You know those moments when you feel as though you are watching a perfect scene from a movie? The light is golden, the overwhelming noise seems to fade, and you get to watch a moment so exquisite, it is like you are experiencing it in slow motion. The sun is setting, though the day is still hot. I watch a woman, skin worn with age, crack into an enormous smile as she dumps flower water on the shoulders of a newborn babe. A middle-aged monk dips a bristled, hand broom-like bundle into a silver vessel of water and then ceremoniously hits the tops of bowed heads while chanting blessings. A young guy sneaks up behind a group of girls and surprises them by dumping his green plastic bucket of water on their heads. He stands and laughs as the girls grab their guns and start shooting him with their water pistols, taking the weight of their revenge for a couple of seconds before scampering off to refill his bucket. I stand and laugh until I feel the water cascading over my own head, and then that slow moment comes rushing to an end. I am pulled back into the lively chaos that is the city of Chiang Mai, where at this very minute, thousands of people are having what I would imagine is the largest water fight in the world.
Map of the Old City in the Heart of Chiang Mai.
This is the epicenter of the celebration.
Laughing, dancing, teasing, jumping, hiding, running, praying, crying, celebrating, singing, throwing, yelling—it is all happening in the same moment. It is beautiful, it is overwhelming, and it is very, very wet.
It is important to step back and recognize that Songkran is so much more than just a water fight. It is the celebration of the Thai New Year, where they wash away the last year, and welcome the new.
There are so many parts to this tradition—let us take a look at some of the more intricate aspects.
As it was explained to me, Thais believe that with all the people coming and going from the temples throughout the year, most of the temple sand and dirt is whisked away on the bottom of peoples’ feet. This is sacred sand, and on Songkran, it is returned to the temple. Sand castles are made, and if there is any construction to do in the coming year, this sand will be what is used.
Songkran marks the beginning of the new solar year in Thailand, literally translating to “a move or change in the position of the sun from Aries to Taurus.” The celebration originally comes from ancient Hindu traditions, with influences incorporated from Buddhism.
In preparation for the celebration, Thais will clean their homes, casting out any bad luck that lurks from the last year. Their kitchens will be bustling, as they prep food and sweets to present to any guests who come to visit. Extremely loud, explosive noises (this includes banging on pots, yelling, and gunshots) will be made to scare away any ghosts that hover on the eve of the New Year.
The morning of the first day of Songkran will begin with presenting offerings to the monks who come collecting alms on the streets. Some Thais will head to the temple to make their offerings. There is a beauty competition and the young woman crowned “Miss Songkran” will be carried through the streets on a colorful float surrounded by others in traditional Thai costumes.
The young people then visit their elders and pour water on their hands as a sign of good wishes and respect, and in return the elders offer a blessing. After this, the water fight begins. The entire city will erupt in a massive water battle with water guns and buckets, and lots of music, dancing, and folk games will commence.
Keep in mind that some of these Buddha statues are huge, and not only that, imagine the weight of them. Adding to the challenge, there are always many stairs, and the altar itself is on the top of a truck. . . How do you move one of these statues onto a float? The answer is this: a bunch of manpower, a wheeled cart, a ramp, and a scaffolding contraption.
In big cities like Chiang Mai or Bangkok, the most-revered Buddha image from each temple will be carried through the streets in a beautiful, colorful procession. Keeping in mind that Chiang Mai has over 300 temples in the area, you can imagine the scale of this procession—it almost defies description. Each procession is unique to its temple, and the representatives from that temple showcase the local traditional wear, or dance, or song. I saw beautiful handmade clothing from remote villages, captivating dances performed by a woman with long swords, and listened to the rhythmical chanting of long-lost languages. People cram into the streets to throw water onto the statues and receive blessings from the monks.
People even stand in their driveways and spray revelers, with their hoses running at full blast. The only people immune to the chaos are monks and the very elderly. Temples are off limits for the water fights, and it’s understood that the game is only played while you are on the streets—inside buildings or restaurants, you are safe.
I was amazed by the level of playfulness and goodwill that lasted throughout the game. Water was always thrown with a smile and a laugh, and the celebration is open to anyone—locals and foreigners alike. Everyone comes together to simply celebrate and have a fantastic time.
There is no doubt that water is the key element in this celebration. The Thais believe that water is a pure element that holds the power to ward away all kinds of evil and misfortune and bring good luck and happiness.
Depending on where you are in the country, the length of the celebration can change. This year, in Chiang Mai, the celebration began slowly on the afternoon of the 12th, really got going on the 13th, and continued through the 15th.
if you are thinking about joining the festivities, here are 10 things you should know.
The Heart of it All
Tha Phae Gate is where the madness really erupts – make sure to stop by there to see the full size of the crowd and extent of the chaos.
Try not to swallow any of the water. It turns out that not all the water is clean, having sometimes been fetched from the moats around the city, especially as you get closer to the walls of the old city. Keep your mouth shut to avoid taking a huge gulp that you may regret later.
Pre-Game Pharmacy Run?
It may also be a good time to stock up on some antibacterial eye drops…there are a lot of eye infections in the following week.
There is no Avoiding Getting Wet
Absolutely do not carry anything you are not OK with getting soaking wet. This is definitely not the time to go walking with your computer to do some work at the local coffee shop. You will, 100%, without a doubt, be getting wet. Work from home, and only leave your house when you are ready to play.
Visit the Temples
Head to the temples in the morning to see some of the other traditional elements of this celebration.
Keep your eyes peeled for special-occasion foods! This is the most-celebrated event in Thai culture, and there are a few very delicious delicacies that arrive on this wave of the New Year. Play hard so you can work up a good appetite.
Tuk-Tuk's are Targets too!
Do not presume that you can just take a tuk-tuk to avoid the madness. Everyone, and anything moving, is fair game. You will be getting soaked.
Be Careful Driving Anywhere
If you are driving anywhere in the Chiang Mai area, also be aware that buckets of water are thrown onto cars and motorbikes passing down the highway at full speed. While this is quite arguably extremely dangerous, it is a VERY common thing. So keep that in mind.
Do not be nervous about taking part—this is really an occasion that draws everyone together. Jump on in. Play hard, receive some blessings, and exchange as many smiles as possible.
Buckets are way more effective than super soakers. #bucketsarebest
That’s all for this week folks! Get prepared—next week it’s the down-and-dirty on one of the most common questions I get about everyday life here in Thailand. The topic might surprise you. . .
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