CHIANG RAI – In Bangkok, Songkran is celebrated as a national holiday from April 13 to 15 this year. But as April 12 falls on a Saturday, celebrations are likely to start a day earlier.
In other parts of Thailand, especially in the northern cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai where Songkran is celebrated for as long as a week. Local versions of Songkran are also observed in Cambodia, Laos, Burma and amongst ethnic minorities in Yunnan, southern China.
Songkran, or Thai New Year, is a Buddhist festival and the kingdom’s most important public holiday. The word Songkran is derived from Sanskrit and means “Astrological Passage”. Traditionally, the dates for the festival were set by Brahmin priests, but these days the dates are fixed.
Songkran marks the end of the dry season – April is Thailand’s hottest month – and the beginning of the annual rains in the fifth month of the Thai lunar year. Many Thais visit their local temple to pray and to wash their Buddha icons. Buddhist statues on house shrines are also cleaned. This cleansing ritual is to bring luck and prosperity for the coming year.
In northern Thailand, Buddhists bring small bags of sand to the temple, returning the dust they have carried away in the past year on their bare feet. This sand is then sculpted into small stupas and decorated with flags in honour of the Buddha.
As Songkran is also the longest public holiday in Thailand, it’s an opportunity for up-country people to return home from Bangkok, and the Thai capital is remarkably quiet during the holidays, its infamously chaotic traffic calmed for a few days.
Nowadays, the throwing of water is the festival’s highlight. In fact, for three days virtually the entire country turns into a celebratory war zone. Children with huge water guns roam the streets or sit in the back of their parents’ pick-up trucks, which are loaded with buckets of water that is dispensed on anyone who happens to be within reach.
White talc is also thrown in copious amounts and the city’s streets soon resemble the aftermath of a snow storm. The only down side to the exuberant festivities is the vast number of fatal traffic accidents caused by drunken drivers.
How to celebrate the Thai New Year
Foreign visitors to Thailand have but one option during Songkran – embrace, embrace, embrace. Tourists are special targets during the festivities and young Thais will make an extra effort to pour ice cold water down the back of your shirt if they see you pass by. Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto, is the place to be for all-out street fights with thousands of Thais and foreigners armed with water guns and cans of beer, battling both the heat and each other.
What to wear for Songkran
As it’s hot, and clothes are likely to get ruined by sustained water and talc attacks, it’s advisable to wear as little as possible and to leave precious items of clothing in one’s luggage. Still, near-nudity is frowned upon and the Ministry of Culture appears to be scandalized each year by what it deems to be morally indecent incidents. One should certainly keep one’s camera fully clothed though – without waterproof housing, it’s likely to fall victim to the watery shenanigans.