If you’ve ever overheard a conversation in Thai, you may have heard the word nam sprawled throughout. You may have heard mae nam, which translates to “mother water” and means “river.” In another, you may have heard nam jai, literally “heart water” or “generosity.”
Its deep roots in the Thai language hint to the strong relationship Thai people have with water. Amid the looming threats of climate change and water scarcity, Thai speakers are constantly reminded of the importance of water to Thailand, as a country, a culture, and a way of life.
Scroll on to learn about Thailand’s waterscape, its role in early Siamese civilization, water-centric beliefs & traditions, and lessons in the country’s past for living with water in the future.
How water carves through Thailand
Sat upon a tropical rainforest landscape, Thailand receives ample amounts of water in all directions and forms. The mountaintops of the North are the birthplace of many streams that flow southward and throughout the country, converging into the country’s major rivers.
To the Northeast, the Mekong River—derived from mae, meaning “mother” and khong, a term for “river” in the archaic Tai language—divides the territories of Laos and Thailand, while uniting them and other neighbors in their cultures and ways of life. Meanwhile, the Chao Phraya River, or the “river of kings,” cuts through the Central Plains and Bangkok before draining out into the ocean.
The southern part of Thailand sits on a narrow peninsula, each side lined by beaches. Offshore, world-renowned islands such as Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, and Koh Samui dot the Andaman coast and the Gulf of Thailand.
How water shaped Thailand’s history and culture
These waterways have shaped the history of the Thai kingdom, whose capitals Ayutthaya, Thonburi, and Bangkok have all been strategically founded and built along them.
Like what the Nile is to Cairo, the Chao Phraya is to the Thai capitals, providing not only access to the sea but also bountiful resources and fertility for agriculture. To receive its seasonal blessings, Thais have long farmed along the river, awaiting its nutrient-rich floods to irrigate and fertilize their crops. Today, the Mekong feeds up to 70 million people in the region, its basin serving as the world’s largest inland fishery.
As tides rose and fell with the lunar cycle, Thais learned to adapt. Not only did they build houses on stilts to avoid floods during the monsoon season, they also built floating houses from bamboo, sometimes doubling as a mode of transportation.
Eventually, waterfront communities formed and trade followed, giving rise to “floating markets” where merchants and vendors bought and sold goods on their own personal boats.
In times of war, however, the khlongs, or canals, offered a form of defense, serving as barriers that protected its people from invasion by neighboring kingdoms.
Water in Thai beliefs and traditions
As nature’s hydrological cycles and patterns change throughout the year, Thai people celebrate water on a number of different occasions and ceremonies.
Towards the end of the rainy season, when river levels are typically at their highest, various cities organize longboat racing festivals, both as a spectator sport and as a form of worship to the water spirits. These forms of wooden boats have also been used for centuries in royal processions.
Under the 12th full moon of the Buddhist lunar calendar, communities gather together for the Loy Krathong Festival to give thanks to the water goddess for all her gifts while also apologizing for polluting the waterways. To do this, they release colorful krathongs—typically a banana trunk decorated with flowers, candles, and incense sticks—into rivers and canals. Some Thais place a lock of their hair or fingernail trimmings to float away, symbolically letting go of their grudges to start anew.
As Thailand approaches the hottest time of the year in April, people come together to cool it off during the three-day Thai New Year or Songkran Festival.
While it may be known for its fun water fights and parties, Songkran also presents an occasion for families to visit temples or reunite at home, where young ones gently pour scented water on the palms of their elders to pay respects and ask for their blessings. Similarly, honored guests at a wedding are invited to trickle holy water on the hands of the bride and groom to wish them a good life of marriage ahead and to officially declare them husband and wife.
Restoring balance with our waterscapes
Just as it has carved the nation’s lands, water has seeped into every aspect of life for those who live upon them, from the food we eat and the houses we build to the way we travel and the places we trade. However, amid the destabilizing forces of climate change and industrial, urban, and agricultural expansion, our millennia-long relationship with natural water cycles has been slowly thrown out of balance.
To heal our relationship with water, it helps to reflect on where we started. In Bangkok, architects have mimicked the traditional rice terraces of northern Thailand to build Asia’s largest urban rooftop farm, in a bid to “utilise neglected spaces to efficiently and sustainably produce food.” Meanwhile, designers in London are adapting floating homes for modern living to address both sea level rise and the housing crisis.
Around the world, innovators are tapping into the rich, yet overlooked troves of ancestral wisdom to find nature-based solutions to coexisting with water and building climate-resilient cities. Only by understanding more about our geographical & cultural past and opening the floor to local & ethnic communities will we find ways to live in harmony with our lands and oceans once again.