Quite possibly the craziest of all national New Year traditions, Songkran, the water splashing festival of Thailand, is nowadays well-known in Europe as well. Some places - at least some clubs, if not entire towns - have even tried to replicate it. In Thailand, it's sheer madness. The whole country turns into one giant aquatic free-for-all, making traveling unrealistic. Streets and highways become impassable, and wherever you go, someone will soon turn a bucket of water over your head. A car will not help - squads of water fighters form live chains across roads, forcing drivers to stop, and don't let them go on until they roll down a window, with predictable consequences. Tourists stand out, so they usually find themselves the primary targets. No-one would guess that this veritable imitation of a barbarian invasion had started as a ritual of respect and veneration.
Like many Thai traditions, Songkran originates from Vedic India. The name is a corruption of Sanskritic “sakranti” – literally, “passage”. This term is used in Hindu astrology for the division between Zodiacal periods – when the sun passes from one sign into another. The border date between Pisces and Aries is important enough in India and used to be celebrated as the New Year. In Nepal, it still is. After all, it is common for most cultures to see the death of the old year and the birth of the new one in the harshest days when nature itself dies. From then on, the weather will only get better. In dry tropical India, it was predictably placed in the hottest month: April, when the temperatures seldom drop below 40 C. Thailand has absorbed this festival together with many other Brahmanic customs.
Initially, in Buddhist Thailand, Songkran was a solemn festivity. Water would be carefully sprinkled on Buddha images, monks, and respected elders, or poured on their hands. This was done to relieve the searing heat of April symbolically – and is still done the same way now. But young Thais were feeling hot too, so they simplified the process: took buckets, and splashed each other all over. This is how it must have started one day long, long ago. The ceremonial side of Songkran is still there: walk into a temple and mingle with the crowd of worshipers, dressed in their finest, and in the north – in traditional folk costumes, too. But step outside – and instantly get a jet of water in your face. Everything goes in this wet war: water guns, pumps, fire hoses. Wild parties are staged on blocked streets, sometimes with fire engines hired to douse the overheating crowd. Every house rolls a barrel out, connects it to the mains with a pipe, and provides the fighters with unlimited reloads. Foreigners are welcome to participate – that is, if they don’t, they will still be moving targets.
If you wish to see the real, historical, Buddhist Songkran, retreat to a small village, preferably up north. Isaan – eastern Thailand - is a good choice too. Don’t expect to remain dry even there, but at least you will have a chance to resurface often enough to inhale. In places where tourists are rare, Thais are shy and may be convinced to spare you from splashing – but don’t count on it. Everything that can be harmed by soaking in water has to be kept in sealed plastic bags, or it will be completely and utterly destroyed. Plan your gear the same way you would for climbing up a waterfall. During the three main days of the festival, every second guy is drunk by mid-afternoon. The number of road accidents doubles despite the disappearing traffic and blocked streets. Keep this in mind, especially if driving a motorbike. Wild parties, both Thai (with stages, blaring pop music and powerful hoses carpet-bombing the revelers with water) and mixed (in tourist spots) are just that – wild. Girls, in particular, might want to be careful. If you are after the wet fun, some of the craziest crowds celebrate in Khaosan Rd in Bangkok and around Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai. Most importantly, try not to plan any traveling between 13 and 17 of April: buses are few and far between, most services are closed, and hotels get booked a month in advance.
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