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Wet and Wild and Free
On celebrating Songkran, aka Thai New Year
Picture a city-wide water gun fight on a hundred-degree day. The sky is hazy and the sun is blaringly bright. You don’t dare take off your sunglasses for fear of the glare and the potential of getting blasted in the eye by some sharp shooter.
Picture people dancing and sprinting around with water-gun backpacks and rainbow buckets, their handles tied with strings, and water guns of the modern age. No cute pistols—we’re talking bazookas and AK-47s and Arnold Schwarzenegger-level weapons here.1 You get grazed with the water stream from one of those big boys, and you’ll feel a brief sting on your skin like a baby scorpion or nearly get a rip in your t-shirt if you don’t dodge the blow quick enough.
Picture your toes and fingers forever pruning as you stand in the muddy city puddles that lap up to lick your ankles, your hands holding water in buckets, guns, and water bottles. Currents of water flow along the shoulder lanes of the road, gravitating towards grates almost overflowing. The asphalt shines like diamonds, steams in sweet relief from the cool water. Music bumps and grinds from every shop, wide-bed truck, and street stall you pass by. The water flows from garden hoses just as the beer flows from bottles of Leo and Chang into ice-filled glasses and down gullets looking for a buzz and cold reprieve from the heat.
Men dance on upside-down rain barrels like they’re go-go girls in a cage. Flower necklaces are passed out, the petals of which litter the streets like fairy breadcrumbs for people to follow deeper and deeper into the heart of the city’s celebration.
Hordes of people flood the streets from Nimman into the Old City of Chiang Mai. Folks ride in the back of pick-up trucks, beers on ice, transporting body-sized bins full of water being cooled to a spine-chilling temperature thanks to a giant block of ice that bobs in the water’s undulations as the truck rides over the bumps in the road. Perched high, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, above those on mopeds and traveling by foot, the truck riders survey the stream for their perfect target. From the ice-cold bin, they scoop up buckets of water to shower all those below.
Those on motorbikes, though they don’t have the advantage of height, do have that of stealth. They’ll whiz by and shoot you in the eye; before you can even blink to get the water out of your eye, they’re gone—somehow swept up in the stagnant river of traffic. Those brave (and smart) enough to go by foot, like us, have the one advantage of not being jammed up in the traffic. The cars and trucks and bikes become rocks and we become as fluid as water: we zig and zag, armed with our own water weapons, between the cars, bicycles, scooters, and motorbikes and navigate the shoulders and sidewalks to choose the best path forward. We walk into the chaos and excitement, walk through walls of water, dodge the streams of water shot out like they’re laser beams.
If you make eye contact with anyone, the meeting of your eyes declares “open-fire”. The exchange warrants a smile and an all-out water war thereafter. Best to have your finger on the trigger, ready and waiting, at all times.
As we walk farther and farther into the heart of the city, the sprays, cheers, screams, and splashes grow louder and more frequent. People line the sidewalks around the moat; vendors set up with plastic around their carts and over their food to combat the splash zone they find themselves in. People slip on the wet grass leading down to the moat water’s edge as they hasten to hoist up buckets to promptly throw into the near-standstill traffic. Shouts of “Sawasdee Pee Mai”2 are tossed our way with a slew of water, thrown from a bucket held by a smiling older woman or a mischievous young man. Groups of men, women, and children holding water guns and plastic beach pails or more traditional silver- or gold-hammered bowls spray, toss, and dump water on us as we walk by. Even when you’re refilling your water sprayer at one of the many water-fill stations (an inflatable pool, a large rain barrel, or an empty trashcan, all three of which are constantly being replenished by a hose), you aren’t safe from being sprayed or drenched by those that crowd around the watering hole.
Songkran, also known as the Thai New Year, is celebrated every April.3 It’s a religious holiday that falls during one of the hottest months—if not the hottest month4—in Thailand, right before the dry season transitions into the rainy season. Aside from ushering in the new year, the holiday’s religious purpose is to wash away sins and evil spirits (hence the use of the water). Additionally, since it falls right before the rainy season, it also symbolically ushers in the rains to come, the cleansing waters. Being sprayed with water is seen as good luck, as is getting your face smeared with an off-white powder that’s mixed with water to form a paste. On a few occasions, I had people run up to me as they scooped up what I initially thought to be clay from their colorful pails, then smear it on my arms or face. On one occasion, I had a man, whose face was completely covered in an even, opaque coating of charcoal paint, take my face in his hands—lovingly, I might add—and smear my cheeks with the paste. Being that the water and the paste are twofold good luck as well as a kind gesture that protects you from the sun, you will not be spared.5 No sooner are you slathered with the paste, though, it's washed off by the next blast of water that comes your way: another common courtesy. People are just doing their due diligence to bless you, protect you, and cool you down.
Given the intensity of the heat, the perpetual showers and buckets of water are welcome. The ice water, personally, was pleasurable. The lukewarm water, on the other hand—slightly reminiscent of pee in its temperature and color at times—raised a little suspicion. Whether the water came from a large bucket that sat too long in the sun or from a bucket that scooped up some moat water, I could never say for certain. I always hoped it was the former, crossing my fingers as I wiped my mouth and continued on my merry way.6 Although the water could take you by surprise from above, behind, or—if you were unlucky—right in the face, it instantly lowered your body temperature. If you were looking a little too dry, people would take that as a cue to drench you like a wet sewer rat, smiling at their act of service. I even had one guy take my already damp, drooping hat off my head to ensure I got wet from my head to my toes as he dumped an entire bucket on my head. Again, the people are just making sure you are well cleansed and protected.
To prepare for our very wet and wild day in the Old City, we dressed in our bathing suits, large sun hats (for sun and water protection), sunglasses, and waterproof sandals and slathered on some sunscreen…which was then promptly washed off by the gallons and gallons of water we were splashed with. Thankfully, I also had a waterproof backpack. Unfortunately, it wasn’t waterproof enough. Things got a little damp, but go figure: we were basically waterboarded with smiles on our faces for the good part of the afternoon. You would think we would have bought one of the many waterproof plastic pouches being sold by vendors up and down every side of the street. Everywhere we turned, there they were along with a plethora of water guns of all shapes and sizes and Hawai’ian shirts and waterproof hats and umbrellas (some water guns even had built-in umbrellas on the barrel). Chiang Mai was surely not lacking for ammunition in the form of water, water guns, and water protection. Whether or not they would serve you as you desired remained to be seen in the heat of battle.7
Our weapons surely held up pretty well against the one heated battle we got into with a young boy named DK, who I’d speculate was around the age of six or seven. He had great aim, an impish grin, and the heart to keep battling it out—even when one of his family members or family friends dumped a bucket of water on his head. Such is Songkran, baby!
The feeling of being out and about on Songkran is nothing short of energetic. It’s exactly what you’d expect out of a giant water fight. The water play backgrounds time with family and friends, good food and lots of alcohol. Think New Year’s Eve shenanigans plus Fourth of July energy—that’s Songkran in a nutshell (for those Westerners needing a cultural comparison that’ll hit closer to home). And the holiday is taken seriously. Shops and business close for nearly a whole week or for a couple days thereafter to observe it, or for folks to recover from the four straight days of partying. On the official (first day) of Songkran, from morning until midnight, people party hard. In the days afterwards, the excitement dies down a bit, but the nights are still wet and boisterous and full of music; during the day, you can still expect to take a bucket of water to the face or get sprayed by someone on the side of the road holding a garden hose. When we were in traffic just the other day, not a water gun in sight as we waited at the red light, I got spritzed by a water gun shaped like an astronaut that was actually attached to a car, the trigger of which was inside so the driver could spray anyone in sight. Songkran is serious business. People prep and stay armed and ready to ensure no one goes out without getting at least a little wet.
A city on full lockdown for the purpose of fun is something I’d never experienced before. I debate whether or not the U.S. could replicate something to this extent, and it seems near impossible: Americans just aren’t laidback enough. Here, the 7-Elevens were covered in water from people walking in and out soaked to the bone to buy beers, snacks, and smokes; the towels they put down on the floors weren’t enough to keep the place dry. People walked in and out of the malls all damp and dripping wet. In the U.S., most people would have a conniption. Our safety protocols are too staunch. Not to mention the fact that taking nearly a week off for a holiday (outside of Christmas/New Year’s) isn’t exactly in line with the West’s desire to maintain productivity. But who knows! Maybe if such a holiday existed and a sabai-sabai8 attitude were injected into our culture, we’d surrender to a day of fun, and it would be different. We could be different. All I know is that seeing people young and old, well-off and living to get by, all kicking it and just enjoying the joy of getting to nail someone—anyone!—with a wall of water, seems too simple a pleasure to appease the collective American society. But maybe that’s just what we need to reset.
No doubt the kids would have fun. Oh, to be a kid in Thailand—Songkran is the holiday kids dream of! As an adult, it was fun to see the joy on the kids’ faces as they got to spray you with their water gun, and it was fun to see tourists and locals, some well into their seventies, jogging up and down the streets with their huge water guns, spraying the youth and taking shots just the same. It was heartwarming, and refreshing, to see a community just pause to have fun and make it a priority. Sure, people still worked, particularly if they were working at a big chain store like 7-Eleven or in the mall, but even then, they got to interact with those partying, and the energy was infectious. A lot of mom n’ pop shops were closed, as I mentioned, but if they were open, the entire establishment was rockin’ like they were just throwing a neighborhood cookout.
So, in conclusion, it wasn’t just the water that was refreshing, but the carefreeness and no-fucks-given attitude Songkran embodies.
No one cares that they’re walking around wet all day.9 Not all people dress in preparation to get wet. A large majority of the Thai folks I saw were wearing sweaters and jeans,10 some Europeans were running around in shorts and bikini tops, most people were in shorts and t-shirts. Some people were even going barefoot in the city streets, splashing in the puddles (as carefree as I try to be, that’s a no for me). People embraced and surrendered to the experience. That said, it helps that it's been so hot that the air essentially blow-dries you in an hour flat.
But the most impressive aspect of it all was that such courtesy could coexist with the chaos. Inside areas and any place that served food was a no-spray zone. The unspoken social rules were upheld and respected, even by the youth (another reason why I don’t believe Americans could uphold and honor such a chaotic, albeit religious, holiday: we don't think in a community-minded mindset). But, that said, when you’re out in the open, there is still no mercy. Fun is the name of the game. In fact, if you’re a foreigner, you’re a prime target to be sprayed and roped into the fun. After all, the Thai people just want to show visitors a good time. And a good time, we had indeed.
As a citizen of the U.S., where we are facing a serious gun violence epidemic, I know this is a grotesque comparison to make…but the water guns I saw warrant such a comparison.
Translates to “Happy New Year” or “Happy day of the new year”.
A lot of countries in Southeast Asia have some holiday equivalent to Songkran that involves water. Also, in a few posts back, “Bright Lights, Big Titties”, I had a footnote about Songkran. Here it is again (with some variations) for your reading pleasure:
Thai New Year, known as Songkran, occurs in April (this year on April 13th). In Chiang Mai specifically, it is celebrated for nearly a week, winding down a bit each day. Thailand used to solely follow the Thai lunar calendar, which marked the New Year as April 1st. The lunar calendar is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian (Common Era) calendar, marked by the day the Buddha died and entered nirvana. Sometime between 1888 and the early 1940s, Thailand revised their calendar system and adopted the Thai solar calendar, which is in line with the Gregorian (Common Era) calendar, and they started observing New Year’s on January 1st while also continuing to celebrate traditional Thai New Year (Songkran) in April. So now, Thailand operates on two calendars: one for day-to-day functioning and global congruity (solar) and one for religious holidays (lunar). All this to say, while we were celebrating the change from 2022 C.E. to 2023 C.E. at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, the Thais were observing the switch from 2565 B.E. to 2566 B.E. (Buddhist Era) and re-celebrated the new year once more a few days ago.
This year was particularly hot, and the smog from the burning season was particularly horrendous. A lot of locals and foreigners who live in the area said it’s the worst they remember. For a few months out of the year, Chiang Mai is the most polluted city on earth. (Yep, you read that right.) For the last month, we’ve been wearing K-N95 masks outside when we’re on the moped to filter the air the best we can. Safe to say a lot of time has been spent inside under the AC.
Recently, I learned that the use of the paste (talc or limestone powder of some sort) as well as face painting is done to ward off evil spirits and give protection to those that wear it.
Ah, the moat water: my greatest fear going into Songkran. You swallow a little bit of that by accident and you’ll be hunched over the porcelain throne for some time. I made sure to keep my mouth shut and my hat on to shield myself anyway I could. Interestingly enough, a week or so prior to Songkran, they drained the moat and refilled it. Perhaps to make sure “fresh” water was in there to try and lower the microbe count that lurked within, but that’s just speculation. They also added signs that said “Danger Deep Water” and put in buoys attached by ropes, like those in swimming pools. Why? In case someone fell in, likely trying to fill up their water bucket, or as a marker to not venture past that point.
Afterwards, all of the water usage and plastic in the form of the water guns, pails, and other accessories got me thinking about the waste. I know, I know, a somewhat blasphemous thought, particularly when the function of which is tied to a religious holiday/ritual, but in today’s world, we have to talk about the use and waste of resources. Driving around today I saw so many water guns in trash bags on the sides of the streets and it made my heart hurt for Mother Earth, especially when something like that can be donated and/or used over and over again each year. But the East’s relationship to plastic is different than ours in the West. We got to have our Industrial Revolution and realize the detrimental effects; they’re just coming off there and the ease and cheapness of the plastic has its positives out here.
Sabai sabai translates roughly to “I’m feeling good” or “Take it easy”.
Well, I must confess, at one point I’d had enough. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in wet bottoms all day (ladies, you know what I mean).
It still baffles me just how accustomed to the heat people are out here that they can wear jeans—sometimes even skinny jeans!—and sweaters in this sweltering heat!