Art/Culture

Summer Sarongs for Songkran Splashing

A look at our favorite summer sarongs: the perfect attire for Songkran.

April 12, 2017
In the scorching heat of Thai summer, when temperatures soar above 34 degrees Celsius and humidity is a killer, one can’t help but look forward to April 13th, Songkran or Thai New Year, when we all go on  holiday and look forward to splashing each other with water. Buckets, guns, hoses: bring ’em on.

April 13th is historically the hottest day of the year so water fighting seems apt but, more importantly, water has traditionally been used to wash away the old and bring forth the new; thus, the water gets you ready for a new year.

Songkran is observed in Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka too, but no water festival gets as wild as Thailand’s. A national event, expect grand water fights from Chiang Mai all the way down to Phuket—and let’s not forget Isan with their parades.  

Of course it wasn’t always like this; in fact, Songkran had long been a genteel affair, with women, children, and men splashing each other from delicate, engraved bowls or khan and putting fragrant powder on each other’s faces. The Thai version of the Burmese thanaka, the powdery pang poon has been fragranced with thien hom or a perfumed candle, giving it that rich, sweet smell of flowers that we associate with “Thainess”—it also has natural SPF properties.

As for what they once wore for Songkran once they were ready to get splashed, women of the old days donned sarong and tank tops, or sua khor krachow. When they bathed, they would pull their sarongs over themselves into a style called “krachom ok”.

In tribute to those days past, we put together our own Summer Sarong selection to get you ready for the kind of Songkran splashing that the holiday has become today. It is a weekend for donning colors (in fact, you are encouraged to break out your Hawaiian floral shirts), and a sarong, along with a water gun, is your best companion.

It’s even nice to have a sarong on hand to double as a towel or a cover up as, let’s be honest, the wet t-shirt look, no matter how unavoidable, is really just so un-chic. Have no fear, these summer sarongs are here, and our favorite ones are readily available in markets and at street vendors, or perhaps already in your wardrobe—or even your grandmother’s!
1)  Pha thung/pha sin in the traditional geometric pattern:
A color version of the traditional pha tung: we think the turquoise with splatters of pink can brighten up any day. Worn by Kanisanun “Biwty” Pornatchariyapanich, the colors perfectly complement her honey-tan complexion. If a trip to Phahurat or the night bazaar is not in order, we’d say you can raid your grandma’s closet and you will find one of these. We would stick to a cotton version if possible—not sure if silk will really do the job and will probably end up sticking to you once wet. We love that the traditional pha thung/pa sin that is no longer really worn any more can be brought back to life and have a part in summer fun. It should be noted that the pha thung’s traditional measurement is 42” x 71”, making it the perfect size for a long skirt or, if worn as a krachom ok, then the hem grazing the calf just below the knee. If not worn for the purposes of the summer and getting splashed, we’d say it would also look very on-point with a silver belt around the waist with a pair of Manolo Blahnik mules.

2) African wax fabric in geometric print:
African wax fabric has made a huge splash in the fashion world since Malick Sidibé’s photos made such an impact and, of course, the designer Stella Jean’s vibrant designs seen at Milan Fashion Week and worn by Rihanna. These fabrics are the local version of the Southeast Asian batik. Originally, the machines were from the Dutch, and the old factories still have Dutch machines and the print is a drawn on an block. The fabric is made like a batik and is waxed after. It used to be Ghana’s biggest export though more and more African wax fabrics are now made in China. In Bangkok, you can find the real stuff in Chatuchak at the Chinese Fabric House, but if you are not so picky African style sarongs are readily available at street stalls that line Sukhumvit, Chinatown, and Phahurat.
We say the fabric is so vibrant that it can be thrown on in any which way you fancy, from a cover up to a skirt to even a turban. Shown here on Jiratchaya “Mo” Sirimongkolnawin and Sophida “Ning” Rachanon, it brings life to any party—so expect to be the center of attention at that Songkran splash party with your African wax fabric sarong. If you opt for the real wax fabrics, expect the fabric to also function as a water repeller, at least for the initial part, as water can just roll down the wax fabric. Added protection not a bad thing, we think.

3) Pha khao ma:
The good ol’ pha khao ma (chequered fabric) has had a resurgence like no one could ever have imagined. Rightly so, the chequered blocks of the traditional fabric used to tie the indigo blue “krabok” trousers of farmers for most of the last two centuries is one of the  most versatile and aesthetically-pleasing fabrics out there, traditionally hand-woven in most rural households. Thanks to Jim Thompson in the 1960’s, the chequered fabric became something of a high-fashion item, as he started using silk to make the traditional pha khao ma pattern fabric. This was a very new thing back then: the use of such a luxurious material to make such a basic item. It is so basic and such a part of Southeast Asian culture that the chequered patterned sarong can be seen in Bali, where it is worn at Hindu ceremonies, and in Burma, where it is worn long as longyi for men.
Recently the pha khao ma has made a bit of a fashion comeback, with designers using them for designs that normally would be the reserve of other printed fabrics. Thank goodness the humble pha khao ma is finally getting some love. Our favorite ones are those that are woven by villages in Phuket for Sri Panwa. Staying at the resort, you are confronted with every color combo imaginable. And the thing with the pha khao ma is that they last. As they fade and soften with time, they become your favorite loveworn items. If a trip to Sri Panwa is on the cards, count yourself lucky. If not, a visit to a local market, Phahurat, or the OTOP markets and stores in the city will reveal a wide selection, seeing as villagers all over the country still wear them. Trust the pha khao ma to also turn into one of our favorite summer sarongs and the perfect accessory for Songkran as worn by Chananchida "Blossom" Roongpetchrat.