Those of you who have talked to me probably know I came from Thailand and have lived in the U.S. for virtually two years. A few days ago, I saw a poster about the Thingyan Water Festival which is taking place at Parrish Beach on Monday, April 16. The phrase “water festival” sounded familiar to me, but I could not recall what it is. So, I Googled it and found out Thingyan Water Festival is similar to one of the most famous festivals in Thailand — Songkran. Historically, Songkran is a celebration of Thailand’s traditional new year. “Songkran” is a Sanskrit word; meaning “passage.” In this context, “passage” refers to the passage of one year to the next.
Officially spanning from April 13 to April 15 of every year, Songkran festival is decreed by the Thai government as a national holiday. People usually celebrate the festival for an entire week in two ways: returning home and splashing water. Because job opportunities disproportionately cluster in urban areas, many people in Thailand must live away from their hometown in order to secure their jobs. Hence, Songkran festival is one of the rare moments where every family member can gather and cherish the presence of one another. People also splash water to bestow good blessings upon one another: splashing water washes evil away and freshens one’s body to prepare them for the upcoming year. Thingyan Water Festival in Myanmar shares similar cultural aspects and historical origins to Songkran festival. Born and raised in Thailand, I am definitely accustomed to the tradition of Songkran festival.
I was therefore troubled by how I had learned about the festival. Understandably, “Thingyan” might not ring a bell to me because I have always called the celebration “Songkran.” However, the keyword “water festival,” along with the date, should have provided me with sufficient clues to understand what Thingyan Water Festival is. It did not. Water festival is not how I conceptualize Songkran.
To elaborate, Songkran encompasses many aspects beyond splashing water. As aforementioned, family members, especially those who do not live together, use Songkran as an opportunity to reconvene. Together, they do good deeds, such as praying at temples or cleaning the street, and devote that good karma to themselves as well as their ancestors. Members within the same community also greet, hang out with, and bless one another. Youngsters also pay respect to the elderly and receive blessings from them. In other words, Songkran encompasses so many aspects of Thai tradition, such as adherence to Buddhism, environmental-mindedness, strong family bond, and so on.
Water splashing is merely a symbol people use when they give blessings and therefore cannot encompass the whole picture of Songkran celebration. Why, then, do many countries use the phrase “water festival” to promote this celebration to foreigners?
My first assumption is that water festival is the best slogan for garnering travelers’ interests. Indeed, the word hypes up travelers. When travelers see the phrase “water festival,” they cannot help but wonder, “What is a water festival?” “Water is just water. How can it be festive? What do Thai people do with the water?” Because most tourists travel to explore the unexplored, the catchy phrase “water festival” works wonder for attracting foreigners’ attention. Seeing an army of people dressed in flashy clothes splashing water on one another is more unexpected than seeing people dressed in white praying at a temple. Both traditions of Songkran, exciting though it was, are not unexpected for me: I have seen the festival before.
To validate this claim, I searched the word “Songkran” with two different keywords: Songkran as written in Thai and English alphabets. The first entry redirects to websites written in Thai whereas the second entry redirects to websites written in English. The result: the first entry yields pictures of people gently splashing water to one another or to Buddha statues appear as one of its top results. On the other hand, the second entry does not display similar entries unless you scroll to the very bottom. Rather, the images of people carrying water guns fervently as if they were fighting a war appear as the top results. With how the searching algorithm works, we can infer that foreigners find flashy, action-filled pictures more relevant to them. After all, the results people click the most frequently will appear as the top results. At this point, one may question what is wrong with people gravitating towards one aspect of a tradition over others: tourists are consumers; they can consume whatever they want. Such a mindset, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of tourism. When we read novels, we care not just what each character does but also what drives them to do so, because the latter enriches our understanding of the former. Likewise, tourists should care not just what Thai people do during Songkran: why they do so matters as well. It is rather unfortunate to see how many people trivialize the culture-rich Songkran festival into a period where people hurl water to strangers. Songkran is definitely more than that.
The second and more optimistic explanation is that people involved in Thai tourism industry use water splashing as a means to pique interest among foreign travelers. Attracting foreigners to visit Thailand receives the utmost priority and outweighs any “trivial” cultural misrepresentation. Once the latter visit Thailand, the former will promote another aspect of Thai culture as well. As a Thai citizen, I am hopeful tourism authorities in Thailand use the buzzword “water festival” merely to promote the overall industry. Unfortunately, this case is unlikely. Most blogs about Songkran water festival I have read so far talk about how fun it is to see everyone dancing wildly while getting soaked with water. The origin of Songkran, how Thai people spray water to reduce heat during April — the hottest month in Thailand — and other crucial aspects of Songkran are usually not included.
How should we address this misrepresentation problem? Changing how the tourism industry uniquely portrays Songkran as a water festival is difficult because such marketing tactics are so effective. It hypes travelers up, boosts Thailand’s tourism industry, and promotes some aspects of Thai culture. That people associate the word Songkran with a water-splashing war is not problematic per se. That certain aspects of any tradition receive so much attention that they completely eclipse other meaningful narratives is. Next time when you travel, always wonder why people do what they do. There is more to any festival than meets the eyes.