Here in Thailand, the weekend sees the starts of the Songkran Festival which runs from 13th to 15th April.
It’s a National Holiday for the Thais, their biggest one of the year and a chance for families and friends to get together either at home or on a short break and celebrate. Think Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, August Bank holidays, May Day all rolled into one and you get an idea of how the whole country moves into party mode.
Chiang Mai is the undisputed leader of the pack with its festivities running for a good 6 or 7 days, though this year, with the 13th falling on a Sunday, everything and everyone are actually likely to kick off a day earlier on the 12th – why waste a good Saturday.
Songkran – The Dates and Customs
The fixed date holiday marks the start of the Traditional New Year with the name Songkran deriving from the sanskrit for astrological passage, which in this case apparently means the cycle of the sun moving into Aries – where would we be without good old wiki.
In its role as a Buddhist festival, Songkran will of course see people visiting the temple to donate food for the monks and to pray, but especially to wash the buddha images with a scented water. This traditional ritual is also carried out at home on the house images and shrines, as it is held to bring both good luck and and prosperity for the coming year. Chiang Mai, who else, parades its Buddha images down the streets and those watching toss a little water gently over the floats as they pass …
… so that’s the wholesome version, but in reality all of this gentle cleaning and water pouring has become somewhat adapted over the years, one might say lost a little of its original meaning even, as what Songkran has actually become is the world’s largest annual three day dawn till dusk no holds barred water fight.
Songkran on Koh Chang
Here on Koh Chang, like everywhere else in Thailand, the festival follows a uniquely familiar routine. Early on the first day, perhaps the night before, large plastic drums and containers, anything that can hold a a volume of liquid, are put out along the side of the road. Hoses are then connected up to perpetually open taps and water sources, stereo speakers turned outwards and with that, the mayhem can commence.
The game is very simple, throw water at everyone that passes, in a car, on a motorbike, whatever, just do your darnedest to soak them. Water pistols, all pump action and plastic but far more powerful than the piddling things you remember as a kid are de rigeur.
It’s not all one way traffic, as people take to the back of the pick-up trucks with their own huge, overflowing water drums and cruise back and forth along the west coast of the island, chucking it over the sides at anyone on the street, ready or not. Talc features heavily, with it added to the water for throwing or it smeared on people’s faces, a friendly gesture very distantly derivative of a monk’s blessing using chalk.
And that’s about it, madness for three, long wet days, whilst the evenings are given over to karaoke, parties, loud music and carousing, all thankfully dry, though not in the teetotal way.
Is it Fun?
Has it lost its innocence over the last ten years? Yes of course it has, alcohol has become a huge part of the celebration, so drunken idiots throwing buckets of iced water in a passing driver’s face are far too common and nationwide, the number of road fatalities during the holiday week is staggering, but is it out of hand, probably not, just.
It’s still enormous fun, with laugh till you cry moments as grown adults rediscover their inner child and stand toe to toe squirting water at one another with ridiculously over-sized water pistols as though their very lives depended on it, whilst their kids look on, simply aghast that their parents are actually deep down as batty as them. Happy New Year or as you will hear all day, Sabadi Pi Mai!
- Pack all your wallets, cameras, phones etc in plastic bags before you go out, as you will get very wet… again and again and again.
- Asking someone not to soak you will likely fall on deaf ears, though the soaking may be more gently administered.
- If you are on a motorbike, drive very very slowly at all times – it’s not worth trying to outrun the revelers.
- Even if you hate it, try and keep your sense of humour – getting angry if doused will likely mean a second round.
- And it is the hot season, so what the heck.
Klong Prao Temple is the centre of more traditional ceremonies throughout the three days.
Sabadi Pi Mai! – Sabadi, happy, Pi, year, Mai, new.
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