If you’re anywhere in South East Asia this weekend, you’d better be celebrating! April 13th marks the start of traditional New Year festivities in many parts of the region. From three-day water fights to giant parades, each country has a unique way of kicking off the new year.
One of the most festive places to celebrate the New Year in Nepal is in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, located in the east corner of the Kathmandu Valley. Surrounded by an intricate weave of monasteries and ancient artwork, revelers mark the close of the year with a god- and goddess-adorned chariot parade and a massive game of tug-of-war between east-side and west-side city dwellers.
The winners, of course, are slated to be more prosperous in the coming year. In other small towns around the valley, people welcome the New Year by covering themselves in vermillion powder for the Sindoor Jatra festival, and toting similarly-intricate chariots through the town.
While the Sinhalese and Tamil people of Sri Lanka have a rocky political history, the New Year brings the entire country together in ritual celebrations of family and harvest. Known as Avurudu in Sinhala and
Puththandu in Tamil, both cultures begin their traditions by bathing the night before the New Year. Then, starting on April 13th, loud firecrackers sound off all over the country, marking the best moments throughout the day to wash, exchange money, clean house, and anoint special oils. Families across the country rise early on the morning of the New Year to boil milk at the entrance of the house, watching the milk boil over the edge of the pot as the first light heralds approaching joy and bounty. Later in the day, Sinhalese households exchange sweets with neighbors, while elders in the Tamil communities present youngsters with small amounts of money as a symbol of luck and prosperity to come.
While there are many important rituals involved in the Burmese New Year celebration of Thingyan, the most distinguishable of them all is the Water Festival. It’s the most boisterous part of the celebration, which historically represents the day that Thagyamin, king of the spirits, descends from the heavens onto earth. To the outsider, this widespread celebration might just look like a country-wide water fight, and with youthful revelers toting water guns, hoses, and buckets through the streets with pop music blaring from the speakers of street performances, it’s easy to see why. However, the practice of splashing neighbors during the New Year started with the act of pouring water from scented bowls to mark a cleansed soul, ready for a fresh and sinless beginning. The escalation into a huge water fight is just a little extra fun.
However, the biggest water fight in the world takes place in Thailand during the New Year festival. The holiday, known as Songkran, officially spans three days, especially in bigger cities like
Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but most places manage to extend the festivities for up to a week (because why not?). But while it’s famous for being a city-wide, water-flinging, super-soaker-armed free-for all, the celebrations are actually very rooted in tradition. Similar to the Burmese traditions, this water fight grew from the symbolic pouring of water over Buddha statues to cleanse, purify, and wash away the sins of the previous year. As the biggest holiday of the year, Songkran is also an opportunity for families to come together to honor and respect their ancestors, both living elders and the deceased, through prayer, ceremonies, and feasts. Getting to dump a bucket of water on your cousin’s head is just a bonus.
The Laotian New Year is also sometimes known as Songkran, but is more commonly referred to as Pii Mai Lao. The holiday is rooted in the same Buddhist traditions as the Thai Songkran: the three day festival, the giant water fight, the importance of respecting and honoring monks and elders. However, don’t be surprised if you get a face-full of shaving cream during a Laotian water fight; it’s a new twist on the old tradition that’s becoming more and more popular. Another large part of the Pii Mai Lao story relies on the Lao legend of King Kabinlaphrôm. During the festival, people bring sand to temple grounds and mound it into small, elaborately decorated stupas. The stupas are said to represent the mountain in which the King’s head was kept by his seven daughters after he lost it to a wise hero. After the cleansing, praying, and offerings have been completed, the real fun begins with parades, beauty pageants (where seven contestants represent the Kings’s seven daughters), music, and dancing.
Khmer New Year, or Choul Chnam Thmey, is both a national and a religious holiday in Cambodia. Each of the three days of Khmer New Year has a different purprose. The first day represents the last day of the previous year and is all about cleansing. Cambodians clean their houses, light candles and incense, and wash their faces, chests, and feet in holy water.
The second day, which is neither a part of the old year nor a part of the new, is all about charity and honoring one’s ancestors and elders with gifts. It is also the day that people go to the temples and build little stupas, similar to the Laotian custom. However, in Cambodia, the stupas represent the place where the Buddha’s diadem is buried. On the third day, these stupas are offered to monks in exchange for blessings. As the third day is the first day of the new year, it’s time to celebrate, and the whole holiday wraps up with city-wide water fights, parties, special food, and traditional games and dancing.