Frenzied Thai Festival of Songkran

The festival of Songkran, which starts on April 13 each year and runs for three days, is the happiest of Thai festivals. Thailand switched to the International calendar in 1941 although the Buddhist calendar is still used for some purposes to this day. The festival’s religious significance is rapidly disappearing in the more Westernized parts of the country, but many Thais regard the occasion as a sacred and special time. During the afternoon of the thirteenth, Buddha images are bathed and young people sprinkle small amounts of scented water on elders and parents as a blessing. Thai people release live birds and fish bought in the market on this day.

The Songkran festival is observed all over Thailand, although the merriest of all these celebrations is in Chiang Mai where there are processions of beautiful girls and floats with music and dancing and a “Queen of the Water Festival” is chosen. The Ping River, which runs through the city, is crowded with people wading in the water and scooping it up to throw at one another.

Thais have injected an element of fun (sanuk) into the Songkran festivities. This holiday is second only to Carnival in Rio and Octoberfest in Munich in terms of amusement, and it has become a wild and frenetic water festival. Songkran can be fun only if you are prepared to get soaking wet! The celebration is supposed to start on the evening of the thirteenth (New Years Eve of the year 2537). However, people start throwing water earlier as they become impatient after waiting for one year. In certain areas the pranks have been taken a bit too far. Certainly if you venture outside on these days you are destined to become soaking wet. This is why we always leave the country at this time of year to get away from the heat and the flying water.

In Bangkok the object of the game is to douse people with water and white powder by any means possible. Since this is the hottest month of the year people really do not mind if they are dressed for it. Street vendors and department stores sell giant “Rambo type” squirt guns that can do just that. They can shoot an uninterrupted, solid stream of water over a great distance and have giant water tanks that strap on the back like a scuba diver. Everybody carries squirt guns in all sizes from pistols to giant toy rocket launchers that shoot huge bursts of water. As you walk down the street you have to be on your guard or you might be hit by water thrown from a bucket from the floors above. Many people leave Bangkok and go to the country. The one positive effect of Songkran is during this holiday you can drive in the city with no traffic jams. In some bars, in the entertainment areas, they turn off the water supply as water becomes ankle deep. Although, since this is Thailand, for a few baht you can buy as much water as you like from the cashier. Handfuls of white powder or paste are thrown and can be irritating if they mix with water and migrate into the eyes. Buses and tuk-tuk’s are fair game and targets of roadside merrymakers who throw powder and buckets of water through the open windows. Taxis are the least vulnerable as their windows are closed.

All of the Songkran activity in Bangkok is child’s play in comparison to what takes’ place a few days
later in Pattaya. During the 17-19 Annual April water festival Pattaya becomes a messy battlefield. The heavy armament moves in and what appears to be a full scale war proceeds. Trucks prowl the streets loaded with two 44 gallon drums of water and as many people as can get on. They fire at anything moving on the street and people on the street return fire from huge tanks fitted with electric pumps. Downtown it is like a water-war. From a distance it looks like a torrential rainstorm. Tanker trucks hook up to fire hydrants and supply water to the passing trucks. Store windows and cars are smeared with white powder that is made into a paste.
You may draw fire from squirt-gun toting salesclerks while shopping in a department store. Even a police officer is not immune from getting a good soaking.

Although the water throwing has slowly gotten out of control, the festival is still good fun and at least the worst injury that you can expect to get, while sitting soaking wet in an air-conditioned room, is a bad cold.

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