When in Thailand…get wet!

Matthew MacLachlan

22 Apr 2010

For many, water is today a simple commodity, readily available by quite literally turning a tap. Yet its importance to our life is immeasurable, both a giver of vegetation life and a frighteningly destructive force, in the form of floods and torrential rains.

Most ancient civilisations’ fates depended on the proximity and availability of sources of water, for crops as well as for day-to-day activities. Roman, Egyptian, as well as Celtic, Aztec and Incan mythology had special water-related deities, each commanding rituals, even sacrifices. To this day, water maintains deeply spiritual connotations in many cultures and religions, offering a fitting example of how cross cultural differences – however important – can often be bridged by increasing intercultural awareness.

The Catholic baptism ritual, for example, centres on the purifying force of water, drops of which are poured over a newborn’s head. In early Christianity, candidates would stand in a river and have their head tipped backward and immersed or have water poured over their head. This is reminiscent of Hinduism’s principle that a believer’s life is incomplete without at least bathing in the river Ganges’s waters – thought to have purifying powers – once before death. When a serious drought threatened people’s lives in the village of Vilagarcia de Arousa in Galicia, north-western Spain, faithful Catholics prayed to their Saint Roque for water. On 16 August each year, locals remember this by gathering in the centre of their town and being drenched in 30 tonnes of water, dancing and celebrating as their ancestors once did.

In Thailand, things are taken a step further. During Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year, from 12 to 15 April the entire country takes part in what can best be described as a national water fight. In cities people scout the streets on motorbikes and Tuk Tuks, armed with water pistols and buckets full of water ready to splash whoever is not quick or alert enough to find cover. In quieter villages, people settle for standing outside in their garden, hosing down whoever comes within range. The prospect of walking around soaking wet may not sound appealing to many, though it should be said that April is the hottest time of the year in Thailand, with temperatures almost constantly at 30 C across the country. If you are visiting the country, or living and working in Thailand during this time of the year, you should be aware of these unique customs and traditions. A lack of awareness could lead to misunderstandings and unpleasant surprises, all of which can be avoided by taking part in intercultural training programmes such as Living and Working in Thailand.

Some Thais rue the fact that the celebrations, however entertaining, have lost their traditional rituals and meaning. It was originally a Buddhist festival; local temples would move their holiest Buddha statues outdoors so that worshippers could sprinkle them with water. Families were encouraged to come together and pour water into each other’s hands, washing away bad actions and thoughts from the past year and allowing all to start the New Year with a cleansed spirit.

The importance of family reunions remains to this day, as most Thais working in major cities will travel back to their local villages for the duration of the celebrations, leaving major financial centres like Bangkok virtually deserted. Coupled with the fact that all banks and offices are closed during the Thai New Year, visitors to Thailand and business people should not be surprised if very little gets done over this period, which – it must be added – gets extended if it falls before or after a weekend.

The setbacks to international operations this lull in Thai business can cause are easily avoidable by following a cross cultural awareness training programme such as Doing Business in Thailand, delivered by trainers who have direct experience of living and working in Thailand through important Thai events such as the New Year.

The case of Thai New Year celebrations proves how deeply the effects of cross cultural differences in values and customs can run. If a business person unaware of Thailand’s traditions attempted to do business with Thailand or travelled there in the middle of April, he or she may find himself in a sea of trouble, quite literally.

 



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