We managed to make it all of 20 feet from the entrance to our apartment building before getting soaked. The dousing came at the hand of a middle aged Thai man, grinning ear to ear and yelling “Happy! Happy!” while pouring a bucket of ice cold water down our backs. And thus completed our initiation into Chiang Mai’s Songkran Festival.
Songkran is the three day celebration of Thai New Year. Traditionally, the celebrations involved pouring water over statues of Buddha to cleanse a family of any bad luck from the previous year and bring good luck into the new year. According to an expat we met who has been living in Chiang Mai for 18 years, when he first moved to this city Songkran meant elaborately dressed Thai women carrying blessed, fragrant water would pour a little over the shoulders of passers by for good luck. Over the last few decades, however, the tradition has morphed into a full on city wide water fight (possibly with the help of some drunk Australians, but we can’t be sure.)
All of the photos in this post were taken from a safe distance – the window of our 7th floor apartment building. As you can see, even on the relatively small side street that we live on the locals show no mercy. You can’t go outside with a camera and expect it to survive.
Chiang Mai is one of the craziest cities in which to experience Songkran because the festivities take over the entire city, unlike in Bangkok where it only affects a few streets. Nearly every road is lined with people hanging out near giant tubs of water and brandishing buckets, squirt guns and hoses. They douse everyone that passes by – whether they are on foot, motorbike, or car. Many people circle the city riding in the back of pickup trucks, filling buckets with huge blocks of ice and throwing the melted (but still freezing) water on passersby. Traffic on the main streets is jammed with these vehicles as they stop to soak people they pass.
The moat that surrounds Chiang Mai (which looks serene and calm in the photo from this post), provides much of the ammunition needed to keep the water fight going all day. It is packed with people filling buckets and squirt guns, pushing one another into the water, and swimming to cool off. This area of town was pure chaos – there was no chance I was going to bring a camera into this mess, so you’ll have to do without photos.
The waterfight lasts all day long, from sun up to sundown, and no one is safe. If you’ve left the house and are out on the street, it is assumed that you know what you are getting yourself into. We passed through the streets completely unarmed, and were soaked to the bone in no time. Thankfully the temperature is in the high 90s and 100s, so the cold water actually feels exceptionally good, which is a good thing because in most areas you don’t have much of a break between soakings. As we walked along the moat and main road we were pelted by bucket after bucket of moat water and endlessly sprayed with squirt guns. Most locals seemed to avoid hitting us directly in the face (though the foreigners appeared to adhere to no such etiquette.) Usually I was sprayed in the chest, unsurpisingly, and on one occasion a Thai teenager thrust a bucket of water at my chest so hard that I suffered a wardrobe malfunction. (Yes, you read that right. It was the closest to being on Girls Gone Wild that I’ll probably ever get in this lifetime.)
The whole event is just good fun. No one seems upset when they get hit, and anyone who wants to avoid the splashes just stays home for three days. People drink beer all day, but no one seemed obnoxiously inebriated. Families participate in droves, with kids running freely in the streets and soaking strangers with reckless abandon. Music blares from cars and buildings, and street vendors sell weapons and snacks. I was impressed to see that the vast majority of participants were in fact Thai locals, and not just twentysomething backpackers. The Thai people actually get really into this holiday and you can tell they are having a blast as they soak and get soaked (even on the last day when you’d think enthusiasm might be waning.) When the sun goes down each day the water fight ends, and the real party begins. The sounds of club music and karaoke fill the streets until well past 2am every night.
We had a great time letting people drench us – we just thought of each bucket of water or squirt gun soaking as adding more good luck to our upcoming year, and who wouldn’t want that? At this rate, we’re heading for a very lucky 2013!