Songkran! The Thai New Year Festival

Songkran is the name of the festival for the Thai New Year.  In early times it was observed based on a lunar calendar, but in modern times it is now observed during the 3-day period of April 13-15.  It’s one of those things where it’s really difficult to truly convey the festival through words and pictures – it really is something that you need to experience in person to get the full effect.  I somewhat “stumbled” on it about 10 years ago when we happened to be here during April.  For 5 or 6 years after that, I planned my annual Thailand trip to coincide with Songkran.  The past 5 years or so, work schedules and other issues prevented me from being able to take vacation during that time, so I was very excited to be back here in April this year to again witness and participate in the Songkran festivities.

The official Songkran holiday generally runs for at least a week, where government offices, schools, banks, and most businesses are closed (larger malls, chain restaurants and tourist things are mostly still open though).  This is a time for people to leave the city and head back to see their families.  In the case of many Bangkok residents, that means heading to the eastern and northern parts of Thailand.  As such, Bangkok is fairly quiet, and it’s a relative breeze to get around town because the traffic is so much lighter than the typical 24-hour gridlock.

There are really two “sides” to Songkran: the spiritual and reverent side, and the fun and frolicking side.  As for the former, Songkran is a time when the younger generation pays homage and tribute to the elder generations, including family, friends and neighbors.  It is a time to express their respect for the elders, thank them for what they’ve done, and wish them good health in the new year.  It is also a time when many people visit the local temples and shrines to pray and bring food to the monks.  Many temples are packed, especially in the early mornings, with local Thais burning incense, praying, and honoring the monks.  Even though I’m not Buddhist, I do enjoy going and watching the people at the temples, and it’s always a very moving and solemn experience.

Another tradition is the washing of Buddha statues.  Locals will bring bowls of water, often with flower petals in the water to add fragrance, to various Buddha statues and wash them, or simply splash or pour the water over the statues.  It is a means of helping insure the Buddha starts the new year off clean and refreshed.  Stemming from this ritual, the splashing of water has spread to include splashing it on people.  It started as simply splashing a few drops of water on people as a symbol of cleansing them, washing away the sins of the past year, and starting the new year off clean and fresh.  Along with the splashing, they also pat a small amount of a scented powder, similar to talcum powder, on the cheeks of family and friends.  Again, it’s just a symbol of affection, respect and starting of a new year.

In more recent times, the splashing of water has expanded well beyond its original intention.  Nowadays, it has become a 3-day waterfight throughout the entire country.  This is the fun and frolicking side of Songkran!  In nearly every city and town, people fill water guns, buckets, bowls, or anything else that can hold water and throw it on anyone walking by.  In larger areas like Bangkok, they close several areas of streets in various parts of the city, and for 3 days and nights it’s literally hundreds of thousands of people – mostly Thais, but with a few of us Westerners mixed in – spraying and throwing water on each other.  All along the roads are stalls with people selling water guns, buckets, bowls, water, and the talcum-like powder.  They mix the powder in a bowl or bucket with water and spread it on your face and arms…which quickly gets washed off when the next person attacks you with a water gun!

Since April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand (with temps regularly 95 to 100 or more degrees), the water feels good during the heat of the day.  But if you don’t want to get wet, you’re best bet is to not leave your home, because if you’re anywhere outside, you’re fair game – regardless of whether you’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt or an expensive 3-piece suit.

This year, I spent Songkran in the Silom Road area of Bangkok.  It’s a large 6- or 8-lane road (the concept of “lanes” is a bit fuzzy here…cars and motorcycles just kind of drive wherever there’s room) through the central business district, and it along with many side streets were closed to traffic so that vendors could set up stalls to sell the Songkran paraphernalia and hundreds of thousands of us could walk around the streets in a massive waterfight.  Along with all the water guns, many of the vendors on the streets had hoses connected to water spigots on the buildings and were spraying the crowds.  And to top it off, several of the Bangkok Fire Department trucks were stationed at various points along the road and the firemen were spraying the crowds in the streets with their huge firehoses.  It’s a good thing there weren’t any fires in Bangkok, because with the thousands of people crammed in and around the trucks, there was no way those trucks were going anywhere.

Even with the entire streets closed, by mid-afternoon it was just a solid mass of thousands of people crammed together, barely moving in any direction.  If you needed to get to the side to refill your water gun, it could easily take 30 minutes or more to move 20 feet.  If you’re at all Closter phobic, or don’t like being in large crowds of people, this is definitely not the place for you.  As I’m a relatively tall white guy, I sort of stood out in a sea of thousands of shorter, black-hair Thai people.  You might as well have painted a bullseye on me, because they *loved* to target us tall Westerners with their water guns and glopping the white talcum paste on us!

After a few hours of being in the thick of things in the street, I made my way to one of the side streets called Silom Soi 4.  This is a small, narrow street/alley where all the gay bars are lined up on either side of it.  Leave it to the gays to figure out how to take a celebration that’s already enormously fun and make it even more fun!  The bars were blasting loud dance music, people were dancing in the middle of the street, there were smoke/fog machines, and laser lights and mirror disco balls to add effect.  Most people (who weren’t in the middle dancing) were lined up on the decks of the bars on each side of the street, having water fights with the people on the opposite side.  The people dancing in the middle were kind of free-for-all targets.  It was an insanely fun time!

As I said at the beginning, words and pictures really don’t do the holiday and celebrations much justice.  But below are some pictures I took to try to give at least a little frame of reference.  And kudos to whoever the genius engineer was that invented the waterproof digital camera – mine got put to a real test during Songkran!

All around the city, people in trucks like this with barrels of water and throwing water on other cars and/or pedestrians (like me just after I took this pic).

I've got my water gun and am prepared to go do battle!

The Bangkok Fire Department spraying the crowd with their hoses from their truck.

Me getting deluged from the fire department hose.

After a thorough soaking from the fire department, ready to continue battle!

One of the hundreds of vendors selling bowls with the talcum powder, and behind them stacks of bottles of water.

These girls definitely got a fair share of the talcum powder paste on them. There were times during the day when I'm sure I looked similar to this.

Even Burger King gets in on the water fight action.

A friendly firefighter just starting to spray me with the hose.

Firemen spraying the crowds.

This is a small slice of the crowd, but you can kind of get the idea of how crammed together everyone is...for blocks!

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