Songkran: Celebrating the New Year with day-glo green and blaze orange super-soakers just like Buddha would have wanted

No one is safe from getting wet during Songkran. No one.
No one is safe from getting wet during Songkran. No one.
On Tuesday I put my iPhone and wallet on the desk in my room and walked outside without them. I felt naked without them, but I didn’t feel it would be a good idea to carry them around that day. It was the first day of Songkran.

No sooner than I got 20m down the street from the entrance to my hotel a woman who was a total stranger grabbed the collar of my shirt, pulled it forward, dumped a bucket of water down my chest and smiled “Happy New Year”. Her friend slapped my cheeks a muddy goop from a dish made up of water and talcum powder. 60 seconds after hitting the street I was drenched head to toe and had a face full of wet talc.

It was quite the introduction to Songkran.

Songkran is not subtle
Songkran is not subtle
Songkran, like Christmas, is a holiday with religious roots that has gone secular. The original purpose behind the use of water was the clean Buddha statues found at temples and shrines. Somewhere along the line, using water to clean statues turned into buckets, hoses and squirt guns.

Over the three days of Songkran, I saw people with spraying water on most major intersections in Bangkok. Most of the side streets (soi’s) had people standing outside their businesses drenching cars and motorbikes as they drove by. On one intersection, a group of redshirts had a drum kit set up and what appeared to be a fire hose. Everyone was wet.

Under normal circumstances, if you dumped a bucket of water on someone’s head, they’d get really pissed off. During Songkran those social norms don’t apply. You don’t just sprinkle people with water. This isn’t like a blessing you get in church. Buckets, hoses and squirt guns you’d normally only see in comic books are fair game.

Sean and Jodi having Songkran fun on Khao San Road
Sean and Jodi having Songkran fun on Khao San Road
Several parts of Bangkok are war zones for Songkran, in particular Silom and the backpacker district on Khao San Road, which was a real war zone just a few days before. (It is amazing how quickly the Thais can get over a tragedy and get on with life. Khao San Road literally went from machine guns to squirt guns in a few days). Tuesday afternoon I met up with some other Bangkok bloggers to explore Khao San Road: Jodi Ettenberg, Cody McKibben, Sean Ogle, Nikki Scott, and Sarah Lipman.

The scene on Khao San Road was liquid chaos. Thousand of people walked up and down the street getting drenched and drenching others in water. Unlike most days on Khao San, most of the people there were Thai, not tourists. There were only three things being sold on the tables lined up along the street: water, beer and super soakers.

Songkran is for everyone
You are never too young to take part in Songkran
In my infinite wisdom, I thought it would be a good idea to bring my camera to the aquafight. There are obvious technical hurdles that have to be overcome when doing photography in an environment where people are shooting pressurized streams of water at your face, and have no concern for the fact that you have an expensive piece of electronics in your hand.

I got a cheap plastic bag that a squirt gun was packaged in, wrapped it around my camera and fit the opening around my lens with the lens hood locking it in place. As is evident from the photos you are looking at, it worked reasonably well. The camera survived and I got some OK photos.

The remaining two days of Songkran were much more low key than the day on Khao San. On the street my hotel is on, everyone had music playing and was having a good time getting taxis and motorbike riders wet. (Songkran is a very dangerous time in Thailand for accidents. Over 200 people were killed during Songkran this year in accidents.)

Songkran was one of the best times I’ve had while traveling and certainly the craziest celebration I’ve encountered. If you get the opportunity, try to visit Thailand for Songkran which is celebrated every year from April 13-15. It doesn’t fall during the normal tourist high season, but it is an experience to remember.