Breaking Century Essay Ground History In Lao New Seventh Twentieth

1Pholsena, Vatthana and Banomyong, Ruth, Laos: From buffer state to crossroads? (Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2004); Grabowsky, Volker, ‘Lao and Khmer perceptions of national survival: The legacy of the early nineteenth century’, in Nationalism and cultural revival in Southeast Asia: Perspectives from the centre and the region, ed. Kuhnt-Saptodewo, Sri, Grabowsky, Volker and Grobheim, Martin (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1997), pp. 145–65; Hall, D.G.E., A history of South-East Asia, 4th edn (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981); Burchett, Wilfed, The Second Indochina war: Cambodia and Laos (New York: International Publishers, 1970); Evans, Grant, A short history of Laos: The land in between (Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2002).

2Ivarsson, Soren, Creating Laos: The making of a Lao space between Indochina and Siam, 1860–1945 (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008).

3Short, Philip, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a nightmare (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).

4 It is unclear whether the Cham actually inhabited Champasak, as the Lao frequently claim (Martin Rathie, personal communication, 2008).

5Bourotte, B., ‘Essai d'historie des populations montagnards du Sud-Indochinois jusqu’ à 1945', Bulletin de la Societé des Étude Indochinoises, 30, 1 (1955): 1–116.


7Grabowsky, Volker, ‘The Thai and Lao ethnic minorities in Cambodia: Their history and their fate after decades of warfare and genocide’, in Ethnic minorities and politics in Southeast Asia, ed. Engelbert, Thomas and Kubitscheck, Hans Dieter (Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford and Vienna: Peter Lang, 2004), p. 210.


9Baird, Ian G. and Shoemaker, Bruce, People, livelihoods and development in the Xekong River Basin, Laos (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2008).

10Ngia, Treung, pawatsat Khmer [Khmer history], vols. 1 and 2 (Phnom Penh: Government Education Printing House, 1973 [2003]), pp. 150–1.


12 Grabowsky, ‘Thai and Lao ethnic minorities in Cambodia’; Ian G. Baird, ‘Various forms of colonialism: The social and spatial reorganisation of the Brao in southern Laos and northeastern Cambodia’ (Ph.D. diss., University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2008).

13 Grabowsky, ‘Thai and Lao ethnic minorities in Cambodia’.

14Archaimbault, Charles, ‘L'histoire de Campasak’, Journal Asiatique, 294, 4 (1961): 519–95; Bruel, Henri, Monographie de la circonscription de Stung Treng (Saigon: C. Ardin et fils. Imprimeurs – Etiteurs, 1916), p. 86; Constance M. Wilson, ‘Champassak in the nineteenth century: The survival of southern Lao culture’, Paper presented at a seminar on the Cultural Crossroads of Asia, 24–26 July 1992 (Seattle: Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute, University of Washington, 1992).

15Archaimbault, , ‘L'histoire de Campasak’; Na Champasak, Sanhprasit, pavat Nakhonekalachampak Nakhabouri Sisattanakhanahout (Nakhone Champasak) (In Lao), (Paris, 1995).

16 Baird and Shoemaker, People, livelihoods and development in the Xekong River Basin, Laos.

17Hickey, Gerald C., Sons of the mountains: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands to 1954 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

18 Bourotte, ‘Essai d'historie des populations montagnards du Sud-Indochinois jusqu’ à 1945'.

19 Kennon Breazeale, ‘The integration of the Lao states into the Thai kingdom’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, Oxford, 1975).

20 He was also known as Chao Tham Phoui.

21 Mathieu Guérin (2003) claims that he travelled there in 1883, but other accounts indicate that he may have arrived there in 1885, 1887 or even as late as 1889.

22Chao Tham Phoui, Mars 1906, Archives National du Cambodge (ANC), Phnom Penh, Cambodia RSC 37542; L. Peyrabere, Resident Administrateur, France, 21 Mars 1906, ANC / RSC 20558; Ian G. Baird, ‘From Champasak to Cambodia: Ya Chao Tham (Chao Thammatheva), a wily and influential ethnic Lao leader’, Aséanie, 23 (2009): 31–62.

23Klein, Henri, ‘Monographie du Khet de Moulapoumok’, Revue Indochinoise, 2 (1912): 124–42.

24 Bastard, Vice Resident en mission a Monsieur le Gouverneur General de l'Indochine a Saigon. Rapport, 7 Avril 1893, Stung Treng, CAOM Indochine 14483.

25 Bastard, 1893; Rapport, 23 Juin 1893, Stung Treng, CAOM Indochine 14483.

26 Hall, A history of South-East Asia.

27Breazeale, Kennon, ‘Laos mapped by treaty and decree, 1895–1907’, in Breaking new ground in Lao history: Essays on the seventh to twentieth centuries, ed. Ngaosrivathana, Mayboury and Breazeale, Kennon (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2002), pp. 297–336.

28Prescott, J.R.V., Map of mainland Southeast Asia by treaty (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1975).

29 Lamotte, telegram, Phnom Penh, 9 Aout 1904, CAOM Indochine 15104.

30 However, it was not until 2 July 1923 that Dak Lak became an official province of Annam (Hickey, Sons of the mountains).

31 Mathieu Guérin, ‘Des casques blancs sur le plateau des herbes. Les pacification des aborigènes des hautes terres du Sud-Indochinois (1858–1940)’, (Ph.D. diss., Université de Paris, Paris, 2003); Norindr, C., Histoire contemporaine du Laos, 1860–1975 (San Diego: Connaître le Laos Society, 1994); Breazeale, ‘Laos mapped by treaty and decree, 1895–1907’; Ian G. Baird, ‘Making spaces: The ethnic Brao people and the international border between Laos and Cambodia’, Geoforum, 41, 2 (2010): 271–81.

32 Paul Beau, Rattachment au Cambodge de la province de Stung Treng de fintant du Laos – arrete de 6 Dec. 1904 (1904–1905), 24 Juin 1904, Hanoi, CAOM Indochine 15104.

33 Bourotte, ‘Essai d'historie des populations montagnards du Sud-Indochinois jusqu’ à 1945'.

34 Martin Rathie (Draft), ‘Laos-Cambodia relations: The revolutionary dimension’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Queensland, Queensland, 2006).

35 In 1885, King Norodom requested the aid of the French to delineate Melouprey and Xelamphao (Tonle Repou), which he claimed for Cambodia, the latter being the name of the river that presently marks the Laos–Cambodia border west of the Mekong River (Breazeale, ‘The integration of the Lao states into the Thai kingdom’).

36 It reverted to being part of Stung Treng Province in 1930, at which time Veun Say became a district (Bitard, Pierre, ‘Carte ethnolinguistique de la région de Voeunsai et les cultes agraires des Kha Braou (Cambodge)’, Bulletin de la Societé des Étude Indochinoises, 27, 1 (1952): 1–8).

37 Klein, ‘Monographie du Khet de Moulapoumok’.

38Anonymous, , ‘Monographie de la Province de Stung Treng’, Bulletin de la Societé des Études Indochinoises de Saigon, 64 (1913): 3–32.

39 Breazeale, ‘Laos mapped by treaty and decree, 1895–1907’.

40 Peyrabere, L., Chau Tham Phouei, Stung Treng, 1906, ANC RSC 20558.

41 Breazeale, ibid.

42 Various interviews, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng Provinces, personal communication, 2007–08.

43 Chao Singto Na Champassak, personal communication, 2008.

44Ibid., July 2008.

45 Chao Nang Kinkham, personal communication, May 2008.

46Rathie, , ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’; The Buddhist Institute: A short history, ed. Edwards, Penny (Phnom Penh: The Buddhist Institute, 2005).

47 Evans, A short history of Laos.

48 Rathie, ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’.

49National identity and its defenders: Thailand today, ed. Craig J. Reynolds (Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2002 [1991]); Evans, A short history of Laos.

50 Short, Pol Pot; Ivarsson, Creating Laos.

51 Evans, A short history of Laos; Sanhprasit Na Champassak, pavat Nakhonekalachampak Nakhabouri Sisattanakhanahout (Nakhone Champasak).

52Dommen, Arthur J., The Indochina experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001).

53 Baird, ‘Various forms of colonialism’.

54 Meyer, ‘Les nouvelles provinces: Ratanakiri – Mondolkiri’.

55 Personal communication, Stung Treng Town, May 2008.



58 Personal communication, Veun Say and Stung Treng Town, Apr.–May 2008.

59 Personal communication, Veun Say, Apr. 2008.

60Escoffier, Claire F., ‘Les Lao au Cambodge: Une cohabitation harmonieuse?’, Lan Xang Heritage Journal, 2, 3 (1997): 82–124.

61 Meyer, ‘Les nouvelles provinces: Ratanakiri – Mondolkiri’.

62 Grabowsky, ‘The Thai and Lao ethnic minorities in Cambodia’.

63 Personal communication, Surrey, Canada, July 2008.

64Kiernan, Ben, How Pol Pot came to power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); Norodom Sihanouk, (as related to Wilfred Burchett), My war with the CIA. The memoirs of Prince Norodom Sihanouk (London, Baltimore and Victoria: Penguin Books, 1973).

65Colby, William, Honorable men: My life in the CIA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978); Etcheson, Craig, The rise and demise of Democratic Kampuchea (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984); Caldwell, Malcolm and Tan, Lek Hor, Cambodia in the Southeast Asian war (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1973).

66 Sarin Chhak, ‘Le trace de la frontière Cambodgienne avec le Laos et le Sud-Vietnam’ (Ph.D. diss., Université de Paris, Paris, 1964).

67 Burchett, The Second Indochina war: Cambodia and Laos, p. 76.

68Chanda, Nayan, Brother enemy: The war after the war (San Diego, New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovannovich, 1986).

69 Rathie, ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’, no page number.


71Time Magazine, ‘The embattled prince’, 21 Jan. 1966.

72 Rathie, ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’, no page number.


74 Chan Métrei, ‘Laos expansionist’, Kambuja, 3rd Year - No. 33, 15 Dec. 1967; Caldwell and Tan, Cambodia in the Southeast Asian war.

75 Chan Métrei, ‘Laos expansionist’, p. 1; Rathie, ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’, no page number.

76 Chan Métrei, ‘Laos Expansionist’, p. 1; Rathie, ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’, no page number.

77 In late February 1964, Sihanouk's adviser, Son Sann, made an unsuccessful visit to Vientiane seeking advance agreement to a RLG-RGC joint communiqué recognising Cambodia's borders. While staying in Vientiane, Son Sann spoke with Chao Souk Vongsak who forwarded the RGC's request to the Pathet Lao leaders in Sam Neua. Souphanouvong chose to immediately recognise Cambodia's border with Laos (Rathie, ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’, no page number). The approval was probably designed to maintain good relations with Sihanouk, and thus make it easier for the North Vietnamese to continue to use the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails to transport soldiers and supplies across northeastern Cambodia and into South Vietnam, and also maintain ‘sanctuary’ bases in Ratanakiri Province.

78 Rathie, ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’, no page number.

79 Editorial - ‘The definition of our frontiers: correction by Samdech Head of State to Nosithondone (Vientiane) Mr. Kham Beng’, Kambuja, Apr. 1969, pp. 24–5.

80Chandler, David P., The tragedy of Cambodian history: Politics, war, and revolution since 1945 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991).

81Sutsakhan, Sak, The Khmer Republic at war and the final collapse (Washington, DC: Indochina Monographs, 1978).

82Whitaker, D.P., Heimann, J.M., MacDonald, J.E., Martindale, K.W., Shinn, R.-S. and Townsend, C., Area handbook for the Khmer Republic (Cambodia) (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1973).

83 Short, Pol Pot, p. 277.

84Vongsavanh, Soutchay, RLG military operations and activities in the Laotian Panhandle (Washington, DC: Indochina Monographs, US Army Center of Military History, 1978).

85Kiernan, Ben, The Pol Pot regime: Race, power, and genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

86 Grabowsky, ‘Thai and Lao ethnic minorities in Cambodia’, p. 219.

87 Escoffier, ‘Les Lao au Cambodge: une cohabitation harmonieuse?’, p. 97.

88 Short, Pol Pot, p. 303.

89 Rathie, ‘Laos-Cambodia relations’, no page number.

90 Sarin Chhak, Le trace de la frontière Cambodgienne avec le Laos et le Sud-Vietnam.

91 Kiernan, How Pol Pot came to power, p. 320.

92 Various interviews, Attapeu and Champasak Provinces, Laos; personal communication, 2007–08.

93 Baird, ‘Various forms of colonialism’.

94Voice of America, ‘Cambodia / Laos’; radio report by Kay Johnson, Phnom Penh, 25 Apr. 2000.

95Kyodo News, ‘Laos wants to settle border dispute with Cambodia’, 27 July 1999.

96Kyodo News, ‘Sihanouk chairs meeting on Cambodian border issues in Beijing’, 11 May 2005.

97Kyodo News, ‘Laos wants to settle border dispute with Cambodia’, 27 July 1999.

98Voice of America, ‘Cambodia / Laos’.

99Kyodo World News Service, ‘Cambodia – Laos to begin border marking’, 1 June 2000.

100 Kingdom of Cambodia Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Bulletin, Sixth meeting of Laos-Cambodia joint commission, 2 Jan. 2003.

101 Norodom Sihanouk, Declaration of Norodom Sihanouk, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, 27 Feb. 2003.

102 Sean Péngsè, Cambodia Border Committee President's Letter to Samdeck Krom Preah, 1 Apr. 2004, Comité des Frontières du Cambodge / Cambodia's Border Committee, No. 43.

103 Refer to, last accessed on 3 Feb. 2009.

104Vientiane Times, ‘Laos, Cambodia praise development achievements’, 31 Mar. 2005.

105Kyodo News, ‘Sihanouk chairs meeting on Cambodian border issues in Beijing’, 11 May 2005.




109 Sean Péngsè, ‘Statement of the Cambodia Border Committee’, Cambodia Border Committee, 20 May 2005.

110 Also frequently spelt Xekong in Laos.

111 Personal communication, Attapeu Town, Apr. 2008.



114 Personal communication, Phon Sa-at Village, Khong District, Champasak Province, Apr. 2005.

115Phnom Penh Post, ‘Lao military agrees to leave Cambodian soil’, 11–24 Mar. 2005.

116 Personal communication, Government officials, Taveng District Town, Apr. 2007.

117 The author thanks one of the anonymous reviewers for this observation.

118 Personal communication, Government officials, Taveng District Town, Apr. 2007.

119 Personal communication, Cambodian Border Policeman, Taveng District Town, Apr. 2007.

120 He is the son of the former right-wing Lao Prime Minister, Katay Don Sasorith, who was from southern Laos.

121 Personal communication, Dr Mongkhol Sasorith, Feb. 2007.




125 Personal communication, Stung Treng provincial government official, Stung Treng Town, May 2008.

126 Personal communication., Dr Mongkhol Sasorith, Feb. 2007.

127 See, for example, Yun Samean, Funcinpec bid for new ministry denied by PM, Cambodia Daily, 19 Dec. 2005.

128Vietnam News, VN, Laos, Cambodia map out border zones in HCMC, 16 June 2007.

129 It is noteworthy that some ethnic Khmer in France who are members of the Cambodia Border Committee believe that the Economic Development Triangle initiated by Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1999 is ‘nothing but a new tool introduced by the secular colonialist and expansionist policy of Vietnam’ (Masavang Sean, Administrator, Cambodia Border Committee, 13 Mar. 2006).

130 Kay Kimsong, ‘A defining moment draws near’, Phnom Penh Post, 30 May–12 June 2008.

131 International Rivers, ‘Power surge: The impacts of rapid dam development in Laos’ (Berkeley, CA: International Rivers, 2008).

132Nette, Andrew, ‘South-east Asia: Mekong Commission defends itself against critics’, International Press Service, 2 May 2008; Sturrock, Tim, ‘Experts: Lao dams require greater study’, Cambodia Daily, 31 May–1 June 2008.

133Wangpattana, Anurak, ‘Dams in the Sekong basin: Environmental overviews fail to see Cambodia’, Watershed, 12, 2 (2008): 20–4.; Strangio, Sebastan and Sokheng, Vong, ‘Lao dams may cast long shadow downstream’, Phnom Penh Post, 12 June 2008.

134Écoles Sans Frontières, beum katoun piset samlap Khveng Champasak [Special cartoon book for Champasak Province](In Lao) (Vientiane: ESF, 1993), p. 8.

135 Personal communication, Attapeu Town, Apr. 2008.

136 Personal communication, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng Provinces, 1995–2008.

137 Personal communication, Veun Say Village, Veun Say District, Ratanakiri Province, Apr. 2000.

138 Grabowsky, ‘The Thai and Lao minorities in Cambodia’, p. 210.

139Ibid., p. 212.; Escoffier, ‘Les Lao au Cambodge: une cohabitation harmonieuse?’, p. 96.

140 Personal communication, Stung Treng Town, May 2008.

141 Various interviews, Ratanakiri Province and Champasak Province, personal communication, 2008; Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri were established as provinces after Cambodia gained independence in 1953–54 (Meyer, Charles, ‘Les nouvelles provinces: Ratanakiri – Mondolkiri’, Revue Monde en Développement, 28 (1979): 682–90).

142 Personal communication, Stung Treng Town, May 2008.



145 Evans, A short history of Laos, p. 7.

146Vickery, Michael, ‘What and where was Chenla?’, in Recherches nouvelles sur le Cambodge, ed. Bizot, Francois (Paris: École française d'Extrême-Orient, 1994), pp. 197–212.

147 Michael Vickery, personal communication, 20 Oct. 2008.

148 Sarin Chhak, ‘Le trace de la frontière Cambodgienne avec le Laos et le Sud-Vietnam’.

149 Personal communication, Ratanakiri Province, May 2008.

150Ibid.; this perception may also be related to the belief, founded or unfounded, that the Vietnamese moved border markers along the Vietnam–northeastern Cambodia border in their favour in the 1950s. Many Khmer apparently believe that the Vietnamese are encouraging the Lao to do the same (Martin Rathie, personal communication, 2008).

151 The author is indebted to one of the anonymous reviewers for this observation.

152Baird, Ian G., ‘Controlling the margins: Nature conservation and state power in northeastern Cambodia’, in Development and dominion: Indigenous peoples of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, ed. Bourdier, Frederic (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2009).


154 Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, Seuksa sangkhom [Social studies], grade 12 (Phnom Penh, 2005).

155Ovesen, Jan and Trankell, Ing-Britt, ‘Foreigners and honorary Khmers: Ethnic minorities in Cambodia’, in Civilizing the margins. Southeast Asian government policies for the development of minorities, ed. Duncan, Christopher R. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004), pp. 241–70.

156 Refer to, last accessed on 3 Feb. 2009.

157 Personal communication, Stung Treng Town, 2004.

158 Short, Pol Pot, pp. 324–5.

159Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA), ‘Why do Khmers in Stung Treng speak Lao?’, Nature and Life Bulletin (In Khmer), 72 (2005): 3.



162 That often means that they want their children to speak Lao, and they want to engage in certain Lao customs, but there is undoubtedly a wide range of views on what constitutes Lao-ness.

163Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference, ed. Frederick Barth (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969).

164 Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell, ‘Foreigners and honorary Khmers: Ethnic minorities in Cambodia’.

Ian G. Baird is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: The author thanks Alberto Pérez-Pereiro for his assistance in translating some of the Khmer language written material referred to in this paper, and to Martin Rathie for providing a draft of his Ph.D. dissertation and for commenting on an early draft of this paper. The comments provided by two anonymous reviewers were useful, and greatly contributed to improving the article. Michael Vickery also provided some important supplemental information. The author takes responsibility for any deficiencies that may remain.

Between the 13th and 15th April the Water Festival, locally known as Songkran or New Year Festival, takes place in Thailand, and it is indeed one of the most colourful and merriest festivals in the entire region since it is observed in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia as well. Tai peoples living in the south of China and in Vietnam also celebrate the Water Festival. Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word saṅkrānti meaning “progress” or “move forward”, describing the entry of the sun into any sign of the zodiac according to the solar calendar. The full traditional name of the April Songkran - when the sun leaves Pisces to enter Aries - was Maha-Songkran, meaning major Songkran, in order to distinguish it from the other monthly Songkran. Although Maha-Songkran takes place in the 5th month of the lunar year according to the traditional Tai calendar, it is regarded as the start of the New Year because it marks the beginning of the annual rice planting cycle, which usually starts in May as soon as the rains begin to fall.

Ladies in festive outfits carrying offerings to the Buddhist temple. Illustration from a 19th century Thai Buddhist manuscript, British Library, Or. 14732, f. 73

The origins of the festival are explained in a legend which is well known all over mainland Southeast Asia. There was once a young man, Dhammapala, who was highly prodigious in learning and could even understand the language of birds. The god Kabila Mahaphrom (Brahma) came down to earth to challenge Dhammapala with three riddles, with the wager that if the young man failed to give the right answers within seven days he would lose his head, but if he succeeded, Brahma himself would give up his head. Dhammapala had already prepared himself to die when, under a tree, he overheard an eagle mother telling her curious offspring the solution to the riddles. On the appointed day, the young man gave Brahma the three correct answers and the god immediately cut off his own head.

The god Brahma, characterised by his four faces. Illustration from an 18th century Thai manuscript containing a text on the Great Qualities of the Buddha, British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 27

However, Brahma’s head was extremely hot, and if it touched the earth, there would be a universal firestorm destroying all life, while if it fell into the sea, all water would dry up. Therefore, the god’s daughters took care of his head and deposited it in a heavenly cave. Once every year during Maha-Songkran one of the daughters removes the head from the cave, bathes it and carries it in a procession together with all the other gods and heavenly beings circumambulating  Mount  Meru.  The procession is followed by a joyful feast of the gods and goddesses. The seven daughters represent the seven days of the week and all have their particular names and vehicles that they ride on, but the one who carries Brahma’s head on Songkran Day is called Nang Songkran, Miss Songkran.

Illustration from a 19th century Thai manuscript depicting deities in the Buddhist heavens, British Library, Or. 14117, f. 58

The heavenly procession and feast were traditionally re-enacted on earth, and this tradition is still followed today with some local amendments and additions. The exact date and time of the appearance of Miss Songkran with Brahma’s head is when the sun first enters the sign of Aries, a date and time to be established by astrologers and astronomers. The day before Songkran people clean their houses and compounds. Early on the first day of Songkran, people young and old visit their local Buddhist temples to offer food to the monks, to pray and to listen to sermons. Many communities organise temple fairs with music and other entertainments on this occasion. In the afternoon, there is an official bathing ceremony of the Buddha images and of the abbot of the local temple. After this purification ceremony begins the actual Water Festival, which traditionally involved people gently pouring water into the hands of elders and respected persons in order to pay tribute to them, and younger people helping the elderly take a scented bath and change into new clothes presented to them. During all three days of the Songkran Festival people amuse themselves by throwing water at each other or at strangers, and any passer-by can be sure to get soaking wet. Even monks are not exempted. In some places dry coloured powder is also thrown at people, an act that has parallels with the Holi Festival.

A family offering food to a Buddhist monk. Illustration from a 19th century Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, British Library, Or. 14956, f. 25

Other activities during the Songkran Festival include a religious service in memory of the deceased and offering ceremonies for local guardian spirits. The ashes of the royal ancestors are blessed by the supreme members of the Sangha. In northeast Thailand, like in Laos, families organise Su Khwan ceremonies in order to wish each other good health, peace, prosperity and longevity, and to receive blessings from their elders. Many people engage in special merit making acts by releasing birds, fish or tortoises from captivity, or by offering sand to their local Buddhist temple. The sand offering, which can be made even by the poorest people and carries the same merit as a contribution to the building of a real pagoda, is done in form of erecting a sand pagoda or stupa-like structure in which a coin or a leaf from the Bodhi tree is placed. On the outside, the pagoda or stupa is sprinkled with water and can be decorated with flags and banners while candles, incense sticks and flowers are placed at its base. It is said that the sand helps to raise the level of the temple ground which may be susceptible to flooding during the rainy season.

Illustration from a collection of Buddhist texts and Sutras contained in a Thai folding book from the 18th century, British Library, Or. 14027, f. 66

In many places, a beauty contest takes place during the Water Festival. The winner, who is not only the most beautiful and best dressed but also the most virtuous girl, is crowned Nang Songkran in memory of Brahma’s daughters who look after the god’s head eternally. She will take part in a colourful procession while being driven in a carriage that has the shape of the animal that is the vehicle of the daughter of Brahma whose turn it is to cleanse the god’s head at the beginning of this New Year.

Further reading

Phya Anuman Rajadhon, Loy Krathong and Songkran festival. (Thailand culture Series; No. 5). Bangkok: The National Culture Institute, 1956

Santosh N. Desai, Hinduism in Thai life. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1980

Suttinee Yavaprapas, Songkran festival. Bangkok: Ministry of Culture, 2004

Thai culture – Songran festival. Cultural kit no. 3 guide book. Bangkok: The Office of the National Culture Commission, 1989

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

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