Songkran was the most unique New Year celebration I've encountered yet. My first experience of the countrywide water fight took place in Hua Hin, a small coastal town just an easy drive from Bangkok (a 2 Â½ to 3 Â½ hour drive, depending on traffic). The typically reserved Thai people let loose for a few days and let the cold water moderate one of the hottest times of the year (April is typically the hottest month of the Thai 'summer' season).
Thai people ranging from two to 80 years old claim their territory on the street and establish their "offensive" plan for attacking the oncoming walkers, motor bikers and their passengers, and riders on open-aired vehicles with gallons and gallons of water. Some used water guns (much like super soakers), others used buckets, pails, and cups, and the most serious dousers soiled those passing by with hoses.
The water marks the beginning of the harvest and believed to bring blessing and good fortune to those who are drenched (this makes it very hard to refuse the water!). Music blared from each shop and restaurant and the Thais danced, laughed, and drank without inhibition as they played in the streets waiting for their next victims to pass. Some rubbed white paste between their hands creating a pasty substance that was wiped all over people, cars, and any other willing vessel.
Their 'attacks' do not have a cultural bias"”Thais and foreigners alike were all to be smeared with paste, drenched with water, and 'initiated' into their celebrations. Whether wearing business attire, street clothes, or a bathing suit"”all were targets without mercy. The learning curve was pretty quick"”it didn't seem to take long for any of the foreigners to want to be part of the fun, nor to 'fight back.' The problem, I discovered, was that they all seemed to come far more prepared for the festivities than we had (with ample containers for the water)!
Seeing Thais who typically work, eat, and hang out casually along the streets in full-blown battle mode was bizarre. My typical encounters with a Thai person might involve a polite, quiet question or a "kha-thot" (excuse me) if bumped while on public transit. Never would anyone who knows bits and pieces about this peaceable people group suspect Thailand to be the location of such an unrestrained outburst of fun, noise, and carousing. Those normally quiet Thais found a voice deep within that had been waiting all year for this chance to let loose with reckless abandon.
My first pass through the streets was within a van, which left me incredibly disappointed that I was missing out on all the fun! I only made that mistake once, making sure to ride home in an open-backed tuk tuk and withstand the "blessing" of frequent attacks of water. The Thais especially love it when we farangs (Thai for a foreigner of European ancestry) take part in their festivities, and it felt pretty good to be considered worthy of their festive fun. Some foreigners had obviously been in Thailand for previous New Year celebrations, because they came armed and ready to defend their territory. It didn't seem as strange seeing foreign, fairer skinned bodies in all out battle mode.
By the late afternoon hours, I was soaked, and the Thais were worn out from the all-consuming water fight, too much time in the sun, and probably one too many drinks. I can't wait until next year, and I'll definitely be more prepared for the all-inclusive country wide water festival!
For those interested in visiting Thailand during Songkran, plan your trip to include April 13-15.
Written by Tara V. Russell
Photography courtesy of the Tourist Authority of Thailand