Songkran - The Traditional Thai New Year
Every year between the 13th and 15th of April, Thailand celebrates the traditional Thai New Year festival called Songkran. As it's also celebrated as a Buddhist festival, many religious activities take place throughout this period, but by far the most visible sign of the festivities is the unrestrained water-throwing that goes on all day until evening in every town and city in the country. Water rifles, and plain old water-filled buckets are the main weapons of choice, and, apart from street food sellers and the like, anyone and everyone are the targets, whether similarly armed or not.
Songkran in Chiang Mai
No place in Thailand takes the festivities more seriously than the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, where celebrations and festivities of this nominally three day event are extended to five or six days. When the rest of Thailand has had enough and just wants to feel dry again, the good folks of Chiang Mai carry on splashing and drenching each other, both residents and visitors, with undiminished vigour.
The 'old city' of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a moat which acts as the perfect reservoir providing an endless supply of water. Buckets on strings are lowered into the moat and another round of ammunition is scooped up ready to be unleashed on passing motorists, motor cyclists and pedestrian. It's not a one-way assault, however, as a good portion of the passing traffic is pick-up trucks filled with barrels of water and people ready to give as good as they get.
The Buddhist traditions of Songkran
Songkran in its present state evolved from a far more tranquil affair. The religious element of the festivities involved people going to Buddhist temples to receive water used to bless and cleanse the statues of Buddha. The water cascading off the statues was, in turn, considered blessed and cleansing to any who received it. Monks would sprinkle it lightly on the shoulder of devotees at the temples who had come to receive their blessing.
Another Songkran tradition involves temple devotees bringing sand to their local temple to symbolically replace the sand that may have been unintentionally removed from the temple grounds clinging to the shoes of people leaving entering and leaving the temple throughout the year. The sand is formed into a stupa-shaped mound and decorated in flowers and paper flags, etc., as the photo below shows.
Meanwhile out on the streets, away from the graceful and spiritual activities of the secluded temples, a full-scale war of water carries on relentlessly.
Tips for tourists
Tourists are welcome and encouraged to join in. In fact, if you visit Thailand at this time, you won't have much of a choice unless you stay indoors for three days. As soon as you step outside, you're fair game - and so is almost everyone you see. So don't go out unarmed. Buckets and water rifles are available for sale everywhere, so there's no reason not to give as good as you get.
Many guest house staff go out in pickup trucks with huge barrels of water onboard. If you're staying at a guest house intent oncelebrating the event,you'll most likely be invited to accompany them.
Whether you go solo or in a pick-up truck with others, keep in mind the following tips:
Protect vulnerable items such as the contents of your wallet or purse, mobile phones and cameras by placing them in plastic bags, or, for less than a dollar, you can buy small plastic and waterproof pouches, worn around your neck, that are on sale everywhere at this time. Remember, you won't just get a bit wet - you'll get completely soaked from head to foot.
Don't drench any food or other stall holders operating by the side of the road.
Don't drench any passing Buddhists monks, unless it's a pick-up truck full of young monks who are joining in and throwing water at anyone within striking distance.
Don't drench old or infirm people.
Do make frequent use of the phrase, "Happy New Year" or its Thai equivalent "Sawatdi Pi Mai".