Martha's Vineyard celebrates Songkran

The traditional Thai holiday at the Anchors in Edgartown.

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Photo by Michael Cummo

Pissamai “Mai” Silarak speaks quietly to a group of a dozen or so people seated in a circle at the Anchors in Edgartown. She’s dressed in a traditional Thai costume, and has come to the Council on Aging to bless Edgartonians during Songkran, a ritual holiday that celebrates the Thai new year, celebrated Wednesday, April 22.

Mai moves around the circle, stopping and kneeling in front of each guest. She dips a bunch of red roses into water, then slowly taps them on each elder’s palm, and wishes them health, happiness, luck, and peace, then thanks each of them for the wisdom they have given to many in their lives.

Islanders might recognize Mai as the woman who helped run Bangkok Cuisine in Oak Bluffs after coming to the United States in 2009. Soon after, she opened Sai Mai Thai, her own Thai restaurant, installed in the Ritz Cafe. Recently, she’s been living in Edgartown and cooking for private parties, and always has her eye out for her next restaurant, according to friends. Her son, Nantawat, graduated last year from the Charter School, and is attending Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

For the past several years, Mai has come to the Anchors in April to celebrate Songkran, traditionally held at the hottest time of the year in Thailand. Anyone who’s visited Thailand in April might remember Songkran as one big water-tossing party, with tourists and locals alike dousing one another with full buckets. Although Mai enjoys a water party as much as others, she likes to remain true to her past and her culture.

The word “Songkran” comes from Sanskrit, meaning transformation, and relates to the changing of the zodiac signs. Timed to coincide with the rising of Aries on the astrological chart, the auspicious festival is a period when people cool off in the midsummer heat, show respect to family elders, and receive their blessings in return. They also pray for loved ones who have passed away and cannot be present.

Mai, who was honored in Thailand this past March on International Women’s Day for representing Thailand and its culture in another country, returns to the Anchors each year to speak about Thai culture and tradition. She also speaks of “same/same,” the idea that although everyone has different opinions and thoughts, people are made of the same heart and the same love.

“When I came to Martha’s Vineyard,” she says, “this [became] my home. So I always come to give my blessing.”

When the blessings are done, the dancing begins. Mai does a traditional Thai dance and invites the others to join her. They’re accompanied by off-Island friends — two Thai monks, several Thai dancers, and musicians.

Mai, said a friend, “is the epitome of the word ‘ambassador’; it’s why some of her friends refer to her as ‘the Princess Without a Crown.’”

At least for the next year, Edgartown has been blessed with water, wishes, and wisdom.