BY 10am, the Leumeah High School (NSW) parking lot is becoming congested. The usually quiet, almost rural area is a hub of activity as hordes of families swarm in, some carrying plates of food, others with picnic blankets and water guns in tow. The reason for this crowd is not a school fete or soccer final, but Songkran – the South-East Asian New Year festival, held in the adjacent Wat Pa Buddharangsee Buddhist Forest Monastery.
Traditionally celebrated in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, this holy occasion takes place from 13-15 April, with some parts of Asia continuing the festivities for a week. In Australia, the major event occurs on a Sunday, with the Buddhist community gathering for a day of prayer, feasting and all-out water fights to symbolise cleansing and renewal.
Songkran coincides with dry season, the hottest time of year in Asia. This year, here in south-west Sydney, the celebration has aptly fallen on a steamy autumn day. Thousands of revellers are expected to visit the monastery’s grounds before sunset, but right now members of the Buddhist community busy themselves with final touches.
Dozens of food stalls, with Lao, Myanmar, Thai and Malaysian street fare, line the main procession area. Fragrant curries are on the menu, as well as papaya salads and bowls of mohinga (Myanmar rice noodle and fish soup).
The festival’s water-fuelled revelries are supposed to begin after lunch, but that hasn’t stopped the children from starting early. Some come prepared, dressed in board shorts and thongs. Others, in boots and inappropriate clothing, simply resign themselves to getting wet. Gleeful squeals can be heard as youths gather conspiratorially to form alliances and fill up water bombs, water pistols and buckets.
Inside, the monastery is a considerably quieter affair. Monks sit patiently in the prayer room preparing for the ceremonial feast, while families line the hallways with homemade delights. The monks fast daily from midday year round, so lunch is served at 11 o’clock. Once they’ve eaten, the leftovers are shared among the temple attendants.
It is customary for parishioners to bring food to the monks on weekends, holidays and whenever possible, but the feast for Songkran is on a far grander scale. “Traditionally in Thai villages, Songkran would be the only time in a year when you slaughter a pig or chicken and eat meat,” says Palisa Anderson, a member of Sydney’s Buddhist community and the daughter of Chat Thai founder, Amy Chanta (Amy created the recipes for the sumptuous Songkran banquet that follows). Unlike monks from other parts of the world, members of this faction consume all food offered to them, including meat-laden dishes and, on occasion, fast food. “We’ve had people bring takeaway food before,” one home cook asserts. “But usually it’s best when the food comes from the heart.”
"Traditionally in Thai villages, Songkran would be the only time in a year when you slaughter a pig or chicken and eat meat."
While food plays a significant role at Songkran, there are not specific dishes reserved for this occasion. Rather, families prepare favourite meals from their cultural background, be it Thai, Myanmar, Lao or Malaysian.
One sweet treat served is thong yod. This Thai dessert, which translates as ‘golden drop’, is made from a mixture of egg yolk and flour coated in floral-flavoured syrup. The dish is said to bestow those who eat it with wealth and good fortune.
Chicken and eggs are also popular during Songkran and often used in the salad yum gin gai. A combination of shredded chicken, banana blossom, poached eggs, Vietnamese mint and a light spicy broth, this salad is particularly common in the northern region of Thailand.
While food plays a significant role at Songkran, there are not specific dishes reserved for this occasion.
Back in Leumeah, the food stands outside are in full swing. Many of the stall owners donate the day’s profits to Mahamakut Foundation, which looks after the monastery and organises the festival. Event organiser Orawan ‘Oy’ Kosaroth explains the act of donation is embedded in religious teachings. “In Buddhism we learn not to be in debt to others, but to always give back for our blessings,” she says.
Soon, the festival’s cultural performances and parade begin. First up, a group of students from the monastery’s Thai Language School take to the grass stage, reciting a series of traditional dances and music. More assemble, wearing national costume and forming a colourful chain that snakes around the picnickers. Some in the procession bear sashes and bouquets, competing for the annual crown of Miss Songkran, while others chant and beat drums, joyfully welcoming the new year.
With the sun still blaring and the procession winding up, there’s only one activity left for the adults to tick off the list… water fight!
The symbolism of water
A symbol of purification, absolution and new beginnings, water is central to Songkran celebrations. It is used to cleanse images of Buddha, wash the hands of monks and saturate – in good fun, of course – fellow festival goers. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, temporary pumps are connected to the city’s moats so water can be sprayed through the streets.
Cook Amy Chanta's Songkran banquet
Location photography by Tom Donald. Recipe photography by Brett Stevens.
As seen in Feast magazine, April 2014, Issue 30.