Buddhist New Year or Water Festivals in Southeast Asia

15 Apr, 2023 | Secrets Untold

People believe that water helps wash away the impurity which had accumulated over the past year so they can greet the New Year with a purity of mind and body.

While most people think that Chinese New Year is the New Year festival of every Southeast Asia country that is not true. In fact, Southeast Asia countries have two New Year festivals: One is the Chinese New Year festival (or Lunar New Year), and the second is Buddhist New Year.

The reason is that the different calendars. Some countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Chinese populations of Malaysia and Singapore primarily use the Buddhist calendar which is a set of the lunisolar calendar for religious and official occasions. The calendars share the same lineage but they still have some minor variations such as names of months, numbering, and intercalation schedules. Other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Singapore use the same lunar calendar as China which is based upon cycles of the Moon’s phases. The details of when months begin to vary from calendar to calendar depending on when the moon changes its shape from new, crescent to full and other calculations. Though most of the world just knows about Chinese New Year, Buddhist New Year is no less important and expectant than the other. From the Songkran festival of Thailand to Chol Chnam Thmey of Cambodia, here are some festivals that you might not want to miss on your trips to Southeast Asia.

1. Songkran Festival, Thailand

Exotic beaches, great food, elephants, and culture, there are so many reasons to travel to Thailand and Songkran is one of them. This world-renowned festival is the biggest and most popular festival for Thai people and visitors. This is also called Water Festival because it has been named as the largest water fight in the world but you probably won’t mind the drenching. Songkran takes place in April – the “hottest” month of the year in Thailand.

The festival originated from a belief of Thai people: Water will wash away bad thoughts and actions of the old year and bring good lucks in the new year, so the festival is all about cleaning and a fresh start. People clean their houses and wash the Buddhist statues with flower-scented water and the young folk pays their respect to the elder by respectfully pouring water over their hands.

Nowadays, the festival becomes popular worldwide. Locals and travelers rush to the street and spend whole days splashing water on each other. If you're out and about on Songkran, don't expect to return to your hotel room dry!

What to know about Songkran?

  • The official festival takes part in three days from 13-15th April but it often prolongs as long as 6 days.
  • The epicenter of Songkran is in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket
  • Don’t plan to be dry during the holiday unless you limit yourself inside the hotel room.
  • Leave your phones and cameras at the hotel or put them in a sealed plastic bag for their best chance of surviving.
  • Dancing and drinking are what you will see in the streets during the festival but watch out for your behavior in public.
  • Don’t drive a motorbike during Songkran or you might be a target of getting a splash. Road accidents are double during the water festival.
  • Don’t splash your water on the monks or pregnant women. They are exempt from being wet.

2. Bun Pi Mai Festival, Laos

The New Year in Laos - known as Bun Pi Mai - is almost as splashy as the celebrations over in neighboring Thailand, but getting soaked in Laos is more gentle than in Bangkok. The celebration lasts three days in April – the middle of the hot summer season. During Bun Pi Mai, people cook Lao food and clean their houses and the Buddha images in the temples. They pour jasmine-scented water on the elders first, then on friends and others on the streets. Foreigners are not exempt from this treatment, so if you're in Laos during Bun Pi Mai, do expect to be soaked by passing teenagers, who'll give you the wet treatment from buckets of water, hoses, or high-pressure water guns.

The faithful will also build sand stupas and decorate these with flowers, flats, and string. At temples, monks will provide water as well as bless peace and longevity for the devotees, and they will tie up devotees' wrists with string. Birds, fish, and snacks are released as good deeds in the New Year.

Luang Prabang celebrates Bun Pi Mai at different places around the city for a week with many activities including the annual Nangsoukhane beauty pageant, night parties, traditional music, dance, and parades. Play important roles in the parades are 3 figures: 2 red-faced toothy heads are called Grandfather and Grandmother Nyeu.

What to know about Bun Pi Mai?

  • The festival takes part in three days from 14-16th April in the Buddhist calendar.
  • Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the cities that the holiday at its best to see.
  • Guardians of the environment and a lion head called Sing Kaew Sing Kham – an ancient King in the legend of Laos.
  • Choose your targets wisely. Don't splash water on monks, elders, and well-dressed women who are on their way to an important New Year event!

3. Chol Chnam Thmey Festival, Cambodia

Chol Chnam Thmey means “Step to New Year” and marks the end of the harvest season in Cambodia, a time of leisure for farmers who have worked hard all year in their fields. At the temples, entrances are decorated with colorful flowers and coconut leaves. Khmer offer food to their departed relatives at the pagodas and play traditional games in the temple courtyard. The Cambodian New Year takes part over three days, each with its own name and ritual meaning.

On the first day, “Moha Songkran”, Khmer cleans the house and prepares Cambodian food, desserts, and everyday-used items offered to the monks in the pagodas. In Cambodia's belief, the things they donate through the monks will reach the hands of their dead ancestors, therefore, the more they donate, the better the dead ancestors will wish for them, and so they are called “the grateful”. To wish for luck, the Khmers use holy water to clean their faces in the morning, wash their bodies in the noon and clean their feet before they go to bed. The conservative community of Khmer people permits free mingling between males and females on this day only, so if you are looking for your future partner, hurry up to book a trip to Cambodia for their New Year festival.

The second day, "Wanabat", is for showing respect to the elders, both living and departed. Khmer people will donate to the poor and the homeless people on this day. In the temples, family members gather to honor their ancestors and build a sand hillock on the temple ground. They make a big hill of sand in the center which represents Culamuni Cetiya, the stupa at Tavatimsa where the Buddha’s hair and diadem are buried. The big hill is surrounded by 4 small ones which represent 4 stupas of Buddha’s favorite disciples: Sariputta, Moggallana, Ananda, and Maha Kassapa. The sand hillock is said to bring rain for crops and bless people.

“Thgnai Loeung Sak"  is the last day of the festival which is also the first day of New Year. Devotees bathe Buddha statues in a ceremony called “Pithi Srang Preah” as a symbol of washing bad action away. They also wash the elders and monks with perfumed water to ask them for forgiveness for any mistake made during the old year and obtain from them best wishes on longevity, happiness, and prosperity in life.

What to know about Chol Chnam Thmey?

  • The festival takes part in three days from 13-15th April.
  • A Royal parade will take place in the capital Phnom Penh on “Thgnai Loeung Sak” which includes elephant races, horse races, and boxing matches.
  • Wat Phnom temple is the best place in Phnom Penh to enjoy the festival.
  • Go to Angkor. Cambodian coincides with Chol Chnam Thmey with the Angkor Sankranti celebrations.

4. Thingyan Festival, Myanmar

Thingyan - one of Myanmar's most anticipated festivals - takes place over a period of four or five days in April. Like the Buddhist New Year festival in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, water-splashing is a major part of the holidays, with the streets patrolled by flatbed trucks bearing revelers throwing water on passersby.

The holiday derives from a traditional Hindu belief that Thagyamin (Indra) visits the Earth on this day (Indra is a Vedic deity in Hinduism, a guardian deity in Buddhism, and the king of the highest heaven called Saudharmakalpa in Jainism). To please Thagyamin, Myanmar people will provide food and money to the poor and monks, and the young bathes their elders as a sign of respect.

Water splashing is considered the most exciting activity of the festival. Burmese people believe that it will wash away the impurity which had accumulated over the past year and greet the New Year with a purity of mind and body. Since the old time of Bagan, the festival of water has been very popular among the people, the nobles, and the rulers. In the past, the Burmese used the foliage of apple leaves, dip them into the scented water in a bowl or a silver bowl, and then sprinkle them on the other. The leaves have represented the symbol of good luck which will bring blessings to both people are sprinkled and the sprinklers.

Nowadays, Myanmar celebrates the festival of Thingyan with plenty of water, they use faucets or buckets to toss water on passersby making a lot of laughs and fun because everybody joins the battle with enthusiasm. When you get wet, it means your sadness no longer exists, your soul is cleaned of the past year’s evils and imperfections, and save room for a new year with happiness, luck, and purity in mind.

What to know about Thiongyan?

  • The festival takes part in three days from 14-16th April.
  • For the most exciting, visit the Bagan or Yangon of Myanmar.
  • On New Year's Day, people make food donations called satuditha at various places. They will provide free food to those participating in the new year's celebrations.

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