Songkran, otherwise known as Thai New Year, takes place from April 13th until April 15th. Songkran is vacation time. Many residents of Bangkok return home to celebrate the most important holiday of the year with their families. This makes for amazing traffic jams. It is also an interesting visual spectacle when pickup trucks, busses, minivans, and cars filled to the brim with people and possessions slowly chug out of town. Roads become dangerously busy and all of the merriment and drinking along the way causes some unfortunate and horrible accidents each year. Bangkok becomes eerily deserted.
Songkran is becoming increasingly identified with its water throwing ceremonies, but in actuality there is a much deeper religious and personal sense that goes with it. Songkran is a time to wash away the old and bring in the new. If you are in Thailand during this time, I highly recommend that in addition to attending a water fight, you visit a local temple to watch the events that take place.
Buddha images are taken outside and given a ritual cleansing with water scented with jasmine petals. Offerings of food and gifts are made to the monks. Ritual cleansing of the monks and the temple grounds is performed. People also bring buckets of sand to the temple grounds and build miniature pagodas.
Many Songkran activities focus on paying respect to elders. They have water gently sprinkled upon their hands or necks by the younger generations as a symbol of respect and well wishing. They are also presented with gifts, and offerings at the temple are made on behalf of parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Songkran is a time for not only cleaning the temple grounds but for a major ‘spring cleaning’ at home, too. Buddha images get washed. Things that are worn out get tossed away. It is also a time for beauty pageants and fairs. These are the more quiet and gentle aspects of Songkran.
Another feature of Songkran is the smearing of white powder or paste on someone’s face and neck. The white paste is a symbol of protection and some say it wards off evil. This paste smearing along with the water splashing also provides girls and boys the opportunity to flirt with each other.
The infamous free-for-all water fight also happens throughout the entire nation at this time. The water splashing ceremony is only one facet of the celebration of Songkran but is becoming the focus point of the festivities. If you do not want to get wet, best stay inside. Both the water splashing and paste smearing ceremonies have grown not only in popularity, but also in aggressiveness. Some would say it has gotten totally out of hand.
As April is the hottest month in Thailand, getting drenched can be very refreshing. Songkran is the time to avoid wearing a white T-shirt. Water will come at you from every possible direction. Don’t walk around with your mobile phone or camera out, unless you have been smart enough to put them in plastic bags. No one is spared and even policemen take a good soaking with a smile on their faces. Songkran requires everyone to be very good-natured about getting wet, regardless of whether or not they want to be. I doubt this water fight could take place in any other country without people getting incredibly miffed.
Plastic water pistols, PVC pipe with plunger action, buckets, and hoses are favoured water weapons. Roaming pickup trucks are loaded with large buckets and containers to keep participants in good supply, and sometimes a large chunk of ice is added to the ammunition for good measure. If you are driving a vehicle during this time, groups of people will stand by the road to give it a free car wash. The secret hope is that you have accidentally left your windows open.
I spent last Songkran in Chiang Mai, a town renowned for its water splashing. The town square of Chiang Mai has a nice large pond, making it the focal point for the festivities. Unfortunately one section of this water definitely was host to some dead fish.
Everyone everywhere was spraying water. Even the novice monks at a temple left unattended for a moment procured some squirt guns. I spent over eight hours in water madness. Water in big buckets. Water in small buckets. Fishy water. Ice water. Muddy water. Water from a large squirt gun. Water from a hose. Water thrown from a passing motorcycle. Water from homes, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, and busses. Water sprayed shyly or violently. Water stored in huge vats along the street. Water. You can actually get sick of it after a while.
I returned to my hotel absolutely exhausted, sunburned, and smelling like dead fish. It was a fun time indeed but three days of water fights can leave you a bit frazzled. This year I have chosen to spend my Songkran underwater. I am going diving.