Get Wet In ThailandNo, not what you think!
Martin and Ying, from the blog Don’t Remain A Tadpole, shine a light on what goes on during this famous & fun Thai festival. This article originally appeared in the magazine Issue 11 of NomadHead (click here to read it on your iPhone/iPad, it makes for better reading!).
The Songkran festival takes place in many countries in Southeast Asia, but its most widely associated with Thailand and the water based festivities that take place there every year. In Thailand, the Songkran holiday marks the start of the traditional Thai New Year, as well as the start of the year in many other countries in the region. While the date varies slightly in some countries in Thailand at least, it is now fixed to the days of April 13 to 15.
While the holiday has its roots in the Buddhist religion which is widely practiced in Thailand, for visitors and outsiders the holiday can seem like a big excuse for a massive three day long water fight and party. It’s hard to image that the celebrations of today have their grounding in a sombre religious tradition but they did.
What to Expect in Thailand
In the build-up to the festival, in the weeks before the middle of April, those visiting Thailand will notice large displays in shops given over to the promotion of water pistols, the size of which you probably won’t have seen elsewhere. Additional Buddha shrines will be erected in public and shared areas, often accompanied by a bowl of water to allow passers-by to ceremonially wash the image. Shops will also start selling garish shirts adorned with colourful flower patterns: do not be alarmed, this isn’t a new trend but the arrival of the Songkran shirts!
In the last few days before the holiday, there will be a flurry of announcements in the media from the government and the police warning of the Seven Dangerous Days of Songkran, which refer to the significant increase in road accidents and deaths in the days around the celebration, mainly due to drink driving and excessive water throwing.
All these signs mean get ready: the party is about to start!
On the first day of Songkran the action kicks off as it means to go on: with the start of the world’s largest water fight!
Roads are closed off in some central areas, such as Silom and Khao San Road in Bangkok, and thousands of people take to the streets armed with water pistols, buckets and anything else they can use to throw water. It really has to be seen to be believed and even the fire brigade get in on the act, hosing down revellers as part of the festivities.
In certain parts of the country, like Ayutthaya, it is not uncommon to see people turning up to the water fights with actual elephants, which are in great demand due to their impressive water squirting abilities.
If you head out into the centre of the action wherever you are in Thailand, you will be soaked from head to foot at the least and covered in flour or paste if you are lucky enough to be chosen by the crowds. If you stay local there is a chance you can avoid getting caught up in the action, as unarmed foreigners tend to be left alone when outside the main conflict zones. However, in general you should expect to get wet and therefore take the necessary precautions such as not carrying anything with you that doesn’t react well to copious amounts of water such as money, phones or cameras.
Even on regular street corners, you can marvel at the groups that congregate there, all day, every day for three days, endlessly throwing water at passing cars, bikes and pedestrians. This kind of religious devotion can be hard to fathom for foreigners from the West, where such public displays of spiritual dedication are not commonplace. For those new to Thailand, Songkran can be a humbling experience.
Although the celebration has been getting more and more popular and wild with each year, in 2013 the authorities issued a new set of rules to try and reign in the festivities somewhat. These new rules included issuing designated water-throwing areas, and banning the previously obligatory act of throwing water from the back of pickup trucks, which is as much a part of Songkran as Santa is to Christmas. Adding ice to the water has also been banned although how this will be enforced remains to be seen. The sale of alcohol was also restricted in a bid to cut down the huge increase in drink driving related deaths over the Songkran week. Despite these tighter guidelines, the fun hasn’t been hampered in any noticeable way and Thailand is still the place to come for the ultimate water based street party.
The Origins of Songkran in Thailand
What today is a large water fight, originates from the Buddhist tradition of pouring blessed water on the shoulders of friends and family in order to bestow good fortune upon them and wash away their misdeeds from the previous year. As the holiday falls at the peak of the hot season, when the days can often top 100 degrees, this practice slowly evolved to include the dousing of passers-by with water in order to sympathetically provide respite from the intense heat.
The obvious progression, in Thailand at least, from providing gentle heat relief was the introduction of buckets, hoses and water pistols to drench anyone and everyone including people, cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks.. The religious side of the festival has largely been supplanted by the fun of today’s celebrations where you are more likely to see a speeding motorcyclist get a bucket of ice cold water launched in his face than witness family members gently pouring water on their elder’s shoulder in a touching display of respect and reverence. While it’s sad to see ancient traditions and ways of life literally washed away like this, it does make for a great party!
Where to Celebrate the Thai New Year
While Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and is perhaps home to the largest water fight in the world along Silom Road, with RCA and Khao San Road popular choices too, up north in Chiang Mai they take the Songkran festival even more seriously and have managed to add on a few extra days to the festivities. If three days of standing out in the street soaking people with water just isn’t enough for you, heading up to Thailand’s second city is just what you are looking for. In Chiang Mai the fun centres on the moat that circles the old city although action takes place all over the city with the holiday culminating in an all-out, no holds barred water fight on the last day.
As lots of Thais head back to their home towns over the holiday period, Bangkok can feel a bit deserted at times, despite the influx of tourists and travellers. However, the capital’s loss is the provinces’ gain, as locals returning home lay on large scale events to celebrate amongst friends and family. Essentially, wherever you go in Thailand there will be some water related antics taking place, even in the Deep South which is largely populated by Muslims.
Songkran in Other Countries
Although Thailand is well known for its outlandish Songkran festivities, it’s not the only country in the region to mark these dates with a water-based festival. In neighbouring Laos the festival is also called Songkran or Pii Mai (new year) and is observed in a more traditional way than in Thailand. This includes washing Buddha images, homes and friends, although throwing flour and smearing people with shaving cream is getting more and more popular so don’t expect the traditional side of Songkran to be the main focus here for much longer.
In Cambodia the start of the New Year, or Chaul Chnam Thmey, also falls on around April 13 and the holiday lasts for three days as in Thailand. Although washing and water plays a part in the festivities, it isn’t the all-out water fight that occurs next door in Thailand.
In the increasing accessible Myanmar, or Burma, you will find the New Year Water Festival taking place when visiting the country around the middle of April. The festival lasts about four to five days and marks the start of the New Year, and also coincides with the end of the school year so expect lots of excited school kids getting in on the action!
The Burmese name for the festival is Thingyan and again it has its roots in the Buddhist and Hindi religions, although the holiday often also shares the same date with Easter the Christian festival, not to mention the Jewish holiday Passover, making it a very busy time for worshipers around the world! The water throwing aspect of the holiday in Burma is more raucous than in Cambodia and Laos but still not on a par with the madness of Thailand.
Further afield in Sir Lanka, Sinhalese people, the majority ethnic group of the country usually celebrate their New Year on April 13 or 14, in line with the other New Year festivals in the region. The Tamil New Year also takes place on this date and is celebrated in Sri Lanka and other Tamil populations around the world, although these two holidays unfortunately don’t feature any water-related fun.
The Dark Side of Songkran
While the main focus of the modern-day Songkran festivities, in Thailand in particular, is centred on having fun and indulging in some of the largest water fights known to man, some people get carried away and common sense goes out the window only to be replaced by reckless behaviour on the roads. In the run up to the holidays, announcements are made reminding everyone of the Seven Dangerous Days of Songkran, when people party too hard and then take to the roads on their motorbikes and in their cars, leading to an increase in road traffic accidents and deaths from April 11 to 17.
Without putting too sombre a note on proceedings, it is worth pointing out that in 2013 there were 2,828 accidents on the roads, which resulted in 321 deaths and 3,040 injuries. Of these almost 40% were alcohol related and 24% were caused by speeding. Motorcycles were involved in almost 80% of the accidents and the lack of helmets was responsible for 21% of the injuries and deaths.
An increase in road accidents is also seen in Cambodia during the Khmer New Year, which falls on the same dates, although the numbers were much lower than Thailand with 48 deaths and 344 injuries, according to the Cambodian Herald.
How To Survive Songkran
If Songkran doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, then maybe think about avoiding the country during this particular week. If you do stay in Thailand, know that basically anyone is fair game if outside their house during the days of Songkran. Expect to get wet and when it happens be prepared to say thank you and laugh it off; no one likes a party pooper. You might think a bucket of ice water and baby powder, thrown in the face of a motorcyclist, while driving along a wet road is a bit irresponsible, but during Songkran, it’s the ultimate act of celebration.
For that reason, its best to stay off the roads unless you really need to venture far, and always keep your windows up and wear a helmet!
When leaving the house, don’t take any valuables with you and try to secure any essential electronics or money in an airtight plastic container such as a Ziploc bag or pouch. Purpose made pouches usually go on sale in the convenience stores in the run up to the holidays so make sure you pick a couple up while they are still available. A dry bag is a good idea if you want to take larger items with you when out and about.
Even though everyone is fair game, try not to be overly antagonistic by soaking unarmed civilians or daubing their cars with water and powder. Not everyone takes kindly to foreigners getting too carried away in Thailand. Also, remember monks and the elderly are out of bounds for foreigners or prepare to face the consequences!
Dress appropriately during the festivities to avoid becoming uncomfortable. Swimming gear under your clothes is a good idea, as is avoiding wearing anything thick and heavy that could become waterlogged as it will, and don’t forget your flower power Songkran shirt!
Flip flops should be fine although it could get pretty slippery out there so bear that in mind when selecting footwear. Some sort of eye protection is recommended whether it is cheap sunglasses you don’t mind losing or swimming goggles for those with more sensitive eyes. While it is frowned upon, fetid klong water in the face isn’t a good look!
If the endless alcohol fuelled water fights on the streets of Thailand are too much for you, but you’d still like to witness the traditional water based celebrations, try heading down to one of your local temples or wats for a glimpse of the more religious and spiritual aspects of the ceremonies. Although you should still expect to get wet!
Hopefully your appetite for this fun and unique festival has been well and truly whetted and you are now prepared for whatever may come your way during the Songkran celebrations. Good luck!
This article originally appeared on NomadHead Magazine Issue 11. Get your free subscription now and read the magazine for free! Just click here. Or see what else is featured in the magazine by clicking here.