Happy, happier, happiest festival on the planet

17 Apr

This weekend came with the kind of moments that, decades later, will still make me laugh out loud. Teemed with all the excitement and wonder and adrenalin of an eight-year old child, we took to the streets of Chiang Mai to splash water and celebrate Thailand’s annual Songkran festival.

Songkran is a three-day New Year celebration in mid-April, the hottest time of the year, that also takes place in Cambodia, Laos and Burma. In Thailand, reportedly the wettest of them all, the city-wide water fights are celebrated with the most gusto and ease in northern Chiang Mai thanks to its old city moat.

The intensity and joy of this celebration is hard to grasp. Thousands upon thousands of children aged five to sixty-five fling water at everyone in sight for three full days. And, as the buckets of water are emptied on top of a stranger’s head, it’s accompanied by a cheerful sawatdi pi mai (Happy New Year) or suk san wan songkran (Happy Songkran).

Blissful drenching in other words.

Traditionally the water thrown on strangers was water recaptured after it had been poured over Buddha statues for cleansing. Today’s fusion of old traditions and joyful celebration was at its most evident in the parading of Buddhas through Chiang Mai on the first day of Songkran. For hours people lined up to watch the procession and squirt water at the Buddhas with water guns.

Rumours have it that elderly people still walk around and gently pour “blessed water” on passers-by to wash away the past year’s misfortunes. But the only ones I met not going for the full-fledged drenching were the ones whose buckets were filled with ice water. Yes, that’s right. A block of ice that had been melted in a bucket. Armed with such ruthful treats, they only needed a lovely little cup to send shivers down someone’s spine.

Icy cold water was however the least of our concerns. It was the moat water we were told to worry about. Though the local authorities drain and refill the moat before the festival, you would still want to keep your mouth firmly shut in between the bursts of laughter. With the moat water, Songkran also illustrated the illusion of choice. As locals in “Songkran shirts”, floral print Hawaiian shirts, lowered their buckets into the polluted canal, you either stayed and waited for the moat water shower or walked out of their reach and into the slow-moving traffic. But there, on top of each roof-less pick-up truck was a delighted Thai family with a massive barrel of water and multiple buckets, splashing everyone in sight.

A piece of advice: The red pick-up trucks that function as taxis in Chiang Mai may be cheap, but they leave you as sitting ducks during Songkran. People posted along the road will be delighted to get up from their lawn chairs with their garden hose as your truck comes to a halt. Most will however take the greatest pleasure in splashing buckets of ice water at you. Yesterday, our merciless ten-year old opponents had time to go and refill their buckets before the light went green. But today. Today we set out armed with 50 water balloons each as well as each our single-barreled 5500 pressure purple and orange water gun. Don’t get mad, get even!

Natti, whom I know from our hotel, said Songkran is getting increasingly wilder. While local teenagers play their part, the main reason is the influx of young tourists. Most of us are a welcome addition. “Falang [foreigners] liven it up”, Natti told me at the end of yet another drenched day. “Many Thai people will come up to you and just gently pour some water on you with a small cup, and say ‘Happy New Year’. But then! Falang!” At this point she put together her hands as if shooting with a machine gun. “KABOSH!! KABOSH!!” Natti laughed, “makes it much more fun!”.

But some people take it too far.

This morning, Natti’s colleague Von called me over to her desk at the tour agency of our hotel to show me a photo. Two young male tourists doing Songkran Borat-style with their shorts half-way down their bums and thongs pulled up as suspenders. In no need of seeing hairy butt cracks, I remember the disdain of my own when spotting the two yesterday. Now, local media in Chiang Mai were running a story on disrespectful falang.

“And look at this”, Von showed me a longer text chunk in Thai. I could only make out the figures 22.20. Reportedly, falang had been at it with the water fights until someone called the police to shut them down. Thai people let the festival wind down around seven each day to make it possible for people to walk around safely and dryly at night time. Tapping her computer, Von shook her head. “You know, people come home from work or dinner around that time. That’s not fun”.

So. Join in, but don’t be a bully in the playground.

And now, here are a few photos for your enjoyment:


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