Songkran: my reminiscence of Siamese Summer

March 16, 2017

 

 

Perhaps this is what most people’s first and only impression of Thailand’s main climate is. The truth is, our summer is far greater than hot; it’s a summer of searing sun and a lot of fun.

 

For me Thai summers of some thirty years ago is for spending time in the backyard, covering the face with Prickly Heat talcum and constantly having cold drinks all day long; a treasured memory of day napping under the breezy trees. How I miss those times when we could just laze our afternoons away; simple pleasures many of us find difficult to indulge in these days.

 

When the cool season begins to end, summer approaches and the temperature starts to rise a little, usually around the beginning of March. The final rice harvesting has left the paddy fields empty brown. The aged dark green vegetable beds around the farmers’ backyards begin to get squashy, ready to be completely bare, as the ground is tilled for the new cropping season. The month of heat is nearing.

 

Scenes of blossoming vegetation will end in a little while as the sun starts to get harsher. March would be just warm and April could be almost too warm. The hottest temperature in Thailand is always during the day of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth of April with records of 45 degree celsius marked at Kanchana Buri, the hottest province in the central region.

 

Like many Thai kids whose families are rooted upcountry, my memory of summer is strongest for April when there are many holidays and festivities, and I often associate this season with the festival time that mark the end of harvesting and the beginning of new cultivation. This includes the great Songkran festival which also known as Water Festival or Buddhist New Year, which falls during the even longer school holidays.

 

Songkran is a Sanskrit word, meaning the passing of the position of the sun in the solar system; from one zodiac to another, a lapse before the sun passes from Pisces to Aries. The passing of the sun happens every month, but the most important passage is during this time in April as a Songkran cycle is completed, the sun is equidistant to the earth so there are an equal number of hours during the day and night, a phenomenon known as ‘Maha Songkran’ (the supreme cycle). This marks the beginning of the (Thai) Buddhist new year.

 

Our Songkran officially marks Family Day and Senior Citizen Day when Thai families make their annual reunions and journey to their hometowns. This is the occasion when one should conduct a formal visit to one’s old folks.

 

Our family frequently used to visit our late grandmother in a small far north-eastern town of Loei, in a Mekhong valley village surrounded by mountainous views and tamarind orchards. No trip can be compared to this summer trip, which we longed for as soon as the new school term began.

 

Our hot summer visit had always been like a festival amidst the small country community. Coming back from a big city with a “cosmopolitan” accent, modern toys and flashy clothes is a big attraction for the local kids. No matter how much the country folk seemed to like us, we were always a soft target for all kinds of country style challenges. Challenges in which us city people were rather pathetic by country standards.

In exchange for some branded sweets I always got free lessons in various survival skills. One of them was the popular game which village boys enjoy – the art of bird hunting by Nangstick; with the more sophisticated version of cooking the poor little thing in a milk tin. With all the necessary marinades and garnishing, I think I provided a girl’s touch.

 

The victorious event would often be followed by climbing a hundred year old tamarind tree, in order to grab a handful of its young fruits. We even played the hunting game of Jakajan, a flying bucks delicacy by using a glue stick. We loved picking the new bamboo shoots from the charcoaled woods, which often inflicted summer bush fires. We even knew how to spot the sources of natural spring water gurgling from the wild and hot sand dunes.

 

Some other lessons I was ragged at were outrageous ones. Even my mother couldn’t have imagined what I went through (unless she now reads English!). Nevertheless I found it challenging, and at times astonishingly volunteered to play along with the ‘tribal ritual’ – such as getting my belly bitten by red ants! It was believed this painful deed would make you more resilient and stronger thus enabling you to run and swim faster!

 

I also remember taking the row-boat out with the kids to the wild lake so we could deliberately capsize it in the middle of the water and thrillingly race back to shore – the losers having to salvage the sinking boat. My sister and I would be there from morning to sunset and my grandmother would sometimes chase us from the muddy pond unable to bear seeing us frolicking in the muddy-bathing marathon competition any longer.

On occasion we would challenge sliding down from a small but steep flowing dam for a five-baht prize. A Who-Dares-Win kind of game.

 

The hot summer teaches many Thais to be tough. In certain parts of the country like the lower Esaan area of the northeast, this season can be unkind and unforgiving. The populous area was once the portrait of the poor and needy; the large drought-struck highland unyielding to agriculture during the onslaught of the sun leading to mass migrations to big cities in search of jobs.

 

The hot summer certainly taught the city kid in me important lessons about life. All the survival games I played applied in some ways to real life. I was so fortunate to have experienced a rather witty and bountiful side of growing up amidst these experiences.

 

Things have dramatically developed throughout the three decades and Esaan today is a large resourceful land of proud people with talents. It is still known as the land of people with fighter spirit.

 

My hot summer of Esaan has come a long way from that of poor people to people who nowadays retreat to the beachside resorts or even to foreign lands during the dry season.

 

Songkran is held spectacularly nationwide with the one in Chiangmai officially having the biggest celebration. Many of my friends like to describe Songkran as the government-endorsed, religiously-sponsored, non-stop water rave of the country. Both old and young take advantage of this occasion to dress light, and cover themselves with white talcum powder – the men bare-chested – making the streets look like a summer Halloween. The ultimate goal is to be at least once watered by others – hate it but love it. The unwatered person means the ignored and unpopular character. The more watered the more likable.

 

Young people are allowed to behave less formally in the older folks’ conservative eyes, as Songkran is the time for pardoning, tolerance and being light-hearted.

 

Even young novice monks can let loose, their friendly behavior and participation contributing to numerous Thai comedy stories. Teens, everyone, including foreign visitors, join in the fun, too.

 

Many of these old and beautiful things live on, to be handed down for a long, long time to come. The country skies are still coloured by homemade flying kites. Sour early-picked green mango and young tamarind, Mayom, Maprang, Mafuang, Mafang and Mafai (sorry, owe you their English name there!) with spicy palm sugar and fish sauce dipping, savoured.

 

Blowing the head off from eating chili dips to rid the system of heat is still very much cherished. Fish tastes creamier during this time of dried out rivers. Perfuming syrups and desserts with jasmine, pandan, Anchan flower petals, rose petals or fragrant herbs to cool the body remains the classic way – a heritage very much part of Thai cuisine today.

 

The speedy lifestyle of this century doesn’t stop. Thais will forever be splashing and spicing up against the odd heat, the way they used to some eight hundred years ago. At least in my familiar corners of Thailand.

 

 

What to eat:

  • Green mango

  • Sour and spicy salad

  • Baby bamboo shoot

  • Wild mushrooms

  • River fish

  • Wild venison

  • Lychee

  • Longan

  • Jasmine syrup scent for any cold fruit dessert

  • Any dessert with fruits and orange caramel sauce

 

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