Happy (and wet) New Year
hailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles.’ And you’ll see the most smiles during Songkran, between 13 and 15 April. The Thais use the country’s most important festival to celebrate the Buddhist New Year, and they do it by getting drenched from top to bottom. The streets in all the cities fill with people armed with water guns and buckets of water, ready to soak anyone who crosses their path. They have good intentions because according to tradition, this ‘quick dip’ washes away the bad luck of the year that is ending.
To start the year with a renewed attitude, they also ‘cleanse’ their homes, schools and offices. Buddhist temple monks are the only people who get wetter than the tourists, the Thais’ favourite targets. Locals wait for tourists on every corner with jugs of frozen water and a naughty look on their faces. It’s not as bad as it sounds, because apart from attracting good luck, water is the best antidote for the stifling heat in April, the hottest month of the year.
Instruction manual for first-timers
Wear comfortable clothes that you can toss away later. Besides water, revellers usually throw talc, which can ruin clothes. Have fun and get everyone wet, but be careful with children, monks and elderly people. And if you drink, you mustn’t drive.
However, Songkran hasn’t always had this festive character, with water battles and foam parties taking place in the middle of the street. Buckets and guns have replaced the little bowls full of water that they used to gently splash over family members, who usually got together during the festival to visit the temples and make offerings to the monks. Youngsters also use scented water to wet the hands of the family’s elders, to ask for their blessings and pay their respects.
The statues of the Buddha are also bathed in scented water. In some cities, they are paraded along the streets so that worshippers can splash them. In Bangkok, the statue of Phra Phuttha Sihing leaves the National Museum to take the place of honour in Sanam Luang Park opposite the Grand Palace, where hundreds of people flock. In Chiang Mai, ceremonies are held in honour of the Buddha’s relics and sand pagodas are built in the temples, another typical Songkran tradition. Beauty contests and cultural performances take place, showcasing the traditional and spiritual side of the festival.
When you’re in the middle of an aquatic battle field, it’s often easy to forget it has a religious origin. As a result, the government recommends wearing the traditional costume in some areas, although it is impossible not to get caught up in all the fun. For three days, tourists and locals go back to their childhood, and it would seem that their only worry is to shoot as many people as possible with neon-coloured water guns.
In Bangkok, the best parties are held on Silom Road and the backpacker area, Khao San Road. Fire-engine crews also help to ‘cool down’ the atmosphere. In Chiang Mai, people crowd around the moat, the unofficial post for charging the ‘weapons.’ And don’t be surprised if you see the backs of pick-up trucks converted into baths. A really crazy event drenched in water.