History of Water Festivals in
Southeast Asian Countries
In Cambodia, when the Mekong River swells from August to November, the waters flow into Tonle Sap Lake from the south to the north. Then in the low water season following November, the lake waters ebb and the flow reverses back from the Tonle Sap Lake into the Mekong River, leaving an abundance of fish for the villagers. The silt that is carried by the flood waters is extremely fertile. For this reason the Khmer people chose the full moon of Kae Kadek to conduct the Water Festival, the procession of Illuminated Floats called Loy Pratip, the salutation to the moon known as Sampas Prah Kae, and the offering of bananas and newly pounded rice from the harvest to the Mekong River and Tonle Sap called Ork Ombok.
The Water Festival history goes back to the Angkorean times in the 12th Century AD when the Khmer empire occupied most of the Indochinese Peninsula. During that time, Cambodia had achieved peace and prosperity following the victorious naval battle with the Chams, which took place from 1177 to 1181 AD. After the victory and other naval battle victories, King Preah Bat Jayavarman VII decided to organize the Water Festival at the Bayon Temple and in Banteay Chhmar in Siem Riep with two purposes: to select a champion of the naval battles, and to train his army to prepare for battle.
Afterwards, when the capital of the Khmer Kingdom was moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh, during the Longvek period (around 1528 AD), the boat races were relocated to the junction of the Mekong River and Tonle Sap. The King Preah Bath Ang Chann the 1st thought that the racing at the junction will allow easier access for many of the provinces.
Over the course of time, the people of Cambodia celebrated the annual festival as a thanksgiving to the gods of Water and Earth, to express thanks to Buddha, to pray for happiness, and to wish for sufficient rain for rice cultivation.
In Laos, water is celebrated two times during the year. The first celebration is held during the New Year in April called Songran or Water Festival, which is a three-day affair. The first day, water is used for washing homes, Buddha images, monks, and soaking friends and passers-by. Students first respectfully pour water on their elders, then monks for blessings of long life and peace, and last of all they throw water on each other. The water is perfumed with flowers or natural perfumes.
The idea of watering came from the legend of King Kabinlaphom, whose seven daughters kept his severed head in a cave. The daughters would visit their father’s head every year and perform a ritual to bring happiness and good weather. At the temple, monks take Buddha statues and place them in a small, colorful house for the Buddha statues to undergo “Song Pha”, a ceremony in which the people and the monks pour water mixed with perfumes and flowers onto the statues for blessing and good wishes.The scented water from the ceremony, now holy water, is taken home to wash away bad luck from the house and family members.
The second time when water is celebrated in Laos is during the months of September and October in three different, but related occasions. Bon Ok Phansaa takes place in September and marks the end of the Buddhist Lent, when devotees bring offerings to the temples. It also marks the end of the rainy season and boat races take place on the Mekong River. Awk Phansaa celebrates the full moon in October. This festival marks the end of the 3-month rain retreat. Monks are given new robes, alms bowls, and other items. People float banana-leaf boats called Lai Hua Fai, with candles, down the river and lakes.
Boun Nam (Water Festival) is also held in October and is a festival held in the waterways, characterized by boat races in major towns.
The Thai New Year, also called Songkran or Water Festival was originally a gentle and traditional religious event during which water was sprinkled as a symbol of purification and as an act of worship to the Rice Goddess and the ancestral, ground, and water spirits. Also a three-day event, the first day usually begins with an early morning ceremony at the temple when alms are offered to the monks. Later, at home, family members come together to pay their respects to the elders in the family when scented, petal strewn waters are gently poured over the old people’s hands. The elders in turn, wish the younger generation good luck and prosperity.
The people in central Thailand adopted the water-sprinkling custom from the northern province of Chiang Mai, which was under Burmese rule during the Ayutthaya period. A Thai legend, meanwhile, is another popular basis for the origin of the Songkran. One in particular, and similar to Laos and Cambodia, tells the tale of the seven daughters of King Kabinlabhom, who were required to rotate as the Songkran Lady. Items of their clothing and jewelry were used in rites as the basis for making predictions of the well being of the Thai nation in the year ahead. Other legends speak of serpents spouting water to bring the rains and kings of heavenly spirits. It is a traditional belief that Nagas or mythical serpents brought on the rains by spouting water from the seas. The more they spouted, the more rain there would be so the custom of throwing water at Songkran is actually a rain making practice.
The underlying significance of Songkran is the process of cleansing and purification - the purging of all ills, misfortune, and evil and starting the New Year afresh with all that is good and pure. Water is symbolic of the cleaning process and signifies purity.
Water is at the heart of the mid-April festivals which marks the beginning of the monsoon season and later in the year to mark the end of the rainy season. In the four Buddhist-majority countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, water is celebrated signifying the washing away of sins and rancor, to give thanks, and wish for happiness and prosperity. In those countries, water is both spiritually and physically essential in life.