Songkran: Water Festival and New Year

This week was the Thai New Year, or Songkran, a city-wide, no, country-wide water festival. From buckets, to hoses to Super Soakers, everything is fair game. The only rule- be prepared to get wet.

The official New Year was the 13th of April, and the Songkran festivities run until the 15th. 3 days of water throwing fun.

My roommates and I decided to head out on the first day, armed with our ammo and guns. We looked like an army riding into town in the yellow bus, each of us clutching our weapons, ready to fight back if the yellow bus were attacked. Arriving in town, it was mayhem, even at 9:30am. Buckets were being thrown from the sides of the street, water gun vendors everywhere, trucks full of teenagers attacking as they went by, and groups with bowls of baby powder mixed with water, spreading it on the faces of passerbys. It was an immediate adrenaline rush.

We grabbed a quick bite (banana pineapple smoothie, mmm) and then of course, it began to rain. All the vendors covered their products and we patiently waited, cold, under a vendor’s umbrella. After 15 minutes or so, we decided the rain wasn’t leaving, and knowing we’d be soaked anyway, decided to brave it.

We made our way along Tapae Gate. After walking about two blocks, we were exhausted. Water flying from every direction, people shouting, “yeahhh,” “wooooo,” “happy new year,” “sawadii be mai,” and worst of all…. “Ice!” Water guns and buckets filled with ice water, hitting my already wet and cold back (or face, or chest, etc).

We found a bar right off the road, with benches outside and a covered roof. We hunkered down and took a few minutes to recover. Then, the real fun began. The bar owner let us fill up a giant barrel with a hose from inside and provided small buckets for us to use. Best of all, it was directly across from the ice stations where trucks full of people would pull over. Perfect attack position.

We spent the morning/afternoon, hauling buckets, screaming, and running at or away from fellow Songkraners. It. Was. Awesome.

By 2pm, we were again tired and the parade was about to start. We planned to walk back the two blocks to get lunch but 30 feet later we saw a restaurant and wimping it out, decided to stay there. “Who decided on this? Great decision!,” Christine said to me.

After getting a full meal, the fatigue really began to set in. My arms were sore from throwing and I was freezing cold. It was still raining and only about 70 degrees out. (Of all the days for it to be cold and rainy in Thailand!). Christine and I opted to leave the group and begin our walk back towards the bus station, on the parade route, hoping to meet the parade instead of wait for it.

We rounded the corner heading away from Tapae Gate (the epicenter of Songkranness), and the vibe on the streets quickly became calmer. We were with families, and vendors were now selling perfumed water with flower petals instead of water guns. People lined the streets in anticipation for the parade. Instead of Super Soakers to the face, adults were coming up to us with small bowls of water, first doing a little bow then placing the water on the backs of our necks or shoulders. This, I thought, feels like a blessing, which in its origin, it what Songkran is all about.

Adapted from ancient Brahmins from India, Songkran was started to celebrate the passing of the moon and sun into the sign of Aries, marking what the Brahmins believed to be a new year. Songkran itself is a Sanskrit word meaning ascending or moving on. Water represented luck and renewal for the new year. It is a bit like eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashana.

Songkran then became a time to pay homage to ones elders, make an oath to the king or bathe the Buddha with water for luck in the new year. Each generation, the celebrations around Songkran continued to evolve and grow.

Now, it seemed, it was a time for young adults to drench one another with pelting buckets of ice water. Fun, but not all that holy. In our new environment, I was able to observe the more religious side of Songkran.

As the festival began, people dressed in traditional Thai clothing walked or danced past and all of the neighboring temples had a float with a Buddha. People along the streets took out their small cups and sprinkled the buddha with the perfumed water. The air smelled like flowers as each buddha went by. I stood on the side throughout the hour and a half parade, thinking about the differences in meanings and actions during Songkran. It was such a different act, tossing small amounts of water as a blessing versus the aggressive attacks. I liked this more respectful side of Songkran. It felt holy, it felt like the right start to a new year.

Just as I was thinking about this dichotomy, a Westerner walked by and shot me right in the face with a Super Soaker.

Happy Songkran! Or, as they say here, “Sawadii be mai, kah!”

My source for Songkran history:

I know, not that official, but it will do for now.


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