It’s too late to run or hide, all I can do is gasp as yet another pail of icy water slaps my body. I hear some accompanying whoops and look up to see my Thai attackers perched on a truck that’s now speeding away down the road. I can just make out the neon water pistols they’re armed with and the barrel of water laced with ice that they’re scooping from with buckets. It’s Songkran 2014 in Chiang Mai, Thailand and nowhere is safe.
Songkran 2014 in Chiang Mai
Back in England New Year celebrations are usually a let-down. Typically it’ll be freezing cold and rainy, the streets will be full of drunken people throwing up and fighting, transport networks buckle under the strain and the local pub will charge you an entrance fee; Andrew and I tend to skip the evening altogether. By contrast, the New Year celebrations in Thailand, known as Songkran, are absolutely legendary.
Songkran traditionally falls according to the Lunisolar calendar but in recent years the festival dates have been fixed between the 13th and 15th April. However in Chiang Mai, which is deemed the Songkran Capital, celebrations can go on for almost a week. The festival was originally a time of cleansing and renewal, symbolised by pouring water over people or smearing them with a talcum powder paste to bring luck and prosperity. Nowadays, partly because the festival falls at the hottest time of the year, Songkran has basically become a giant water fight.
In Chiang Mai we began to feel the odd squirt of water here and there on the 11th but when we ventured outside the next day, the city was transformed. Streets had been shut off and were full of people carrying water guns; there were huge barrels everywhere and people lobbing buckets of water over passersby as well as into Tuk Tuks, Songtheaws and over motorcyclists. Locals were stood on street corners blasting people with hoses, children waved Angry Bird pistols at us and groups drove by on trucks pelting pedestrians with water. Here’s our Songkran 2014 video, accompanied by a catchy Thai song we keep hearing:
The streets around the old city walls and Thapae Gate were heaving with people and vehicles; from a distance it looked like one great sea of brightly coloured water guns and drenched dancing, screaming bodies; water was flying everywhere and flowing down the pavements in rivers. An Air Asia stage had been set up to blast music from while promo girls danced and a man sprayed the crowd with a giant water cannon.
Within seconds of leaving our hotel Andrew and I were soaked to the skin and fighting back with our Spiderman guns; a little Thai girl attacked us with a hose, westerners fired at us from across the street and a group of local boys threw icy pails over our heads from the backs of trucks. We made our way through the chaos to the city moat, where people were jumping into the murky water and hauling buckets out to throw.
Even the smaller back streets of the city were dangerous as there was no dodging the determined groups of people ready with their buckets and hoses. During Songkran we walked further around Chiang Mai than we ever have before and in the evenings we ended up in the markets where people laid down their guns to eat plates of steaming Pad Thai. By the end of the day we were normally exhausted; our hands ached from firing our water guns and our shoulders were red from the sun.
On the 13th, which was perhaps the craziest day of festivities, Buddha statues from monasteries around Chiang Mai were paraded on floats through the streets in a huge procession; Thai people lined up to cleanse the statues by throwing water over them and there was plenty of singing and dancing.
As much fun as Songkran is, I can’t write this post without mentioning the dangers involved. Thailand already has the second-highest traffic fatality rate in the world but over Songkran accidents double; according to the Bangkok Post, 248 people died during Songkran 2014 and 2,643 were injured. With so much water and so many festival-goers everywhere the streets are a mess and it’s not hard to see why there are so many accidents. Andrew and I saw and experienced aggressive water throwing from a minority of people and saw others running recklessly into the roads. Most shockingly, we witnessed people throwing buckets of water straight into the faces of motorcyclists.
We tried to stay safe by not getting drunk, wearing sunglasses to protect our eyes and watching out for vehicles. We also observed our own Songkran etiquette by not splashing motorcyclists and drivers or people who clearly didn’t want to participate – we only shot at those who were carrying water guns or obviously joining in with the festivities. If everyone observed these rules, Songkran would be much safer and more enjoyable.
Saying Goodbye to Thailand
Songkran has been the most fun I’ve had in years and I truly can’t remember the last time I’ve smiled and laughed so much. It has been amazing to see all the Thai people and tourists alike cutting loose and celebrating together in one big party. My favourite part of the festival has been interacting with the Thai people; having water fights with kids and being blessed and wished a happy new year by smiling locals.
I will never get over how tolerant and welcoming the Thai people are to tourists, especially when we can be less than desirable guests at times; the people are one of the main reasons why we keep coming back to Thailand. Plus, what other country is cool enough (and lacks the health and safety regulations) to allow giant water fights in the streets?
Despite all the fun, celebrating Songkran has been bittersweet for me because it signals the end of our time in Thailand. I feel so sad to leave this incredible country which has become like a second home to us; a place so welcoming and familiar. The sadness I feel about leaving is compounded by the fact that we don’t know when we’ll next return; all I do know is that wherever I go from now on, a part of me will always miss Thailand.