Thailand’s New Year festival Songkran could just as well be called sànùk – the local word for fun. Getting well and truly soaked is how this annual celebration is celebrated in Bangkok. Songkran starts on April 13 and lasts three hectic days that are one big splash.
Along Khao San Road – where farangs (foreigners) are most likely to get involved – participants arrive armed with water guns ranging in size and power from palm-sized pistols to fluorescent pump-action monsters.
Songkran means “change place” or “move”. It marks the day the sun shifts position in the zodiac. Songkran’s also a time for renewal, for spring cleaning, tidying up the past and beginning afresh. The H2O connection stems from the belief that water can wash away bad luck, particularly on such an auspicious occasion.
The first day of festival is Maha Songkran Day, marking the end of the old year. The following day is Wan Nao (literally ‘the day after’) and the third day is Wan Thaloeng Sok, the start of the New Year.
During the holiday thousands of Thai’s originally from the country but living in the city have the chance to return home and celebrate. Other than along hectic Khao San Road the rest of Bangkok can, for once, seem deserted which is a slightly eerie feeling.
By custom Songkran is a time for families to gather and pay respect to their elders. Children pour scented water over the hands of parents and grandparents and receive blessings for prosperity and good luck.
On Khao San, however, there’s no respect shown anyone. Lone sharpshooters roam the crowds dispensing squirts of chilled justice, which are actually most refreshing on a hot, humid day. Our group of doughty combatants make a stand beneath Lucky Beer signs. We assume battle position around a restaurant table dead centre in the cordoned-off street. It’s a bold but rash decision that renders us prime targets.
We retaliate furiously, age being of no consequence. A Thai toddler gets me unawares and is duly soaked in reply. He flees squealing with delight, then returns and prowls nearby, gun at the ready, waiting for a second chance.
A bearded Rambo farang appears in black bandanna, wrap sunglasses, beads around his neck and stripped to the waist showing off his tattoos. He’s obviously got American Sniper syndrome and with his monstrous pump-action water gun sets about spraying everyone in sight. “I’ve been here like five years, man … it’s amazing, so cool.” We suspect he’s suffering equally from water on the brain.
A brass band strikes up and at last the procession we’ve come to see begins led by a trio of young girls in traditional dress carrying a banner which reads: “Let’s splash and be blessed.” Miss Songkran passes by on a flower-strewn float. A priest blesses the crowd. The procession is beamed live on TV.
We return to base and order more water. A beautiful young girl appears beside me with a silver bowl and delicately pours scented water over my outstretched hands. It’s a disarming, touching traditional moment amid all the mayhem. But then that Thai youngster pops up again and exacts his gleeful revenge by squirting me square in the face. Sànùk!