One of my earliest memories in Thailand was in the mid-eighties being asked by some Thai friends if I wanted to go to the grounds of Chulalongkorn University to experience the Loy Krathong festival.
Of course I jumped at the chance as I had heard about this charming festival that looked so beautiful and calm on the full moon night under the stars– it would surely be a wonderful opportunity to enjoy Thai culture up close and personal. Full of anticipated joy I set off into the Bangkok night.
But I was lucky I didn’t get an eye put out.
Myself and my friends found ourselves caught in the crossfire between two rival groups of students who thought it was fun to be aiming firework rockets at each other.
I was hit in the stomach and the gunpowder that spilled from the as yet unexhausted projectile burnt a neat hole in my shirt and my skin underneath.
I vowed not to go out on this occasion again; while I did not keep to that promise I did make every effort later in my life in Thailand to promote the festival according to the values that I thought it had started to lose by 1985.
I was not alone in the 1980s. Many Thais were already saying that the festival had become outrageous. At the time it probably had a worse name than Songkran though that was soon to change.
Newspapers were full of reports of hooligan like behaviour at Loy Krathong as commentators bemoaned the loss of “the good old days” of gentility and respect that the festival was known for.
The Bangkok Authorities did act however. The festival was banned in all city parks as much because of the drunken revelry as the huge amount of mess that was created in the lakes and klongs. Focus shifted to the Chao Praya river – at least all the garbage would flow away with the traditional flowery boats and the troubles of their erstwhile owners who floated them.
It was more than ten years before I ventured out again on a full moon night in November – and enjoyed a night at Bangkok Patana School where I was working as a Thai teacher. In 1998 when I took on the job of Head of Thai at Harrow International School I decided that my department’s big day of the year would celebrate Thai culture on Loy Krathong day.
Most of the school shut down for the full moon day usually in November as we showcased not just Loy Krathong activities but many wonderful aspects of Thai culture and tradition. The children – both Thai and foreign – made Krathongs in their classes to the sound of Thai music, enjoyed Thai food made by willing parents, went to shows where they saw their peers sing and dance and perform. Even outside acts were hired to inspire them.
No fireworks. Nothing nasty. All on my terms – an Englishman in Bangkok who wanted the festival back as it should be. I was allowed to do what I wanted. I did, after all know best (he says modestly!).
We organized this up until my retirement from the school in 2013. In 2006 before a cultural show in front of 500 children and parents that I had scripted and choreographed, I got everyone going by making a video shown on a giant screen of me pretending to have forgotten about the show and be late. When the video ended I burst into the auditorium on my 400cc Honda Steed, did a circuit and to roars of approval ended up on the stage to begin compering the show.
It wasn’t Thai per se but it fulfilled the need for “sanuk” at a festival though I am sure my headmaster was glad I didn’t try that again! But I did it to grab attention and the show that followed did showcase the Thai culture in all its glory.
Besides my own teenage daughter who was in the audience said – somewhat grudgingly a few years later: “That was the coolest thing I have ever seen,”.
Over the years we had visiting Khon troupes, displays of Thai boxing by teachers and students, singing contests, quizzes about Thai culture and even bug eating competitions. I am pleased to say that a great time was had by all – off curriculum for the day – not least of all by me. I felt I had put the bogey of that firework experience behind me.
In the meantime, through the late eighties and nineties, the Songkran Water Festival had taken over as fun central and public enemy number one in the Thai cultural purists’ mind. And the minds of many other. Myself included.
It started to become a water fight and then got much, much worse. The plastic guns came in and what started with bathing Buddhist images at a temple and sprinkling water gently on one’s elders or perhaps playing nicely by the side of the road became all out war in places like Khao Sarn Road and the filthy moat in Chiang Mai.
At my school I tried to do a little bit about it. I introduced a topic called “The Real Songkran” in which the children were encouraged to think about the better aspects of the tradition of welcoming in the Thai New Year in April. They learnt about cleaning the house and welcoming in the new.
As part of this the students made lists of Do’s and Don’t’s at Songkran – DO ask someone if you may wet them, DON’T throw dirty ice laden water, DO be kind and considerate, DON’T wet people in suits going to work. That kind of thing.
So now we find ourselves in 2016 and we are all coming to terms with a new age in the wake of the tragic passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. People are trying to do everything they can to honor his name.
I think that one way to do this would be to mark a change in the way certain festivals are organized and conducted.
Of course, this coming year everyone will be asked to tone down the worst excesses of Loy Krathong and Songkran as a mark of respect for the great departed monarch. But what about thereafter?
Is it not a good time to take stock and reclaim the out of control festivals? While I accept that Loy Krathong has now become better than it was in the eighties – people even use bread instead of polystyrene for the boats! But what about Songkran?
Can’t the people start to celebrate it nicely again and get back to their roots? The tourists will love it just the same – they don’t need to be encouraged by the locals to behave badly, the locals do it themselves.
Thousands die due to drunk driving. Girls are molested. People are upset. It is a real mess and nothing short of a national disgrace.
Why not rein in Songkran and do good in the name of His Majesty?
I might even join you rather than do my seven day “bah humbug” hide of fear in the safety of my Bangkok flat.