Songkran: A Thai New Year Celebration – Part II

Brightly festooned temple in Chiang Mai, ThailandBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

As mentioned in Part I, Songkran is often called the Water Festival because it ushers in the rainy season so crucial for growing rice, the main staple in the Thai diet.  Naturally, water has always played an important role in the celebration, but modern participants have taken the tradition and turned it up a notch…or ten.  Today’s festivities often begin days before the ‘official’ holiday, which is around April 13th, and can last for several days after Songkran ends on the 15th.  One can feel the tension building as the holiday nears.  Locals and visitors alike have a wary look in their eyes and a rare alertness to their steps.

It usually starts slowly; a little spray from a small squirt gun, or some kids that dash water on your legs as you walk down the street. That was me at the beginning of this story – the one with water pooling around her feet and sunglasses somewhere on the back of my head.  It’s going to happen sooner or later –  but no one is ever certain just when or where.

You turn a corner and see some people in the street innocently chatting.  Suddenly you notice that the pavement is wet where they are standing, but now you’re trapped.  You try not to look at them as you approach, hoping they will let you off – this time.  And then you run.

But soon it doesn’t matter anymore – there is water everywhere and no one is safe from the drenching. As the celebrations reach a crescendo, partygoers begin smearing anyone and everyone with a white sticky paste.  You might be walking down the street to work or dinner and suddenly you are plastered with paste on the side of your face or down your arm.  During Songkran, you have two choices:  you can either join the party-makers or stay home.  And whether you like it or not, when it is your turn to get wet and sticky – you absolutely cannot get angry.  That is the rule – the only rule – of Songkran.

I had one man tell me a story about the year he had masterfully avoided being soaked for almost the entire week. He didn’t have air-conditioning in his car and with temperatures hovering near 100º, it was impossible to drive during the day with the windows rolled up.  So he decided to only drive late at night.

One night, he was approaching a stop sign at an intersection where three little old ladies stood waiting to cross the street. Without fear, he rolled up to the stop and politely turned to acknowledging the elders with a smile (for it is Songkran and elders play an important role).  As he did so, one of the frail little old ladies gracefully swung around to face him with a huge bucketful of water and landed it squarely in his lap. “I never trust anyone anymore during Songkran!” he said with a laugh.

By the final day of official Songkran, thousands of people are cruising the streets with water canons, hoses, buckets and squirt guns of all shapes and sizes. People load themselves into the backs of pickup trucks and parade up and down the streets dishing it out and taking it all at the same time. It is madness of the highest level and if you can’t take it, you better get inside and quick!  As crazy as it seems to foreigners, the entire city converges on this madness willingly.  By mid-morning the steam is rising from the hot wet streets and the music is blaring from car windows, doorways and performance stages all over the city.

Occasionally the festivities get a little out of hand, especially in the larger cities, but in my observations, it is usually the tourists and expats who lose control of themselves, not the locals.  Nonetheless, some officials are calling for strict regulations as to when water can and cannot be thrown and at whom and no one debates the fact that there have been plenty of accidents and injuries over the years due to over-exuberant water-throwing and excessive alcohol consumption.

But all in all, Songkran is a precious few days for the entire country to lose its collective mind in a riot of madness and laughter.  I would compare it to Carnival or Mardi Gras, but although those are fun, colorful and whacky, they come nowhere close to the insanity and beauty of Songkran in Thailand.

If you find yourself in Thailand in mid-April and reckless abandon and chaos is not your style, park yourself in a small town somewhere or hop the border until it’s over.

Photo by Tevaprapas Makklay - wikimedia commonsIf you want the modern Songkran experience, Chiang Mai can’t be beat.  Plan to arrive a week to ten days before the celebration or risk not finding a room or paying an exorbitant amount for what you do find.  Use the extra days in the city to delve into it’s rich and inviting history, ancient ornate temples and wonderful, tolerant, and fun-loving people.  Who knows, you might just find yourself foregoing the “Water Festival” party for the more traditional Buddhist New Year celebrations from which Thailand’s calendar year is derived.   If you take the time to find the paradoxes in the various Songkran celebrations,  you will come away from it a better person.  For, love it or hate it, Songkran is exactly what it is meant to be, a symbol of change and our acceptance of it.

I was thankful to have discovered both sides of Songkran during my 45th birthday, which lands squarely in the  middle of the celebration.  And I hope that someday, you may experience this wonderful celebration of rebirth for  yourself.

Sa-wat-dee pee mai!  Happy New Year!

© 2014 Jill Henderson – Feel free to share with a link back to this site. Thanks.

A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one.  Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor.  This is one journey you don’t want to miss.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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8 responses to “Songkran: A Thai New Year Celebration – Part II

  1. LOL! I love the concept of Songkran, Jill!

  2. william wallace

    it is a time when the 4% of latent psychopaths show themselfs to the rest of society. people are killed by having buckets of ice and water thrown directly in to their faces whilst riding their motorbikes. people can not get to work without being soaked and then soaked again on the way home. if you want to go to a restaurant for the evening then it is impossible as you will be assualted with water and sticky white paste. this goes on day in and day out for a week. the government has a death count as 100s of people are killed during this mayhem. just look at the bangkok post for the 7 deadly days of songkran. 100s of people that are alive today will be dead soon becasue of this mayhem. nothing to celibrate – at all!

    oh rhe roads are deadly as 100s of thousands of thais drink drive on their way home to there towns and villages.

    most expats actually leave thailand during this time of year to avoid the dangers. or at least close there businesses

  3. william wallace

    “The business is lucrative during the period with coffin makers saying they have had to stockpile their products in order to meet the demand.”

  4. william wallace

    sorry for double positngs – above.

    latest death count (sorry to be persistant – but it is important)

    BANGKOK: — The third day of the Songkran festival Tuesday claimed another 43 people, raising total death toll in the first three days of the seven dangerous days to 204 deaths and 2,142 injuries.

    Source: http://englishnews.t…-die-third-day/

  5. william wallace

    Thanks for allowing my posts Jill, even though we are poles appart in our opinions

    • No problem, William. I didn’t realize how many people actually died or were injured during Songkran celebrations. I don’t like to spend much time in Bangkok, it’s just too big and crazy for my taste, but I know it’s all over the country. My hope would be that people get it together and return to the traditional ways of celebrating. Truly a sad outcome…

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