I – and my cell phone – had just been thrown into Chiang Mai’s moat, and I’m getting no sympathy. None. Not even from myself. ‘After all,’ I mused, ‘what did you expect during Songkran?’
Called by many the most important event of Thailand’s annual cycle, Songkran is officially and originally the start of the new year on the old lunar calendar. Traditionally it lasts about three or four days in the middle of April, and is a time for Buddhist prayer and penitence.
Long large parades of costumed commoners and solemn monks pass through streets filled with joyous crowds. Monks sprinkle water on the masses – a benedictory blessing – and onlookers return the favor, blessing monks, blessing participants, throwing holy water on holy shrines and catching the now-holier water as it drips off.
Combining these customs with the Thai love of Sanook – fun – and the atmosphere of the hottest month of the year – after April the rains come and cool –it’s not hard to understand how Songkran changed from purely a stately spiritual affair to the wildest water festival the world knows.
Chiang Mai is perhaps the craziest spot in the country for the new year, and the water fighting starts well before – and continues long after – the main festivities commence. Shops set up large plastic barrels of water and try to get as much onto passing vehicles as they can. The sale of water guns skyrockets, and around every corner is a waiting smiling assassin. Pick-up trucks fill their flatbeds with 50 gallon drums of water and ice, along with anyone willing to throw the stuff at, well, anyone they see.
The center of town is pure bedlam; you might think the main roads were clogged by a traffic jam, except everyone is really just parked and throwing water every which way. Vendors sell buckets with string to dip into the moat water and hoist out onto your nearest neighbor. The moats themselves have their dirty water switched out for cleaner liquid just before everything begins.
Stages are set up around town for everything from open-air concerts to wet t-shirt contests. Spas squirt cars passing under their banners. Shops perform friendly raids on each other, and will recruit any willing or unwilling passerby to the cause. Groups of friends sit eating picnics on muddy riverbanks, dipping into streams or waterfalls anytime they get to feeling too dirty.
The entire atmosphere is one of channeled hysteria, a relived and heightened kindergarten recess, of pure good will and ruffled feathers verboten. If you aren’t going to be playful when someone sneaks ice water inside the back of your shirt, you aren’t welcome. And everyone is welcome.
I brought a cell phone to this? Without buying a plastic baggie? What was I thinking? In the spirit of noble intentions Songkran is founded on, my phone was fine after our dunk in the city moat. My first water gun broke from overuse, as did my second and third. Eventually, my water attacks were all buckets and cupped hands and the occasional well-placed nudge toward deep streams. Ecstatic pandemonium is the best way to describe the Songkran experience.
When you get there, don’t bother with bathing suits, umbrellas or ponchos. Get wet and stay that way. The only thing to fear is prune fingers.