For myself and most other farang Songkran is about running around town assaulting old women and children – and everyone in between – with the biggest water gun money can buy.
The festival is a celebration of the beginning of a new year in Thailand and while there is a religious and cultural dimension to the festivities for the purposes of this post I’m pretty much going to be focusing on running around town assaulting old women and children – and everyone in between – with the biggest water gun money can buy.
Rampaging about soaking pensioners seems a terrible thing to do but, don’t worry, it is part of the culture and good luck to boot. Granny and grandpa may still observe the traditional aspects of Songkran – such as visiting a wat to donate food to monks or gently cleaning household shrines with scented water – but given half a chance they are more than happy to return the mischief and tip a bucket of icy water down your back.
Songkran is a Buddhist festival celebrated each year from April 13 to 15, and often a day or two either side. The festivities are largest in the north of the country but something will be happening across the whole country and in neighbouring Burma, where it is called Thingyan, and as Pi Mai Lao in Laos.
I particularly enjoyed Songkran in Chiang Mai – and made sure we were in town last April – but Luang Prabang, across the border in Laos, where we happened to be by chance in 2003, also has its merits. I would imagine Thingyan in Burma is an equally unique experience. New Year in Bangkok is somewhere I would be happy to try next time but if you are in a resort on one of the islands there will still be a chance to participate too.
So, should you have a chance to plan ahead and pick which town to terrorise, how do you decide where to spend what may be some of the most fun days of your life?
Water Supplies (Ammo)
A supply of water is essential to the proper functioning of a mass water fight and Chiang Mai has it – quite literally – in bucket loads. The moat surrounding the old town is a contributing factor to the success of Songkran in Chiang Mai with seemingly half the town filling water guns and buckets with filthy looking brown liquid.
It may not look appealing but it won’t be long before all thoughts of cholera are washed away and you might even end the afternoon swimming in it. In Luang Prabang the Mekong supplies the ammo. We only saw two dead bodies floating down the river on our way to the city so I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about if you get some in the mouth.
Flour and Dye
It is meant as a blessing but personally I wasn’t that fussed about talc and dye smeared over my face, especially when rubbed or flung close to the eyes. Only on one occasion did someone politely place some talc on my face in Chiang Mai but it was a lot more common in Luang Prabang. Elsewhere, according to Darren Ng of Explore Life Lah!, some places – including the Khao San Road – have banned talcum powder as some men were getting a bit gropey when placing it on women’s bodies.
If you don’t like crowds large towns and cities are probably best avoided at this time of year. Is it me or does Bangkok look a little jam-packed here? On this issue island resorts might have the advantage. Getting around elsewhere can mean literally fighting your way through the crowds. It’s all good fun but don’t expect to get anywhere fast. The normal half hour walk from our accommodation, to the north west of Chiang Mai’s moat, to the Thapae Gate in the east took around three hours during Songkran and with traffic at a standstill there was little point hopping in a songthaew.
Much of Luang Prabang’s festivities took place on a sandbar in the middle of the Mekong River. For me, this was a Songkran highlight in Laos. We wandered through a landscape of sandcastles and fairground stalls to watch bamboo rockets fired into the sky, with unsuccessful (and sometimes alight) rocketeers dunked in the river. Just as dangerous for us spectators was ordering ice for our drinks. Chiang Mai had a parade to aim our guns at but, while there seemed to be a lot going on, for the most part the difficulty in getting from A to B meant most of the cultural events were missed.
Corporate Vs Local
Big business sponsor numerous events and stages in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Mostly this seemed to be pretty girls and boys dancing on a stage pausing to fire a few freebies into the crowd. As already mentioned above the slightly scruffy celebrations on dirty bit of sand in the middle of a river were far more interesting.
When it comes down to it, finding a place to stay might be the main reason behind your decision of where to spend Songkran. When we boarded a boat and motored down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang we were unaware of the festival that lay ahead and were very lucky to get a room without booking ahead. I’m pretty sure we got one of the last rooms in town that day. In Chiang Mai we had been in the city for a month or so before the festival and were pointedly told the price of our long stay accommodation would remain the same during Songkran. I assume otherwise prices would have risen there and elsewhere.
More information on Songkran
Next week we will give our tips for celebrating Songkran.