By Joyell Nevins
Happy New Year, all year! Although the Western world and Gregorian calendar celebrate the beginning of the New Year on January 1, in Southeast Asia different cultures commence their calendar at different times. What remains the same is the celebration of the close of one year and the beginning of another.
Songkran, April 13-15
Although Songkran is celebrated in several countries, including Cambodia and Laos, the biggest party is likely in Thailand. The Sanskrit word when translated means: “passing,” “transition,” or “changing place.”
It comes from a legend about an interaction between the god Kabila Phrom and the young prodigy Thammabal, who had the ability to understand birds. The god challenged Thammabal to a show of wits: he would give Thammabal three riddles, and if Thammabal could answer correctly within seven days, Kabila Phrom would present his head to the boy. However, if Thammabal couldn’t come up with the correct answers, the boy’s own head would be cut off.
On the final day, Thammabal still couldn’t come up with the answers. As he sat agonising under a tree, he heard two eagles talking about the wager. Unaware of his presence, they gave away the answers to the riddles.
Thammabal presented the answers to Kabila Phrom, who now had to cut off his own head. The problem was, Kabila Phrom’s head held special powers: if it touched the ground, it would burn the earth to a crisp; if it was left in the air, there would be a vast drought; and if it was dropped into the sea, it would dry up the ocean.
So the god’s seven daughters, the Nang Songkran, agreed to place their father’s head on a tray and walk around the sacred mountain. One cycle around the mountain became one week, and the direction they walked became the direction of the clock. Whichever daughter is walking on the new year’s day influences that upcoming year, and is the impetus behind the “Miss Songkran” title.
Thailand New Year, April 13 to 15
Across Thailand, people trek to their home villages to be with family, houses are fastidiously cleaned, and sacred altars are washed. The second day includes special trips to Buddhist temples and monasteries, and the building of sand chedis (mounds) to honour the ancestors.
But what Thailand’s celebration of Songkran is most widely recognised for is a gigantic water fight. Water is spiritually purifying: a way to cleanse the past and bless the future. Songkran originally included locals collecting water that had been poured over Buddha statues. In a wai khon gaa ceremony, that water would then be poured over the hands or sprinkled on the shoulders of the village elders to give and receive blessings for the coming year.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and now Thai people and tourists alike walk around for three days armed with buckets, water pistols, hoses, and coolers in an all-out water war. In cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, entire main streets are shut down to vehicle traffic. Join in the fun and prepare to be drenched anywhere in the Kingdom during the three-day celebration.
You may also find yourself “blessed” with clay. Clay is put on the faces to mirror the acts of monks blessing objects…or just used as another way to get messy and wild!
Khmer New Year, April 13-15
The Khmer, the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia, follow the same ancient calendar and celebrate the same day of Songkran as a beginning for the new year. The Khmer also fastidiously clean their houses, visit their families, honour their ancestors, and ceremonially pour water and perfume on Buddhist statues. However, afterwards, the Khmer are less focused on dousing everyone else in water, and more focused on feasting and playing special games.
One of the most popular New Year’s games is Chol Chhoung. It is often played on the first night of the celebration. Two large groups divided into male and female stand facing each other. They throw a “chhoung,” or special cloth ball, back and forth. If someone gets hit by the ball, then the whole group has to dance to get the ball back while the other group sings. Alternate versions put the ball in the middle, and have one person from each group run to grab it first.
Another New Year’s game filled with song and merriment is Chab Kon Kleng. One person pretends to be a “hen,” while another person is chosen to be the “crow.” Everyone else acts as the “chicks.” During the game, while everyone is singing a special “song of bargaining,” the crow tries to catch as many chicks as possible as they hide behind the hen.
Kayin New Year: Late December Or Early January
The Kayin is one of the largest ethnic and refugee groups in Myanmar, living primarily in the Karen State. The Kayin has been historically persecuted by Burmese forces, and now the Myanmar military troops.
But in the Kayin New Year, across the country, they seize on the chance to celebrate and honour their cultural heritage. During this time, many Kayin prominently fly the flag of Kawthoolei, the name of their dream independent country and mythical homeland.
The Kayin New Year comes on the first day of Pyatho at the end of the rice harvest. It marks the beginning of their migration from Mongolia to Myanmar over 2,700 years ago. Rice is a key element in the celebration menus, with treats such as sticky rice balls and steamed rice platters.
Many people wear the traditional clothing of the Kayin, including woven tunics, pulled over red “longyis,” similar to a sarong. There is a plethora of happy music using native instruments like the g’wh horn and Kayin-style drums, with dances such as the Kayin Don line dance and the Bamboo Dance. During the Bamboo Dance, a bamboo latticework is laid on the ground and dancers make quick steps in and out of the bamboo sections. The Bamboo Dance also shows up at ceremonies for Christmas and pagoda festivals.
Hmong New Year: Late November Or Early December
Similar to the Kayin New Year, the Hmong New Year is a chance for the Hmongs in Laos and beyond to celebrate their culture and identity. The group was pushed out of China at the beginning of the 19th century, and they take the time during the New Year to celebrate who they are. The event is held at the end of the 12th lunar calendar month, with the biggest party occurring in Luang Prabang.
The New Year celebration begins with an in-house ritual titled “Hu Plig,” which calls back the wandering souls of every past family member to reunite with the household and to help bless the house. Then, the celebration spills out into the streets, where there are bullfights, ox fights, and dancing. Music concerts feature hand-crafted “khaen,” or long bamboo pipes.
One of the popular traditions is less of a game and more of a courting ritual, where groups of young men and women line up across from each other and throw a “pov pob” ball back and forth. The “game” allows the boys to come along and chat to the girl they like while passing the ball and make introductions in an otherwise quite conservative culture.
The ladies wear elaborately decorated outfits that they often spend all year sewing and stitching. If you see an older woman in more traditional garb, it represents that they no longer have a husband and are actively searching for a new one.
Nyepi Day – March
If you’re looking for a time of more reflection and quiet, celebrate the New Year in Bali. Nyepi Day is also known as the Saka New Year, being the first day of the Saka calendar. The first day of their new year is also the quietest day of the year–literally. That’s why its other nickname is the Bali Day of Silence.
The Balinese Hindus follow a ritual called the Catur Brata Penyepian, or the ‘Four Nyepi Prohibitions’, which means no travel, no activity, no entertainment, and no fire. So, no lights turned on at night, and no vehicles allowed on the roads except for emergency vehicles. People stay at home, and hotel guests are confined to the hotel.
But the night before, it’s the opposite. Nyepi Eve is an island-wide celebration of blaring noise and merriment. Households start the evening with blessings at the family temple, and continue with a ritual called the “pengrupukan.” Each family member participates in chasing away evil forces, known as “bhuta kala,” from their compounds by carrying fiery torches and hitting pots, pans, and other loud instruments.
The bhuta kala is then represented in elaborate papier-mache and bamboo figures called “ogoh-ogoh.” The ogoh-ogoh take weeks to make and are the stars of large parades through the streets. Smoke and noise fill the air as bamboo cannons and firecrackers are set off alongside the procession.
So whether you want to celebrate with music and dance, contemplate in quiet, or douse your neighbour in buckets of water, Southeast Asia hosts a plethora of opportunities to welcome in the New Year–all year.