Tue, Apr 13, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Water festival washes away sins

The celebration is called Songkran in Thailand, Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia, Thingyan in Myanmar and Pimai in Laos. Getting wet is what they have in common

AFP , BANGKOK

Elephants spray water on Thais celebrating the Songkran festival in the lead-up to the Thai New Year in Ayutthaya, 80km north of Bangkok.The Songkran festival is also known as the ``water festival'' which is believed to wash away bad luck.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos today begin three days of exuberant, water-soaked celebrations marking the traditional new year, refusing to be deterred by historically low levels on the Mekong which connects them.

Water is at the heart of the mid-April festival in the four Buddhist-majority countries, signifying the washing away of sins and rancor, and refreshing the region as it is embraced by scorching summer weather.

"It will be a symbolic cleansing and washing away of sins accumulated during the old year and to prepare for the new one," a Buddhist scholar in Myanmar said of the ancient ceremony.

The water festival represents the most popular, raucous and colorful celebration of the year for more than 120 million people who will abandon any thoughts of work and bring their nations to a standstill.

Cambodia and Laos are both entering year 2548 of the Buddhist era, while Thailand will do so on Jan. 1 after adopting the Gregorian calendar. Myanmar is only passing into the year 1366 according to its numbering system.

The celebration is called Songkran in Thailand, Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia, Thingyan in Myanmar and Pimai in Laos but at street corners everywhere, everyone can expect to be splashed with icy cold water.

From basic plastic buckets to high-tech pump-action water pistols which allow revellers long-range, high-precision soaking, every type of container is deployed to throw water, sometimes laced with talcum powder, colored flour, charcoal, mud and ice cubes.

City-dwellers embark on a massive exodus to the countryside for family reunions punctuated by visits to pagodas, offerings to monks, ancestor worship, traditional games and dances, sports competitions, gift-giving to parents and symbolic bathing of elders -- all to acquire "merit" in the Buddhist tradition.

The new year is also a highlight of the tourist season, for visitors who are lucky to see splendid processions of monks wrapped in saffron robes who remain composed amid the revelries in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos.

In Cambodia, small sand pagodas are built along the banks of the Mekong, while newly ordained monks are paraded on elephants deep in northern Myanmar, and music shows are staged in platforms on the rivers of northern Thailand.

The festival is also an occasion for people to wear new clothing, give Buddha statues and their houses a thorough washing, and even to donate blood.

The governor of Phnom Penh has asked residents to scrub the city clean with vast amounts of water, despite the region's drought which has helped reduce the once-mighty Mekong to a trickle in some stretches.

The effort "is to welcome the upcoming traditional Khmer New Year ... by making Phnom Penh more and more clean and create a better environment," Keb Chuktema said.

Thingyan has taken on political dimensions in Myanmar this year. As it is customary to release birds from cages at this time, many hope opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi could be freed from house arrest at the dawn of the new year.

In Thailand, the explosive situation in the Muslim south is overshadowing Songkran. A heavy security presence has been deployed in fear that Muslim extremists who have killed 60 people this year could mount a major attack.

In all four countries, traditional New Year's day also is also well lubricated with alcohol, usually cheap local whisky or rice alcohol which fuels rampant drink-driving and carnage on the roads.

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