Suk San Wan Songkran
For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years people across south east Asia have celebrated their new year at the peak of the hot season by gently washing the dust from effigies of the Buddha (and generally having a good spring clean) with scented flower water. As a mark of great respect they catch the water that falls from the statues and trickle it over the shoulders of elders, which also doubles as a pleasant release from the 45°C heat. Statues of the Buddha are carried on ornate floats through the towns and local people toss water onto them to symbolise the washing away of badness. Traditionally this is also a popular time to make New Year resolutions. Over time the celebration became more relaxed and the young took the opportunity to toss water at each other playfully as a means to cool off. Then someone invented the super-soaker. And the foam party. And the wet t-shirt competition…
Songkran now is one of the biggest street parties in the world, a nationwide three day water-fight where every toddler to granny is armed to the teeth with hose pipes, a startling medley of water guns and enormous drums of water filled with blocks of ice the size of car tyres. Chiang Mai city in the north has become the Mecca of Songkran madness and is the most popular spot amongst tourists to congregate and take part in the festivities. The centre of the city becomes a flooded Brighton Pride festival complete with lady-boys in gold lamé hot-pants waving hose pipes and promo girls in next to nothing tossing free drinks to the crowd and dancing on podiums in outfits that on any other day of the year would be smashing Thai ideals of modesty to the ground. By midday of the first day the streets are knee-deep and stages playing ear-splitting Korean and western dance music belch foam onto the saturated dancers. Thai people and visitors alike set up posts in front of bars and cafes, where re-fills are readily available, and take to defending their spot by drenching anyone and anything that passes, often engaging in sopping warfare with their neighbours. A particular favourite for the entire strip is to run into the road whenever a song taew bus passes and toss dozens of buckets in through the open back onto the defenceless passengers.
Some friends and I hired a tuk-tuk to drive us around for an hour figuring we could do some novelty water-pistol drive-by but the plan back-fired when we realised that the streets were so clogged that we’d actually just made ourselves a perfect slow-moving target. After an hour of having bucket after bucket of ice water dunked over our heads we set up camp outside a seedy bar and reaped vengeance by doing the same to every tuk-tuk that passed us instead.
The whole experience was enormously liberating and some of the best fun I’ve had in south east Asia. Normally whenever I leave the house I am complete with satchel containing camera, notepad, pens, phone, ipod, wallet and all the other detritus that accumulates in the bottom of travel bags. Not for Songkran though; bit of cash in pocket? Tick. Done. Sadly I couldn’t take my camera out into the torrent for obvious reasons so I have no photos and all the ones I’ve used here have been slyly half-inched. That was a liberation in itself though since I have developed a tendency out here to view all major events through a camera screen instead of really engaging. I did have a three-second panic attack every time we left a place and I couldn’t find it however.
Songkran has come under attack a little in recent years, in part from traditionalists affronted by the greater emphasis on hedonism than Buddhism and in part due to the enormous casualty lists that always follow. Throwing buckets of water at passing buses and pedestrians is one thing but throwing them in the faces of people on motorbikes and mopeds is bound to cause trouble but seems to happen constantly anyway. This year the Songkran death-toll was in excess of 300 people; the vast majority of which were traffic-related deaths. The casualty list undoubtedly runs into the thousands.
At the end of the festival this year the sky over Chiang Mai grew fat and gloomy and just before the sun set it split open and emptied itself onto the crowd below, as if just to prove that it wouldn’t be trumped. At the peak of the hot season this was undoubtedly an extremely fortuitous omen for the coming year (as long as you weren’t riding a bike).