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Songkran (April 2016): the biggest water-fight in the world?

The world’s biggest water fight?

Songkran is Thailand’s New Year celebration, which on the western calendar takes place on 13th April. There are three days of holiday, traditionally time for the local people to spend with family. The days start with “merit-making”, which involves visiting temples and giving gifts for the (Buddhist) monks. Chalk powder smeared on the face is a mark of blessing, and ritual pouring water onto Buddha statues for blessings takes place. Everyone wears a colourful shirt, usually with a floral pattern. Water is poured onto the hands of old relatives in blessing.

April is the hottest month in Thailand – we’re only just out of winter (December/January), but temperatures have risen fast. April is the last hot and dry summer month before the rainy season starts – humidity will rise but temperatures will drop a little. Currently we’re getting days in late 30s (Celsius); those will drop to early-30s once the rains come. So water has a special symbolism – Thailand often suffers drought conditions at this time, and the papers worry about water shortages.

So paradoxically, the response is to splash water all over the place! For three days (in Bangkok, at least – elsewhere the celebration might go on longer) many streets are closed off for giant water battles, particularly in the touristy areas. People line the streets firing water pistols, emptying pitchers of water, or firing hoses at passers-by – who are usually similarly armed. If you’re foolish enough to take a tuk-tuk along the water-battle streets, you’re going to get soaked. The bars and restaurants set up watering stations outside, and encourage patrons to join in the fun (and of course, they do a good trade).

The festivities kick-off around midday – in the morning you’re pretty safe going about your business as usual, and many retail businesses remain open. Then the streets begin to fill up with colourfully dressed – even costumed – participants, and it gets messy!

We went down Sukhumvit Soi 8 around 2pm, foolishly on an open-sided golf-cart the apartment building operates to get people to the market-streets. I’d been busy so hadn’t really given Songkran much thought, so that first soaking was a minor shock: there was nothing subtle about it – as we drove by, someone emptied a bucket over me! Fortunately I’d known enough to have put my valuables (wallet/camera/phone) in a plastic bag. There were five of us, and Antony, Rachel and Renee had water-pistols – unfortunately they were low-powered and cute (Hello Kitty and Builder Bear guns, embarrassingly enough), rather than the high-powered pump action weapons most people seemed to have, so they acted more like lightning-rods than deterrents. We ambled from bar to bar, getting increasingly soaked as we went, working our way back from Rema’s apartment down Soi 8, back to home territory on Soi 11. Had two cheap and cheerful meals along the way, and enjoyed watching the young crowd getting into the battle. Open-topped utes constantly crawled past containing youths with water containers. We all got saturated multiple times – sometimes with iced water: yuck! There was always music, dancing and a sense of mischievous fun.

What struck me was that it was all done with a smile on the face – everyone entered into the spirit of it, from small children riding on their parent’s shoulders to old people. It didn’t get rough, or bad-tempered, and we didn’t see drunkenness, though admittedly we checked out around 8pm. We didn’t see excessive exuberance or harassment, and the police presence was light. It did make me wonder if such an event would have gone off so well in my homeland, with its binge-drinking, pre-loading culture.

Anyway, there’s two more days of Songkran to come, and I’ll be taking it easy today, and getting some work done. And if I want to go out . . . I’ll be wearing something I don’t mind getting wet!

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