The original version of this article first appeared in the Cape Times, South Africa on Monday 16 April 2018 (all images CT Diva unless otherwise stated).
During Songkran, every drop counts, in a religious as opposed to a #50litres kind of way. (you’ll get that if you’re a water restricted and drought weary Capetonian). The sacred festival, marked by the sprinkling and throwing of water, took place this past weekend across Thailand. With the 2017 celebrations subdued in deference to the memory of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the much anticipated event was embraced with relish, and Bangkok, one of the best fest destinations, was transformed into a giant playground popping with colour and happy chaos.
At its most frivolous, Songkran is widely acknowledged as the planet’s biggest water fight and takes place annually from 13 to 15 of April, the hottest month when temperatures peak at 40 degrees Celsius. During the three-day national holiday, inner city traffic is diverted from busy thoroughfares and cordoned off to make way for parades, pageants, concerts, food stalls, beer stands and vendors peddling everything from souvenirs to parasols, marigold garlands, incense, toy guns, goggles and cell phone protectors.
From party time to symbolic rituals & ceremonies
The wildest parties were, as usual, on Khao San and Silom Roads, the latter being a five-kilometre strip that heaves with thousands of revellers, most dressed in the signature bright Hawaiian style shirts. Once in those aqua zones there is no escaping a solid soaking and only monks, babies, old folk and passing scooter riders have immunity from the hoses, buckets, foam fountains and talc smearing that goes on all day and night. In areas like Chit Lom and Siam, where I was, the action was tamer and confined mostly to pavements and side lanes and the locals were a little more forgiving of anyone resisting saturation. Those preferring a more spiritual experience gathered at several of the main temples like Wat Pho and Wat Arun, and the Erawan Shrine on Ratchadamri Road was the place to observe ceremonial prayer dances and participate in hand washing, head dabbing and the releasing of sparrows.
The true meaning
On a more serious note, Songkran, meaning ‘transformation’ or ‘change’ in Sanskrit, is rooted in Buddhist and Brahman tradition. It heralds the New Year and water symbolises purification, atonement and the ‘washing away’ of sins. Songkran is also about ‘making merit’ though honouring the elderly, paying homage to Buddha and giving alms to monks. Natthapong Bunlunusorn from Siam@Siam Design Hotel in Bangkok explained that “water symbolically purifies our bodies, minds and spirits and washes away misfortune, and like New Year’s Eve in the West, partying is part and parcel of Songkran, but is secondary to it’s true meaning”. For Capetonian performer Alistair Izobell, celebrating his eighth Songkran in Phuket, Songkran is about a revival of the spirit, “It’s a joyful time in Thailand and an opportunity to enjoy a unique custom in this incredible country.”
An economic boost
Following from 2017 statistics, it is believed that more than 1.5 million international tourists visited Thailand this year for Songkran alone, and 1.2 million Thais travelled domestically, their combined expenditure boosting the economy by more than 45 billion Baht (US$1.0 billion).
Do’s and Don’ts (Source: TAT News)
- Use clean, safe water
The first thing to remember, whether you’re using buckets or water pistols, is to always fill them with clean water. In the most popular areas for Songkran, such as Chiang Mai, and on Sukhumvit Road, Silom Road, and around Khao San Road in Bangkok, the local authorities will supply sources of safe water. Many people like to deliver a bit of a shock by icing the water, and while this adds to the fun, large pieces of ice can be dangerous when thrown, so this practice is best avoided. It is also a good idea to avoid swallowing the water being thrown for hygiene and safety reasons.
- Don’t waste water
Some areas of Thailand have been experiencing drought conditions for the past few years, so people should be careful not to waste water at Songkran. This is why in many parts of the country, Songkran celebrations have been scaled back so that the water play only takes place on one day. You should do your bit to save water and instead try to enjoy some of the many other activities that happen at this time of year.
- Consider your clothes
While this is the hottest time of the year and the Songkran water fun seems the perfect way to cool off, remember that Thailand is still a relatively conservative kingdom. Women should be wary of wearing tight clothes or ones that are light in colour and/or made of thin fabric. When wet, such garments can become quite revealing. It’s not a bad idea to wear a swim suit under your normal clothes to ensure that you don’t show more than you planned.
- Prepare for a pasting
It’s not just water being thrown for fun at Songkran, its increasingly common for revellers to be smeared with chalk powder called din sor pong which can act as a sun-block. If you want to join in with the smearing, avoid people’s eyes and make sure that you have permission first, especially if you’re celebrating Songkran with strangers and children. Overenthusiastic powder pasters have faced assault chargers in the past.
- Protect yourself and your possessions
It’s safe to say that if you venture outside, you’re going to get wet, so take precautions. Keep mobile phones, wallets and cameras safely sealed in plastic bags and if you’re planning an evening out or have business meetings, make sure you have a spare shirt or some clothes to change into. Also remember this is the hottest time of the year and you will need to keep applying sunscreen which is easily washed off with all the water being thrown.
- Be polite
The more chaotic aspects of Songkran are not for everyone. Some people don’t want to join in with the throwing of water and this should be respected. Don’t splash strangers who are clearly trying to stay out of the fray or who are on their way to work. Never splash people on motorcycles, monks or pregnant women and observe the ceasefire that usually starts as the sun goes down when people want to dry off and enjoy evening meals.
7. Don’t forget to plan ahead if you’re travelling
The whole kingdom is on the move during these holidays and trains, planes, busses and hotels can be booked up months in advance. So if you’re planning to head upcountry, it’s worth booking transportation and accommodation early, especially if you’re heading to Chiang Mai, where the biggest Songkran parties are held.
8. Be very, very careful on the roads
The fun and revelry of Songkran holidays can lead to people being less cautious when it comes to safety, especially if they’ve been celebrating with drinks. Be aware that the roads are unsafe at this time of year. If you use a motorcycle, make sure you wear a helmet and don’t ride into areas where water is being thrown. And needless to say, if you’ve had a drink, don’t even think about driving. And for the safety of others, report people who seem to be intoxicated while operating bikes or cars.
Just go with the flow
Retail benefits and merriment aside, Songkran is about rejuvenation, introspection, blessing and good intention. The festival celebrations will continue over the next few days in some Thai districts, so if you’re in the Land of Smiles this week, go with the flow and wish everyone Sawasdee Pee Mai!
Festivities after 15 April
According to Bangkok.com, if you prefer a more traditional Songkran, head over to Phra Pradaeng district where the Thai-Raman communities live out their Songkran traditions. Here, the celebrations take place about a week later than in central Bangkok and is filled with cultural significance. You will not only get splashed here, but also enjoy an array of cultural activities, such as the Thai-Ramn flag ceremony, ‘saba’ game, Raman dances, boat races, floral floats parade, and many more. Read more at: http://www.bangkok.com/information-festivals/songkran.htm?cid=ch:OTH:001
This was my 4th visit to Bangkok. I was in the country courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. On this, my second Songkran, I wanted to share more about the tradition of the festival.
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