Songkran: Happy New Year, Thai Style   (04/11/04)

Last updated 04/15/04                                                                                                                               

Songkran festivities took place in Chiang Mai this year between 12 and 15 of April, with nonstop water fights in the daytime, fireworks and open-air concerts at night, worshipping of Buddha images, cultural shows and handicraft markets, local food fairs, and a carnival-scale parade to round out the celebration. There is much to say about our impressions of the festival (think wet fun), but for now let me just get the main idea across. This was the wildest fun I ever had on New Year, and the most goodwill in the air of any celebration I ever attended. Probably due to its Buddhist traditions, Songkran is full of benevolent feeling which never fails to manifest itself as a middle-aged smiling Thai man addresses you with "Hello, how are you?", and pours a bucket of cold water over your shoulders just as you happily smile back at him.


A truck being attacked by water throwers                The moment of impact - and they are fighting back!                Puneet's water gun, not the best model, alas                The bucket system works much better!

 Above: Water fights on the streets of Chiang Mai. The weapons range from small buckets with tiny bowls meant for polite sprinkling of water on one's left shoulder, to water guns that release a reasonably strong well-targeted stream, to pneumatic pipes that can shoot a load to reach bypassers on the other side of the street, to large buckets filled to the brim for a personal shower, to actual water hoses drawing their seemingly unlimited supply from oversized barrels and bathtubs. Rightmost picture: our faces were ritually painted by a stranger on the street to welcome in the New Year.

Below: sights of Chiang Mai during Songkran. Leftmost: don't go near there if you don't want to be drenched to the bone. With easy water supply at hand, people line up along the moat, reach in with buckets tied to long ropes, and empty out their buckets over your head -- all in good fun! This treatment is to be expected... on the other hand, we were quite surprised by the dunking we received from two young monks at the beautiful wat (Buddhist temple in the rightmost picture). You see, we were under impression that monks are exempt from water play (they always looked dry, unlike everyone else on the streets), but apparently they partake of the wet fun as well!

  The most dangerous area of the town during Songkran: the moat!                Arches of colored water (no encasing pipes! we tested)                A public dance pad amidst the fountains                The wat where we got drenched by teenaged monks!

Below: procession to pay homage to Buddha images from the city temples. Since Songkran is not just a new year holiday, but an event of religious significance to Thai Buddhists, the festivities include ritual washing of Buddha idols with scented oil and water and carrying them through town on beautifully decorated platforms so public could pay their respects. Other ritual activities include building of chedi-shaped sand piles near wats and decorating them with bright banners, and letting out caged birds for good luck (yes, the birds are captured for the specific purpose of being set free later for a small fee).

  Buddha idol on a raised platform                Festive procession with Buddha images                Puneet has set the sparrows free!                A tall sand chedi with banners near a temple

Below: Songkran parade on April 15th.The water fights do not stop for the duration of the parade, and indeed the participants get just as drenched as the spectators! Even the ladies dressed up in traditional costumes with elaborate hairstyles and makeup get their generous share of the water blessings.

  Parade procession going through Tha Pae gate                Girls carrying Thai umbrellas                Demonstrators walk to the sound of drums                Parade participants carry many banners

  Orange robes for good luck? No, just the colors of "10 Pipers" whisky                Soon-to-be-drenched beauty on the palanquine                I thought the elephant was real...                ... but Puneet knew better