The Thai New Year – known locally as Songkran – is a traditional holiday, not the actual first day of the year in Thailand. It’s also the largest water fight in the world.
The tradition of Songkran isn’t actually fighting with water. It’s the splashing of water, sometimes just a few drops but sometimes a larger cup, on another to symbolize washing away the sins and misfortunes of the previous year. Water is also poured over statues of Buddha for the same reason.
Over the years, this has been exaggerated. You could almost say it has gotten out of hand. The holiday is recognized all over Thailand, and there are parts of Bangkok and other parts of the country where they’ll have a “fight.” Then there’s Chiang Mai which is ground zero.
The northern capital of Thailand takes the festivities to the extreme. By the end of March, super soakers are available for purchase all around town. You can get anything from a small gun for $5 to a large “backpack” water gun for $40. The last time I was in Thailand for Songkran, I went for the Super Shooter 5000 which stored nearly half a gallon of water in its two bulbous containers. I still had to refill every few minutes, but there are large gray barrels all around town full of water for reloading.
Be warned. The water used isn’t always the cleanest. Much of the water is from the tap and not all that healthy to drink. You probably won’t get sick if you get a bit in your mouth or eyes, but it won’t taste good. Then again, some of the water in the barrels, particularly around the moat that surrounds the old town, is directly out of said moat. I don’t think that that water could be considered toxic, but it’s certainly not clean. The color is opaque and doesn’t have the best smell. More than one of my friends has ended up with eye or ear infections after Songkran.
To get back to how the Thai New Year gets out of hand, many of the locals don’t deign to use water guns, but rather use large buckets to douse passers-by. And it’s not just pedestrians. If you happen to be riding on a motorcycle or in the back of a songthaew (pickup truck with two benches in the back), you’re likely to get a wave of water in the face. 😔
Since the core of the tradition is a little bit of water to wash away the sins, using a large amount of water is unpleasant to some of the locals…although it’s not in the Thai culture to express their displeasure. If you’re in the suburbs and smaller neighborhoods of Thailand, expect to have a little water thrown at you by every local you see. Don’t resist it or get upset, and don’t retaliate with too much force. It’s done with the best intentions.
If you’re in the party spirit, head to the Old Town. Around the Tha Pae (East) Gate, and the road along the north end of the Old Town running toward the northwest Nimman district, festivities are at their height. The roads aren’t actually closed, but traffic is basically at a standstill as people walk down the street with their water guns and buckets. The vehicles on the road are most likely pickup trucks with half a dozen Thais in the back armed with water guns and buckets.
It’s not a bad idea to wear a mask around town, and definitely wear sunglasses for that added bit of protection. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting discolored from dirty water. Above all, keep everything light-hearted. It’s a celebration and a ton of fun. In a few weeks, I’ll be back out there with my water gun covering the pickups and trying to keep as much water out of my facial orifices as I can.