Songkran, the Thai New Year festival is perhaps my favorite holiday of all time, in all the world. Any where. Yes, I’ve spent New Year’s eve in New York – and Buenos Aires. I’ve celebrated Carnival in Brazil, and experienced Thailand’s other famous holiday – Loy Krathong (the floating lantern festival). And while those were all amazing I can tell you that nothing even approaches the magnitude of Songkran.
During my last trip to Asia I booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok, with no guide book and without knowing a single soul. I had no plans whatsoever, except for a few ideas of a couple things I wanted to do (ride an elephant, rock climb on the beach, explore some mountains and jungles), but if I said I had much of a clue what I was doing I’d be lying. The overall plan was to romp around the Asian continent, meeting other travelers and discover the path as it opened before me.
My “traveling blind” style paid off; I had the good fortune of being in the right places at the right time, especially in Thailand. I arrived in November, and on a whim, traveled with a new Canadian friend to the northern city of Chiang Mai. We met some Australians in Bangkok who were headed that way and decided to come along. We were blessed because we arrived in town just five days before the Loy Krathong festival. I had never even heard of the holiday before then and everyone in Chiang Mai was buzzing about it.
Well – flash forward five months and I’m in Thailand for my third time after completing a month and a half long motorcycle trip across the entire country of Vietnam. During my second trip to Bangkok I had stayed for one month and met my Thai girlfriend. We fell madly in love after our first coffee date and she decided to travel to Cambodia with me. After Cambodia, she returned to Bangkok and I continued on to Vietnam. I was lovesick and missed her the entire time.
My plan was to come back to Bangkok again so I could be closer to my girlfriend. My friend Ian Ord of Where Sidewalks End was planning a trip to the Philippines and offered to sublet his Bangkok apartment to me. I got a great deal, I think it was only about $150 a month. It wasn’t a luxury condo like the place I’d stayed last time I was in Bangkok, and it was a little further away from downtown, but it did just fine. After two months of roughing it, crossing Cambodia and Vietnam over land, I was ready to settle in one place for a little while.
Fortunately for me once again, it was at this time that I had “lucked” my away into another incredible Thai holiday: the Songkran festival.
The Songkran festival officially kicks off on April 13th, and the start of the Thai new year is the 15th. April is when the sun transits the constellation of Aries, the first astrological sign in the Zodiac – as reckoned by sidereal astrology. Thai dates and years observe a Buddhist calendar, which is 543 years older than the Christian calendar (It is currently year 2557 in Thailand).
Thailand’s holidays are steeped in buddhist tradition. Each new year Thai people gently pour water over Buddhist statues within their homes. It was believed that this would symbolically wash the bad away, bring good luck and welcome the new year. In addition, Buddhist monks rub people’s faces with chalk as a good blessing.
The gentle pouring of water has been jacked up to include a gigantic three day water fight, with plenty of alcohol thrown into the mix for good measure. The result is an entire city smiling from morning until night, lots of blessings, too many hangovers and then an eagerness to do it all again the next day.
And let me tell you, I had plenty of chalk smeared on my face and was completely drenched by strangers – by adults, kids, and everything in between. It was insane.
I connected with my Norwegian friend Lars Wenas, owner of Explicit Nutrition, a couple of days before the festival began. We had a simple mission: head to Toys-R-Us to find the biggest, baddest, water hurling mechanism possible.
The most awesome thing about this holiday is how it brings everyone together. No one is safe from the festivities. And because of that, no one seems like a stranger. Everyone is a participant – it’s totally fine to walk up to your neighbor and start soaking them. In fact, its pretty much strongly encouraged. But there are no racial differences between local Thais and foreigners – everyone gathers, for three days, to have a merry good time in a massive free-for-all.
Lars and I giggled like exuberant children as we stocked up our arsenal of water guns and balloons. We swore that we were going to “rain down death from above.” We walked out of Toys-R-Us with these huge water guns, it looked like we had cannons strapped to our shoulders. Menacingly, we began to point our water guns towards everyone we passed as we headed out of the mall. Our victims laughed and prostrated themselves, as if begging for mercy.
The day finally came. All hell broke loose. I could not walk down my street without kids equipped with super-soakers attacking me from all directions. I fought back the best I could, but I was often outnumbered. Not to mention they made little targets. Even so, it was better for me to be on foot – if you were in a car or back of a “songthaew” they had you trapped with no where to run.
I got onto the skytrain and an old lady grins and starts menacingly pointing her gun towards me. Fortunately, the skytrain staff removes all water before you’re able to get on so I was safe this time. The lady, however, was not so lucky. We both got off on the same stop and I was able to drench her in water just as she was entering a cab 🙂
I met Lars near Asoke station and off we went to Silom square, at the heart of Bangkok, to partake in the madness. It was only the morning and the skytrain was slam packed with bodies of people.
We arrived, and it began. Millions of Thais crowded the streets and walkways in an all-out free-for-all. We got off to a good start by shooting everything in sight. We tried to stay up on the skytrain bridges as much as possible, where it was *relatively* safer. A couple of times we made the folly of going down to the street level which was just a complete shit-show.
At some point during the day Lars and I got separated. But the madness continued… All. Day. Long. I soaked as many people as I could. There were trucks on the streets with huge prison-style waterjets raining death on the crowds. As night fell there was music, water, and people everywhere. Everyone was dancing, laughing, and the fights on the streets, sidewalks, and bridges continued. My gun’s trigger broke and I took a break from the water fighting to start break dancing. Strangers laughed with glee at this crazy dancing white boy and came up to me and smeared my face in clay, over and over again.
In a kingdom known as the land of smiles, you will never see so many smiles, so much laughter, so many screams of delight and shameless revelry than during the 3 days of the Songkran festival.
Hygiene and safety didn’t seem to be something that people were overly concerned with. I got so sick after that first day from all the carnage that I had to stay in bed over the next two days, missing days two and three of the ceremony. But it didn’t matter. I had the time of my life, and I cannot wait to go back to Thailand and celebrate Songkran several more times, and rain down “death from above” again!