Songkran — to love it or leave town? Most of Thailand splashes its way with reasonable sanity through the traditional new year water festival known as Songkran. This year the celebrations run from April 13 to 15, except in Pattaya where they rage for a week of increasing inebriation and un-Thai mayhem.
Should you find yourself near Bangkok tourist enclaves like Khao San Road or Patpong, here’s what to expect. Zap! The first jet of water from a pistol hits your neck. Given that April is hot, the chill is not entirely unpleasant. As a farang, you are a "mark", so don’t hit the streets wearing or carrying anything that you don’t mind having thoroughly soaked. Your wallet, phone, etc should all be in a zip-lock waterproof pouch. Regardless of your intentions, within 15 minutes you’re going to look like you took your morning shower fully clothed and then stepped out for a walk. In short, you’re drenched from head to foot.
It wasn’t always like this. Songkran — the word derives from a Sanskrit term for the new solar year — probably arrived from India some 2,500 years ago. Thais traditionally give their homes a thorough spring-cleaning before the festival and then, visiting their local temple they will offer food to the monks and sprinkle scented water on Buddha images. In a ceremony known as Rod Nam Dam Huaw, rural villagers line up to pour water on the hands of their community's oldest members, blessing them for the coming year. No water cannon, ice bins or pissed tourists imagining that they have “gone Thai”.
The main Songkran event, the "big splash" is known as Saad Nam. Across the kingdom firing squads of teenagers let loose with arsenals of hoses, buckets and water cannon. Everyone is expected to take their punishment with good humour. Should you see Thai kids aiming pistols or buckets at you, never plea for exemption. To do so is to paint a double bulls-eye on yourself. Prepare to get even drenched-er than had you said nothing.
In Bangkok your chances of staying relatively dry increase in direct ratio to your distance from tourist hot spots, and to your time spent indoors during the day. Ideally, there is a cease-fire of water-borne hostilities at dusk — but don’t you believe it.
The festivities are similarly exuberant up north in Chiang Mai where revellers wade into the Ping River. A Queen of the Water Festival is chosen — no, it’s not a wet T-shirt contest — and the city turns on a three-day, water-cooled carnival of music and dance. Hotels in Chiang Mai (and elsewhere) are heavily booked for this period, so get in early if you plan to travel.
Across the country millions of Thais are on the move for the Songkran holidays, visiting their families. Unfortunately, Thailand has truly horrendous annual road trauma statistics and Songkran delivers one of the worst spikes of the year, with over 100 people a day dying in wrecks, not to mention the maimed survivors. The roads are awash with water, alcohol and blithe inattention. Kids perched in pick-ups target other vehicles, especially motorcycles, while those on the motorbikes return fire. It’s all good, clean fun until a passenger van clips a bike or truck, and Songkran racks up yet more ruined lives.
Head for the hills, literally — is probably the best advice. In quiet rural towns and backwater beaches you’ll have the pleasure and honour of a bit of a splash, some clay tenderly daubed on your cheek by polite Thai kids and a big smile.
Songkran will be celebrated in 2014 from April 13-15.