Songkran - Thailand's New Year Festival
by John Cooke
Songkran is a festival held to celebrate the Thai New Year. It lasts for three days, and falls over 13 â€“ 15 April. Songkran is the time when many Thai people go home to visit their parents, pay them respect, and bring them a small gift. People also pay respect to their local elders, pray at a temple and give food to monks. They also clean Buddha images in temples with water and Thai perfume. This is believed to bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year. Also, Songkran is a long public holiday which sees many Thais heading back to their home village, town or city to be with their families.
However, to many Thais, especially the younger generation, the festival now just seems to be an excuse to throw lots of water about. A lot, and I mean a lot, of water is tossed, thrown, chucked, pumped, shot over and onto people over the three days of Songkran. Thais like to have â€œSanook,â€ (fun), and boy, do Thais have fun over Songkran. Itâ€™s the countryâ€™s number one festival and Thais let their hair down, big time!
The festival takes place at the beginning of Thailandâ€™s hot season. Temperatures soar to the high 90s, so throwing water around for a few days does make sense. But, not everyone enjoys the fun. Some choose to hide out at home for three days, well away from the water throwing. Over the years, I have met tourists in Bangkok soaked to the skin who have asked me how long this water throwing goes on for. When Iâ€™ve said, three days they nearly faint. Three days, they gasped, and headed off back in the direction of their hotel, cursing themselves for choosing to holiday in Thailand over Songkran. Many tourists, however, take the plunge and join in the fun.
Many, and I mean many, Thais take to the streets, in cities, towns and villages all over the country to throw water over anybody and anything that moves. They arm themselves with whatever they can get their hands on - buckets, pails, cups, large and small plastic pump guns, and hoses to dispense water. Many tourists and visitors join in the water throwing, especially in the northern city of Chiang Mai and the famous backpacker haunt of Khao San Road in central Bangkok - the road is completely blocked off, and thousands come along to join in the fun.
All over Thailand, truckloads of young Thais cruise the streets and roads hurling water over passers by. Often, two trucks will go head to head and a water battle will rage. The Thais come prepared - the trucks carry large barrels full of water. Gangs of Thais hang out on street corners drenching people as they pass. Road blocks are set up to ambush passers by, motorbike riders especially get a drenching as they try to shoot by. A warning - if you do go outside anywhere in Thailand over Songkran, take my advice - wrap your camera, wallet, mobile, passport, paper money and other valuables in plastic bags. Otherwise you run the risk off getting them ruined. It just makes sense.
The last two years, the famous Patpong Road market in downtown Bangkok has been closed for the opening day of the holiday, the 13th, and turned over to Songkran revelers, similar to what happens at Khao San Road, so that they can enjoy the festival. This has attracted thousands of young Thais, especially, to the area from all over Bangkok. And, for one day, Patpong Road and the area surrounding becomes a wave of water throwing.
While living in Thailand, Iâ€™ve celebrated Songkran in several different parts of the country: Bangkok; Chiang Mai, where tens of thousands of Thais flock to this northern city to celebrate the festival; two provincial villages; and the central region town of Lopburi, famous for its wild monkeys. The original spirit of Songkran is alive and well in the provinces, I think. However, in the cities the festivalâ€™s origins have been now swamped by a torrent of water throwing.
As night fell in Lopburi and the villages, the water throwing stopped. Peace reigned. Locals returned to their homes to spend time with families, including elders. In one village, I joined with my then Thai wife and her family to pour scented water over the hands of her grandfather and grandmother. Hundreds of locals gathered at the village temple to do likewise to Buddhist monks. Ceremonies were carried out. Respect was paid. The traditions of Songkran were upheld. In the big cities, Bangkok especially, Songkran has developed into an orgy of water throwing, and some unruly behaviour through to the late evening. In Bangkok, thousands of young Thais cruise the streets looking for some late night Songkran action.
By contrast, in Lopburi I watched a colourful procession march through the town made up of Thai ladies in traditional dress, floats decorated with all kinds of beautiful flowers, young children, elephants with their mahuts in bright uniforms, marching bands, and groupsâ€™ of older Thais all parading together to celebrate the festival. Thousands of local people and visitors lined the streets to wave and cheer. I also experienced, on a smaller scale, the same thing in both villages; the parades just as colourful, the Thai villagers celebrating Songkran in the traditional manner. Another attraction, in one village, was an evening fair where local families came and enjoyed a meal, traditional Thai music and dancing, a stage show presented by a troupe of traveling players, or just strolled around in groups chatting and joking.
There has been talk in Thailand about how the original meaning of Songkran has been lost, and that young Thais just now see it as an excuse to get just drunk and throw water. Things have got that bad that a recent editorial in the Bangkok Post called for Thais to celebrate Songkran in a â€œsafe and orderly manner.â€ Not much hope of that, I said to myself. The editorial went on to urge the Thai authorities to come up with more â€œstringent measuresâ€ to â€œward off acts of misbehaviour.â€ I donâ€™t see much chance of that working, either. Thais look forward to Songkran, and celebrate it with a relish, the young increasingly so, but now perhaps with much less adherence to the festivalâ€™s origins.
Bans were recently imposed by Thai authorities on the use of high-pressure water guns, throwing water with ice cubes in, and the throwing of powder. At Songkran, Thais mix water with powder to form paste which they smear over anybody and anything that moves, tourists included. I have even seen Policemen in Bangkok, their uniforms smothered with paste. One disgusting new development is a report of people being seen mixing their urine with water, and then throwing it around!
A downside of every Songkran is the death and injury toll on the roads. Hundreds of Thais die each year. Thousands more are injured. Every year, thousands of traffic accidents are recorded over the period of the holiday. Drunk driving is the main cause of the carnage. The roads and highways leading out of Bangkok - north, south, east and west - are choked with traffic winding its way â€œup country,â€ as Thais call the provinces. Bangkokâ€™s train stations and bus terminals are jammed with people looking to get away. An exodus takes place the day and night before the first day of the holiday, and the process is reversed just a few days later, as people pour back into town. It feels like the whole country is on the move.
Songkran is still a time of great celebration for Thai people. Being an outsider, perhaps itâ€™s not my place to criticize or comment. But, I agree with some critics, that the festivalâ€™s original meaning is fast being eroded. Some small suggestions would be: Restrict the water throwing to one day only, or, at least close it down as night falls, at 6.30 pm., over all three days. Also, the Thai authorities could organize a parade, or a series of parades in Bangkok and other big cities similar to the Carnivals held in Rio and London. This would provide more of a focus for the festival, and am I am sure would attract large crowds. Thailand has many fine traditions, Songkran included. It would be a pity if this great festival's original meaning was lost forever.