from kneeling, shoeless farming families and chanting convoluted, quick-fire blessings in return. On request, he must pay tribute to ancestors, angels, household spirits and deceased pets. It’s tough vocal work: by the end of a long morning, he’s mumbling nineteen to the dozen, like a drowsy livestock auctioneer.
At Songkran, it can feel as if every other Thai male is a monk and there has indeed been a surge in numbers over recent years: the country is currently home to more than 300,000. Some elders sniff that most newbies are young men who sign up for just a few months, drawn by the chance to study, the free bed and board, and especially the kudos. A stint as a monk bestows much familial karma and is a very attractive entry on the CV of a potential employee or husband. Kruba Noi, though, is in it for the long haul. “For me, this festival is about renewal, the birth of a new year and another opportunity to improve myself,” he says, referencing an allegiance to reincarnation that underpins his religious career. Asked why he chose to become a monk, 9
looks nonplussed: “It wasn’t a choice. I was a monk in a previous life and just responded to that call.”
In Baan Mae On, extra-temple festivities are rooted in deference and fraternity.
Families wander through the bamboo glades and knobbly fruited kaffir lime trees, and into each other’s open-sided teak houses, offering baskets of kanom tian — little pyramids of tapioca and coconut wrapped in banana leaves — to elderly relatives, teachers and respected shamans.
Rural Songkran is a largely dry affair, though Aoi Silphisuth, who runs a homestay cookery school in the village, points out the tin troughs that stand in wait by some thresholds. “Just in case, you know, for defence.” Her family will go into Chiang Mai for an evening squirt, though her son is well aware that their armoury — a kid’s bucket and a plastic bottle with a hole in the lid — will see them mercilessly outgunned.
By early afternoon, it’s topped 40°C back in the Old City and a procession is wobbling out of the heat haze down a long, straight avenue. In Chiang Mai, 13 April is centred around this spectacle, one that began at first light with the hectic presentation of monkish alms. Now, the pavements are dense with expectant worshippers and street vendors hawking festival fuel in all its forms: bags of khaep mu, the deep-fried pork-rind that accessorises every meal in the city; the challenging blend of bitter, black herb jelly and condensed milk that is chao kuai; crate after crate of topless, hurl-ready bottles of cloyingly perfumed water. It always rains on this parade.