Songkran Redux

Every Songkhran starts the same way for me, at 5 in the morning in Hua Hin. My husband’s family has a family compound next to the beach, on land gifted many years ago to their ancestor by King Rama V. That ancestor, Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Pichaiyat, had seven wives and 35 children, and every one of those children has a residence on this beachside parcel of land named after the family patriarch, “Baan Pichaiyat”. My husband’s grandmother, Yuwadee, is his last remaining child at 96.

What’s really funny (only to me) is that I remember staying at this place as a kid, dealing cards with my future husband’s cousins and trying to play soccer on the beach at low tide, when the receding water left little islands of sand deemed perfect for a football game. We played “bullshit” in the hallways, forcing our parents to step over us on their way to the buffet table. We pushed our luck with tennis when the heat wasn’t overpowering. We ate rice and omelets when we got hungry, doused with plenty of Maggi, and I talked everyone’s ears off with my Michael Jackson trivia. No one cared that I wore glasses and had a mullet. It was my favorite Thai New Year’s ever.

Now when I see those cousins they have kids of their own, and we never play those games anymore. But we still see each other every year in our customary purple, worn to commemorate Chao Phraya Pichaiyat’s birth day (Saturday, associated with the color of Prince and Barney.) We make merit at the crack of dawn with a procession of 20 monks who pass down the road that runs through the compound like an artery, bypassing the shrine devoted to the family patriarch before ending abruptly at the sea.


Praying at the Chao Phraya Pichaiyat shrine


The setting is the same, but the food — now that we are adults with fewer pleasures in life — is better. Because no one could possibly survive the hour it takes to set up for the monks without food, there are deep-fried patongko (Chinese-style mini-crullers) drizzled with condensed Carnation milk and instant coffee and, if you are enterprising, a sunny-side-up fried egg.

And after the alms-giving ceremony, the main event: khao thom pla (fish and rice porridge) and khao na gai (rice with a cornstarch-thickened chicken gravy), a particular Chinese-influenced favorite that never fails to appear at a family gathering. I like to garnish mine with the usual coriander leaves, fresh scallions, sliced green chi fa chilies and cubed sweet Chinese sausage, but I forego the fried egg for the slivered ginger and deep-fried garlic bits that are meant to top the fish porridge, because too many condiments are never enough. I swear the ginger and garlic make all the difference.


Later, the grownups gorge themselves on kanom jeen (fermented rice noodles) swimming in what they call gang nua (“beef curry”) but what everyone else knows as gang kiew waan nua (green curry with braised beef shank). The children (and anyone else who feels lucky) get to brave the head-bruising ploy tan, when the pu yai (family elders) throw heavy Thai coins into a waiting scrum of young elbows and fists. Winnings are hard-won (my mother-in-law once chipped a tooth) and jealously defended, safeguarded in every mother’s purse and forgotten about the next morning.

I guess there is comfort in knowing where I will be every April 13. And what I’ll be eating. When I see our children forging new memories of their own (overpriced horseback rides on the beach, risking various limbs to set off fireworks at dusk, terrorizing everyone else at the pool), I hope they too think back on their childhoods in Hua Hin as their favorite time, ever.

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