Thai New Year follows the Hindu/Buddhist Solar calendar. Songkran, April 13 to 15, is a time of family gatherings, visits to the local temple, and purification by pouring water, usually over the hands, washing away the past year’s sins and warding off the coming year’s bad luck.
For an American family in Chiang Mai it means walking through what feels like a car wash for 3 days. Chiang Mai is famous for taking Songkran to the extreme. A dry bag is essential. Swim goggles would have been nice.
When planning our first research trip, I was so low on my Thailand learning curve, I didn’t know that I’d booked our trip to arrive on the eve of Songkran. The first day was a blast. We were pretty well prepared; I had a dry section in my back pack, we all had water shoes and quick dry clothes, and fortunately, a hotel that was outside the city center for a little relief.
In the city center, we were a huge walking target. Day one was somewhat gentle. I actually had a few grandmothers at Wat Pra Singh gently pour water on my hands and put chalk on my face. The temples were filled with food stalls, processions, traditional dance (and more than a few politicians). Little kids would run up and pour a bucket of water on our legs. There were a few neighborhoods where the girls got in a vigorous super soaker fight, but there were also neighborhoods where we could actually stay dry.
By Day 3 the celebration hit a frenzied climax. We couldn’t walk from one business to the next without a bucket of icy water thrown in our faces. My fingers and toes were wrinkly all day. Even a lunch stop didn’t stop the dripping. Frank put his phone in the wrong section of my backpack; our first Songkran casualty. Trying to get back to the hotel, trapped in a songtu, we were no longer a walking target, but trapped, stuck-in-traffic sitting ducks. We’d had enough. Time for an excursion. We gracefully admitted defeat and withdrew from the battlefield…I booked a day of zip lining and a day at the Elephant Nature Park.
What I, personally, took away from Songkran was my first glimpse into the heart of the Thai people. Through this sloppy, wet mayhem, elders would walk through with only wet feet. Women in traditional dress, probably going to work or a formal gathering, would also walk through completely dry, as if encased in a protective bubble. The tuk tuk and songtu drivers stayed somewhat dry. There was no sign of public drinking. The parade-like traffic brought images from TV news of war torn third world countries, the backs of pick up trucks filled with gun-toting rebels, to my mind. But these pick ups were filled with Thais of all ages with beach buckets and super soakers, laughing and having a blast. Through this frenetic, city-sized water fight, there was always an undertone of respect and consideration, remembering the true reason for Songkran (a bucket of water in the face really means “Happy New Year”), and just simple, good-natured fun. It made me feel like everything was right in the world.