There was little that could have prepared me for my first exhilarating experience of Songkran in Thailand. On the first day of the festival, I stepped innocently out of my Bangkok apartment and stepped into what appeared to be a surreal and watery war zone. The flooded streets were filled with water warriors brandishing squirt guns, super soakers, hoses, buckets, garbage cans and anything else they could get their hands on to disperse their liquid ammunition. Teenagers took cover behind street signs and corners and launched strategic attacks on vehicles and pedestrians. Gangs crammed into the back of pick-up trucks and wildly fired shots at the crowd as they cruised past. There were drive-by squirtings everywhere.
It was Songkran, Thai New Year. I was unarmed and foreign and a hilariously easy target for the youngsters around me. Within minutes of gaping agog at the aquatic frenzy, I was completely soaked by giggling assailants and, wet and bewildered, hurried back to the safety of my
apartment. What on earth was going on out there, I wondered as I watched the madness from my window.
It was mid-April, and as I soon discovered, Thailand celebrates the new lunar year with massive water festivals for several very soggy days. The origins of Songkran date back nearly a thousand years to when the Tai people (ancestors of modern day Thais) in China's Yunnan Province celebrated the start of a new farming cycle during the fifth full moon
of the lunar calendar.
Water is used in Songkran as both a
symbol of cleansing and renewal and, in the past, Thai people would delicately sprinkle scented water from silver bowls on the hands of respected family members. They would also make pilgrimages to temples and carefully bathe Buddha images in a similar manner.
In recent years, however, the humble religious aspects of the holiday have given way to unrestrained water warfare. Youngsters brandish water pistols, buckets and hoses for giddy attacks on pedestrians and each other, day and night. As lunar New Year falls smack
in the middle of the region's hot season, these festivities are a welcome way for everyone to cool down. It's an extremely fun and crazy festival, but for maximum enjoyment, it pays to be prepared.
The next day you can bet I was ready. My wallet and camera, as well as a towel and change of clothes, were stowed safely in plastic bags. I was armed with my newly-purchased, top of the range supersuper-ultra-soaker, and I wasn't afraid to use it. I hit the Khao San Road, Banglamphu's popular backpacker haunt and urban centre of Songkran festivities, with a mixture of dread and excitement.
When I arrived, the street was already thronged with drenched revelers hurling water in all directions. People lined the roadside with buckets of water, huge cannons pumped from the back of trucks, snipers squirted from shop windows; the street was awash with manmade showers. Huge water troughs had been positioned at various points along the road so foot soldiers could refuel. Despite the baking hot weather there was clearly no shortage of ammunition here. It was going to be a long, wet battle.
In addition to the wild water throwing, people were also dousing each others' faces with a white powdery paste. Originally this powder was applied to the body of others as a sign of protection or to ward off evil, but nowadays during Songkran it is smeared indiscriminately on anyone within reach. Standing there surrounded by hundreds of shrieking pale faces I wondered for a moment if I had inadvertently wandered onto the set of a low-budget zombie movie.Then the first torrent of water from an unidentified assailant rained down on me in an icy gush and I remembered my mission. Guns squirting, I marched bravely into the mayhem aiming at everything in sight. Although usually the Khao San Road enclave is a haven for foreign backpackers, during Songkran it becomes a multicultural free for all, with Thais and foreigners alike soaked and smiling and high on the festival fun.
And many of them had obviously played
this game before. More savvy Songkraners than I were decked out with rain ponchos, umbrellas and even swimming goggles. Less practically minded characters showed up in costume, with Superman and Spiderman being the favorites - though even superheroes would have had a hard time avoiding a soaking on that particular day.
Music pumped out of bars and loudspeakers along the street, small groups paused to dance madly where ever there was space, and the entire crowd heaved with an energy and enthusiasm that was simply intoxicating. For hours I danced and squirted with the best of them and had more fun than you could shake a water pistol at.
When I finally left for home much later that night, I was in a sorry state. My hair was damp and matted, my face was streaked with gloopy talc, and needless to say I was dripping wet. Were it not for my huge grin I could have featured in a zombie flick myself.
This year I'll be back on the Khao San Road for another water war, but this time I'll be far more prepared. I'm sure people will laugh when they see me approaching in my Wellington boots, swimming goggles and plastic poncho, but I'll be the one dry and laughing at the end of the celebrations and I can't wait.Although Songkran is a uniquely Thai tradition, the fun nature of the festival has a remarkably universal appeal. As I danced along Khao San that day, looking at the smiling paste-covered faces of all nationalities around me, I was reminded that, although we are each unique, in our pursuit of fun we are also undeniably 'same same'.