Spring sees the start of the Thai New Year, Songkran, and the annual water-throwing festival. Though it might seem like childish fun, there is also a deeper meaning to the event.
Water, water everywhere, and nary a drop to drink. This is Songkran, the annual water throwing festival, where no one in the country escapes a soaking.
Coming at the height of the hot dry season, Songkran is a refreshing opportunity to cool down and have fun. It is also the start of the Thai New Year and a deeply religious event whose roots lie in the ancient solar calendar and farming cycles that trace back hundreds of years.
But try telling that to the young boy who’s just about to drench you! This festival, at least publicly, is now more about silly fun than revered tradition.
In the south, in areas like Krabi, crowds congregate on the streets and around the beaches, armed with a whole arsenal of sophisticated pistols, cannons, hoses, spray guns as well as plain old buckets. Pick up trucks loaded with people and the obligatory munitions of a 100-litre water drum, often chilled with ice, make the rounds, squirting and spraying on sight.
Foot soldiers carry plastic backpacks filled with water with a spray gun attached, or maybe a pot of white or coloured paste (made from harmless talcum powder) to smear passers-by. Even a camera or smart suit will not protect you from the flying water that ricochets through the air.
But while the vocabulary is bellicose, the annual ‘water fight’ is actually just about carefree, good-spirited fun.
Throwing water is also symbolic of the type of cleansing and renewal experienced at new year in all cultures, so the logical extension of this is to get as wet as possible, not to avoid the water.
Everyone should get a bit wet at some point during the festival. Accept this and enter into the right frame of mind; if you let yourself go and join in, you will find it can be great fun – not to mention stress relieving – to act like a big kid for a while.
In Krabi, the water-throwing festivities are usually restricted to one day. In Bangkok it can last a couple days, and in the back-packer heaven of the Koh Sarn Road area, it’s a veritable wet T-shirt contest, much to the chagrin of the guardians of the city’s morals! But if you really want to get into it in the best place for it, the northern beachless regions like Chiang Mai don’t tire of it for around a week.
Officially, the New Year holiday is three days, but many workers take an extended break (usually the only one in the year) to visit friends and family around the country. The general holiday atmosphere, with its accompanying picnics, family outings and drinking binges pervades throughout this time.
In the private sphere, which most foreigners do not see, Thai people also respect the religious side of the festival, with visits to the temple and cleansing and blessing ceremonies.
The underlying significance of Songkran is the process of cleansing and purification, both physical and spiritual, with water.
This element is present in all aspects of Songkran tradition, from the dowsing of Buddha images in the home and in the temple with lustral water, the splashing of water on friends and relatives and spring-cleaning the home. Ills, misfortune and evil are thus purged and the New Year started afresh with all that is good and pure and with one’s house literally and metaphorically in order.
As well as marking a new beginning, Songkran is also a time for thanksgiving. Individuals are asked to reflect upon the acts of kindness and thoughtfulness each has experienced during the year and to remember how such acts of generosity and compassion bring peace, happiness and well being.
Respect to elders is shown by the ceremonial splashing of water.
The religious aspect of the festival sees acts of ‘merit-making’ – donating food and clothing to monks, cleaning and decorating the temple and often releasing caged birds (actually trained to returned to their sellers later) or fish into the rivers.
Sand, which visitors are said to carry away on their shoes, is brought back to the temple grounds and elaborate stupas constructed as a form of penance.
Songkran is also the time for reunions and families travel many miles to see each other – this time of the year is also seen as an occasion of reaffirm strong family and community bonds.
As part of the water sprinkling, water splashing and string tying rites, you may also encounter people who smear your face, neck or torso with a white powder or paste.
This is one of the oldest Songkran traditions. The paste is a sign of protection and promises to ward off evil.
Custom dictates that the person applying the paste should be older – but this is no longer the case. The paste is water-soluble and will not stain clothes. It should be left on until it washes off of its own accord.
DRESS CODE: Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet and protect any sensitive personal items (cameras, wallets, cigarettes, etc) in plastic bags. Enthusiastic people tossing water have no mercy and certainly will not pause to observe the expensive camcorder you’re carrying – so protect it well!
It is also important to remember that you are in Thailand, so please respect Thai dress codes of politeness and decency; although you are going to get wet, it is not appropriate to take to the streets in a state of undress or beach wear.
GOING PLACES: Traffic in built-up areas will be bumper-to-bumper, so if you actually have to get anywhere, like the airport or the bus station, make sure to allow plenty of extra time and be prepared to walk far from your hotel (remember to wrap your luggage in plastic!) to get a taxi.
DRIVE SAFELY: Songkran is the busiest time of year in the emergency wards around the country. The already high road accident rate in Thailand gets even higher – with drink-driving a common cause, Please, for your own safety, exercise extra caution on the roads. Unless you’re an experienced scooter driver of the sort who can keep control while buckets of water are thrown in your face, walk. It’s safer, and you can enjoy the wet t-shirts better!
CAR SAFETY: Keep your car windows up; otherwise you could be distracted by having water thrown on you without warning. In some cases, persons throwing water mixed with powder onto your windshield could obscure your visibility. Key to maintaining control of your vehicle in these situations is speed. So, if you see revelers engaged in such activities, slow down, and be prepared to react quickly. Making sure your vehicle’s window washer reservoir is full can be a big help.