MU students honor elders at traditional Thai New Years festival

Friday, April 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:35 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 13, 2013
Members of the Thai Student Association celebrated the Thai New Year and Water Festival on Thursday at MU.

COLUMBIA — Tipawan Suannani described her life as materialistic. She was married to a businessman. She cared about clothing and jewelry. But when Suannani, who lives in Thailand, decided to become a Buddhist monk, her life changed.

“After this I feel very light,” she said. “Light body and mind. I can be free. I’m not a prisoner of wanting anymore.”

Community elders like her are honored at the Songkran Festival, a New Years celebration in Thailand that lasts three days.  

The MU Thai Student Association hosted Suannani at its eighth-annual Grand Songkran Festival on Thursday. The event, originally intended to take place outdoors on the Mel Carnahan Quadrangle, was moved inside to Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union due to cold weather.

The Songkran Festival represents an opportunity to praise and thank elders for their help with families and communities. In Thailand, people celebrate the holiday by taking to the streets and splashing one another with water perfumed with flower petals, providing relief from April temperatures, which average in the low 90s.

At the MU festival in Stotler, elders sat in a line of chairs while MU students poured water over their hands four times, a sign of respect.

Guests sampled Thai food, such as a curry and rice dish and coconut ice cream, listened to traditional music and browsed tables lined with Thai formal clothing and jewelry.

Weerut Rutngamlug, who attended the festival, said the same practice of pouring water on elders' hands is used to show respect in the temple as well. Rutngamlug came to the United States from Thailand in 1971 and now attends a temple in St. Louis. 

“We go to the temple, we do the same thing with the water to the Buddha, to the monk, so they give you a blessing," she said. "That’s how we celebrate.”

MU graduate student Chantra Promnoi said when she grew up in Thailand, her grandparents took care of her during the day while her parents worked far from their home. She said the norm is for extended families to live close together, and for grandparents to play an important role in children’s lives.

“They can give me or give everyone in the family education, or show them to do all of the right ways,” she said. “We learn from the past.”

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