Surviving Songkran

My senses are on full alert. I’m crouched down behind a parked car, gun in hand, my finger hovering over the trigger. My legs are beginning to burn from the strain of crouching, and the hot sun beating down on me is causing sweat to drip from my brow. I straighten my body slightly to peek over the car for just a second. A truck is approaching, the back loaded with enemy targets. As I drop back down behind our cover I exchange a silent glance with the person next to me. Fear flashes through both of our eyes, but it’s coupled with a steely determination. We will not lose. The truck grows ever nearer, the whine of it’s engine suggesting it might be struggling with the weight of the number of people gathered in the truck bed. We wait a few more agonising moments until the truck pulls along side the car we’re hidden behind. Then we pounce.

We let loose battle cries that shake the earth as we charge the truck. Sprinting towards it, I aim my gun towards a man stood in the back. I squeeze the trigger. I keep squeezing it. A jet of water erupts from the barrel of the gun and catches him in the face. I shift my focus to the next target, a boy crouched next to the man, returning fire on us. A quick reload of the weapon and I squeeze the trigger again, sending water crashing into his chest. My group continues to run alongside the truck as it moves, emptying our weapons into the back. A man on the truck stoops down, and emerges clutching a large bucket, which we know is filled with ice water, and we know will be heading our way very shortly. We’re in trouble now.

Welcome to Songkran. At times it felt like a war zone, but it’s actually a celebration of the Thai new year, and it just might be the most fun you’ve ever had. New Years Day in Thailand falls on the 13th of April, and the occasion is celebrated with a three day holiday (13th-15th). It’s traditionally a time of purification and washing away sins and/or bad luck, and rather fantastically this has developed into what is essentially a three day water fight. Things will of course be different wherever you go, but we spent the duration of Songkran in Chiang Mai, a city we had been enjoying spending time in anyway, and a city that became a very different place for a few days.

Our first taste began on the 12th, a day we were using to visit one of the nearby elephant camps. We were being driven to the camps in the back of a songthaew (a converted pick up truck with benches in the back). Our driver ominously warned us that people may throw water on us during the drive so be careful with phones and belongings. We rather foolishly dismissed his warnings; we’d done our research, Songkran didn’t start until the day after. We were wrong. Both driving to and from the elephant sanctuary people on the street took great pleasure in dousing the back of the truck with water, using either buckets or hoses. Unprepared and unable to retaliate, we were sitting ducks, and we arrived at the elephant sanctuary and home again dripping wet. Later that night we armed ourselves with shiny new water guns, and retreated to our hotel, ready to do battle tomorrow.

When we stepped out into the street the next morning, we realised what we’d experienced the day before was just a taster of what was to come. The city had been transformed. Some roads had been shut off to traffic, new stalls selling all kinds of water guns and other water fight weaponry lined the streets, and there was generally mayhem everywhere you went, as the whole place had descended into one big water soaked battleground. Almost everyone was taking part to various degrees. Some people would respectfully cup their hand, fill it with water, and gently pour it over your back as you walked past, and then others (mostly tourists) would be stood wielding two of the biggest water guns you’ve ever seen, one in each hand, looking like something from an 80’s action film.

Groups would station at various points on the road (usually somewhere near a hose so there’s an ammunition supply), and fight amongst themselves, anyone walking buy, the nearest gathered group, or trucks, tuk-tuks or songthaews driving past. In the roads there will be an endless chain of trucks looping the city, with people in the back that are there purely to drench you with water. Everyone fighting on the streets comes together briefly when a tuk tuk or songthaew appears, as these seem to have become priority targets, to the point that it’s not uncommon to see a group of twenty people chasing a songthaew down the road flooding the back of it, usually set to the screams of the helpless people inside that have nowhere to run. (If you really want to avoid getting wet, first of all don’t come to Thailand during this period, but definitely avoid tuk-Turks and songthaews.)

The best part of all of this for me was the amazing way it brought a whole city together. Everyone was enjoying it- from 5 year old children to 80 year old men and everyone in between, there were grins slapped across the faces of almost everybody. We only witnessed one or two exceptions to this across the whole three days, and it really is a case of if you don’t want to get wet, don’t go outside. Because otherwise you will. There aren’t many rules when it comes to Songkran. We initially believed monks, policemen and people on bikes and scooters should be avoided. It pretty quickly became evident this was not entirely correct, as it was not uncommon to witness a bucket of ice cold water crashing face first into someone harmlessly riding their bike down the road, and on the final day we engaged in a brief water fight with a policeman (although he initiated it, so I’m not entirely sure of the rules there. I’m pretty sure avoiding monks is a good bet though.) We also believed the water fights would cease after dark, but were again proved horribly wrong, when after showering one evening we jumped in the back of a songthaew to take us to a night market for food and drinks. Sitting just enjoying being dry for the first time in hours, our truck turned down a busy street which was still full of tourists waging war. You can imagine how the rest of the story goes.

Chiang Mai’s various bars and hostels had also opened their doors (after putting some towels down) to welcome those outside in for a drink, and the result of this a series of street parties. Some bars really embrace this side of the festival, one bar & hostel had set up a brass band to play live music, and you’ll stumble across many DJs encouraging people to either come in for a drink, or just stand outside, dance, and generally have a good time. We experienced a few of these, and dancing with hundreds of people in the middle of the street, ice cold drink in hand, under the beating sun, occasionally stopping to douse a passer by with a super soaker is exactly as fun as it sounds. Especially when there are saxophones involved.

On the final day were also able to expereince the other side of Songkran, as we witnessed a seemingly endless parade marching down the street. They marched under a fire hose which had been suspended from a crane, thereby sticking with the more traditional washing-away-the-sins element. Thousands of people stood to watch the parade as it slowly made it’s way along the road, watching traditional Thai dancing and music. Although all in attendance were full of life and clearly enjoying themselves, the atmosphere had morphed and become calmer, and more respectful, a timely reminder that Songkran is more than just a water fight and excuse to party.

By the end of the three days we were exhausted, unwell (lots of the water being thrown around had been gathered from the not-particularly-hygienic moat which surrounds the old city, leaving me with both an ear infection and an upset stomach from the water I’d ingested), and quite frankly we had had enough of being wet. That being said, not only is Songkran amazing fun, it’s fantastic to witness. A couple of days after the chaos all came to an end, we decided it was time to move on from Chiang Mai, so we headed north to Pai, where I’m currently sat in a cute little wooden bungalow writing this post. The next post will let you know how we’ve found it. Happy new year!


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