Songkran: The World’s Biggest Water Fight
My back up against a concrete wall, I slowly peek my head around the corner, a staggered breath escaping from my lungs. I scan the road. Nothing.
Then it hits me. A long, streaky line of ice water in the middle of my back that dances across my shoulders and up towards my head. The sniper, four stories high in a tower block overlooking the street, laughs heartily at my misfortune. “Sawasdee pee mai!” he cries out — ‘Happy New Year!’ — before filing back to his kitchen sink to refill his water gun.
All around me, people are chucking water at each other in celebration of Thailand’s New Year, called Songkran. A Sanskrit word meaning “to move into”, Songkran marks the start of a new solar orbit, with water symbolising the cleansing away of bad luck and the splash of a new beginning.
The celebration always falls on April 13 and can last up to 10 days, depending on where you are. A few days early, I’ve arrived in Thailand’s so-called “Songkran party capital” Chiang Mai to a city in full-on preparation mode. Shopkeepers are selling palm tree-shaped eyeglasses, waterproof bags, and watergun backpacks shaped like pink turtles. Children sat on their parent’s knee are being taught how to throw water with buckets. Large trash bins are being filled with giant blocks of ice; as the afternoon’s temperature rises to 37C, this ice will melt into a freakishly cold but refreshing spray on revellers’ bodies.
High on natural ecstasy, the city begins its festivities on April 12, the anniversary of Chiang Mai’s founding, with Thai dancers, musicians and worshippers paying respect to the Buddha. I join the parade as it winds through the streets, the tribal drums interspersed with a high-pitched, atonal trumpet reminiscent of a snake-charmer’s song. The Thai dancers float ahead, carrying bowls of jasmine-fragranced water with which to cleanse Buddha statues.
Soon we find ourselves at Tha Pae Gate, the unofficial centre of the water fight. Farang (foreigners) and Thais in swim shorts and halter tops are gathered around a square, simultaneously dancing to a sound system playing electro-house whilst throwing water at one another. A long, informal procession of mopeds, cars and pick-up trucks snakes along the canal and in between them, armies of ‘soldiers’ in the back doling out New Year splashes. Some of the farang, believing this to be Kabul instead of Chiang Mai, jump onto the back of tuk-tuks to shoot, point blank, the passengers inside.
In the midst of this absolute mayhem is such an exciting celebration of life that a surge of happiness rushes to my heart and I fling myself into the middle of it, despite having no water gun, no waterproof bag, and no bikini. My procession is quickly drenched too; apparently expensive Thai sarongs and traditional instruments aren’t off-limits.
The next morning, I am awakened by Thai chanting at my local temple, in celebration of Ron Nam Dum Hua, the day when Thais pour scented water into the palms of elders and ask for their forgiveness and blessing. After the ceremony, a local family invites me to share the leftovers of the alms they brought with, so we all — including a rogue aunt sporting a pink Lady Gaga wig — tuck into homemade sticky rice, lemongrass chicken and stewed pork.
Later, after donning an orange leopard-print dress and shotgun earring (crazy outfits make great targets), I bypass the Eurotrash zone at Tha Pae Gate and head with the locals to Thanon Huai Kaeo. The whole street has been cordoned into one flooded party featuring sound stages of live Thai hip-hop and huge water cannons . It’s a wet mess of thrashing bodies, floating streets and drunken revelry, but there’s no sexual groping, no inappropriate comments — just a genuine appreciation of the moment.
When I find, the next day, that the party has stopped, I am genuinely sad to be able to sport my leather handbag once more. So, in it, I drop my watergun — just in case.
GOOD TO KNOW
- Dress as though you’re going to the beach — a bathing suit underneath a skirt or shorts works well.
- Protect your camera, mobile, keys and cash with a waterproof bag. If you’re keen on taking proper pictures, bring a professional waterproof bag made solely for cameras.
- Don’t shoot willy-nilly: certain people are off-limits, such as the elderly, monks, food vendors, and very young children.
- Be sure to take part in the religious ceremonies as well. For most Thais, this is what Songkran is really all about.
- Celebrations in other parts of Thailand — like Bangkok and Hat Yai — can also include beauty contests, boat races and firework displays. See http://www.songkran.net for details.
[published by Lady Adventurer, May 2011. Read the full text here: http://bit.ly/jcx53y%5D