Songkran is the New Year holiday celebrated by Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Burmese cultures. It officially starts on April 13, but festivities often extend for a few days, so friends and family can have a chance to gather. This year, Songkran will be celebrated at Jack London Square for the first time, with an all-day event happening 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, April 27, in front of Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine.
“What New Year in Thailand looks like is we go to the Thai temple,” said Farmhouse Kitchen owner, Kasem “Pop” Saengsawang. “We use that time to ask forgiveness from older people and to get blessings from monks for the new year.”
A traditional Buddhist blessing ceremony will open the Jack London Square Songkran event. Starting at 9:30 a.m., attendees will offer alms bowls of non-perishable food (available for purchase at the event) to local monks for good fortune in the new year. Then, the Water Festival takes place at Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine. Scented water that has been blessed by the monks is sprinkled onto attendees as a way to spiritually cleanse for the new year.
“My family — we have 60 to 90 people — we start cooking food in the morning for the monks together and plate them in a very beautiful layout. As a family, this is a time to catch up and have a very fun story to tell to each other. After celebrating the monks ceremony, the family party begins by putting water on our older family members and asking for forgiveness,” Saengsawang said of his family’s past Songkran celebrations.
As with other cultural New Year celebrations, food takes center stage at Songkran. Host Farmhouse Kitchen will offer attendees much to eat, but there will also be several other Bay Area Southeast Asian restaurants selling food at booths on site, including Daughter Thai Kitchen (which Saengsawang also owns), Living Out Lao’d, Burma Superstar, Neecha Thai, U :Dessert Story, Lapats Thai Noodles Bar, House of Thai, Tycoon, Lapisara and Pintoh. There will also be a Singha beer garden, along with cocktails and mocktails by Mitr Phol.
Although the event is free, those seeking a special Songkran experience should RSVP in advance for a seat at the VIP Lao Table. Farmhouse Kitchen will set up a long communal table topped with tempting Thai and Lao fare served family-style and eaten with hands.
“The concept is you use your hands to eat the food laid out on banana leaves,” said Saengsawang. For the chef, the Lao Table represents family because families in Thailand eat food with hands; it’s an important bonding experience shared between those who are close.
There will also be a parade, dance and music performances, a Miss Songkran beauty pageant, and a som tum dancing competition, where people make the traditional spicy green papaya salad and dance at the same time. Thai massage will be provided by San Francisco’s Suchada Thai Massage and the Bodhi Panya Institute, which trains people in traditional Thai bodywork. After sunset, there will be a screening of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior on the lawn at 55 Harrison St.
Saengsawang wanted to bring Songkran to Jack London Square because it’s a chance for Thai, Lao or Burmese people to “remind ourselves to know who you are,” he said. “This year, we are showing the power of cultures.”
Songkran will also be celebrated at Wat Mongkolratanaram, the Thai temple in South Berkeley (1911 Russell St., at MLK) This annual festival takes place 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, April 14. The event will include religious and spiritual ceremonies, Thai music and performances and food.