Soaking up the annual Songkran Festival
Imagine taking to the streets armed with a water pistol and the express purpose of shooting as much water as possible at passersby, family and friends in a madly wonderful and fun celebration that brings in the New Year. This is exactly what happens annually during the much-adored Songkran festival.
Celebrated in Thailand as the traditional Buddhist New Year, the word Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word saṃkrānti, which means transformation or change and marks the beginning of the solar calendar. For many it is a period of reflection and time to show respect to elders, but for others it’s a perfect opportunity to hit the streets for a giant water fight that is enjoyed by millions across the Kingdom.
Taking place every year from the 13th April until late on the 15th this is not something a water-wise consumer would enjoy, as hundreds of liters of water are splashed on each other and a temporary river runs underfoot. It is however a joyous return to childhood, to playful water fights that cooled down hot days and to the unadulterated giggles and bliss of the mood and revelry. With April the hottest time of year in Thailand, it’s also the perfect way to cool off.
But there is a deeper meaning and a symbolism to the throwing of water. During this time Thais will visit temples and pour water over Buddha statues, which represents washing away the sins and bad luck and starting the New Year with a pure and clean slate.
In the North, specifically around Chiang Mai, the festival is calmer and families and friends gather to celebrate, sprinkling water on Buddha images in worship and devotion, and on each other’s hands as an act of wishing good luck. You will see bronze bowls filled with offerings for monks and small bottles being gently emptied over the many religious statues.
In Chiang Mai it is still seen as a time for paying respect with younger members of the family paying visits to senior members, and a little bit of water from a silver bowl being sprinkled as a token of the blessing. This custom is known as ‘Rod Nahm Dum Hua’.
Here the Buddha images from all of the city’s important monasteries are paraded through the streets on April 13. The parade lines up along Charoenmuang Road from the Nawarat Bridge all the way down to beyond the railway station and bystanders wait to throw water at the members of the parade and at the Buddha statues that are placed on ornately decorated floats, ritually ‘bathing’ them.
People may even carry handfuls of sand to their neighborhood monastery, this is to substitute the dirt that the monks have carried away on their feet during the rest of the year. The sand is then sculpted into stupa-shaped piles and decorated with colorful flags. It is a beautiful sight to behold.
Songkran in Phuket takes on a different focus and sees the streets lined with pickup trucks loaded with ice-cold water. The locals start to splash passersby by about midday on the 13th April and in no time they are shooting back and there is a full-blown water fight on the go. Ironically, given that it can become a little chaotic, the police become the number one targets for many partakers. Nowadays people have taken to adding powder to their watery ammunition and icy water to add to the element of surprise.
Small children love these carefree days when they can shoot water at anybody without getting into trouble. This is a nationwide festival but the wildest place to get involved is said to be Phuket, specifically in Patong’s Bangla Road. Mostly the water throwing is restricted to the first day of the festival, but in Patong where everything goes, that rule appears to be more of a guideline and it goes on for days. You won’t want to miss it.
One thing about Songkran – you will get wet. Soaked actually, but you’ll welcome this as the weather is at its hottest during April and that’s all part of the fun and being there. Still you may want to take some of these precautions.
– Do not wear your best clothes, as there is a strong chance they will get ruined. Also, don’t wear white, as it is see-through when wet and that could cause disrespect. A bathing suit under your clothes is a good idea and waterproof shoes that won’t break are a must.
– It’s all just enjoyment and you are going to get targeted and drenched, so don’t get angry, simply enjoy the moment.
– You will probably get smeared with a grey-white paste made of scented powder and water. It’s harmless, but does sting if it gets in your eyes so wear sunglasses or even swimming goggles – yes it gets that serious!
– Buy a squirt water pistol in advance; there are some really powerful ones about. You may want to do this before the official start of Songkran to ensure a better selection and prices.
– You can consider wearing a waterproof poncho, there are many cheap ones on sale and they would partly protect your valuables such as cellphones and cameras, although you may do better to leave those at home. Waterproof cameras, sealed covers for phones and GoPro’s are recommended. Do not assume that if you’re carrying a very expensive camera, that a water bomber will not target you.
– It’s not a good idea to be riding a motorbike as the roads are very slippery. Those taking rides on tuk tuks and songthaews are sitting ducks, so be prepared with your water pistol to shoot back.
– Avoid swallowing the water being sprayed at you, as you have no idea where it came from.
– Monks are highly respected in Thailand, it is important to never throw water at them.
– Remember to say ‘sawadee bee mai’ which means Happy New Year.