On the morning of April 13th, Christine and I went to the corner store to pick up some fruit for breakfast. After leaving the store, a small Thai woman walked straight up to me, smiled, then shot me in the stomach with a huge water gun. Then laughed. Alright, I thought, this is actually happening. This is Songkran!
When I checked my Facebook earlier that morning, the banner across the top read “Happy Songkran!” Hmmm…Songkran…We had heard a little about this festival several months ago when we first arrived in Thailand, but we really didn’t pay much attention because it was so far off. Something about a water festival and a national holiday. At the time, we really didn’t think we would be around for it.
WHAT IS SONGKRAN?
After some quick research, we found out that Songkran is Thai New Year’s celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of April each year filled with all sorts of traditions and festivities. During this time, respect is paid to Buddha through a cleansing of the Buddha images, everyone visits family, and blessings are given. One tradition that seems to have taken hold and grown is the water blessing. Traditionally, younger people sprinkle water over the shoulder and down the back of older people as a tribute of respect and for blessings for the New Year, signifying washing away the past and starting fresh in the new year.
Over time, this water sprinkling has escalated to the world’s largest water fight, full of soaking wet locals and tourists playing together with smiles all around! We read it was HUGE in some larger cities in Thailand such as Chang Mai and Bangkok. However, our little town of Ao Nang is much smaller than those others listed, so we figured things would stay pretty tame. I am so glad we were wrong!
After those initial watery shots were fired on our breakfast trip, we decided to go back home to get waterproof bags and cameras, then venture out to see what this exciting day had to offer. Instead of buying a mega water gun, we found water bottles and cut holes in the lid to design make-shift weapons and began to brave the streets.
THE FESTIVITIES BEGIN!
Songkran festivities were already in full swing by 9 am with the floors in all stores soaking wet, the computers and registers wrapped in protective plastic and greeters at the entrance of restaurants spraying all customers with friendly streams of water from tiny squirt guns! Every 10 steps or so, we crossed in front of another business with all the employees and their families standing around a 55 gallon barrel of water, happily drenching any passersby while giggling hysterically when they were sprayed in return! It was unreal to see! There was no competition, no aggressive behavior, just laughter and fun and everyone was invited.
Another tradition of Songkran is a blessing on the face of dyed talcum powder. When I read about this, I anticipated powder being thrown on us as we passed by, but once again, I was surprised. Only after asking permission, locals standing on the streets applied colored paste gently to our cheeks and foreheads. This blessing of good fortune for the coming new year feels cool and refreshing, eventually dripping from your face to your clothes, covering revelers in bright greens and pinks. These rituals are also performed on the many small Buddha statues around town. People pay their respects to the deity by pouring a little water over the statue’s shoulders and putting the talcum powder on their cheeks.
Songkran has become a chance for Thais who have grown up and moved away to larger cities to return home to friends and family and celebrate together. Small towns all over Thailand fill up with people who lived there locally when they were children. Traffic was so congested it was barely at a crawl and no one cared in the slightest. Cars and pickups inched-by, bursting at the seams with people armed with water pistols, raining water on anyone who dared walk close enough to get shot. In return, business owners got out their garden hoses and sprayed passing vehicles! Every person and truck out on the street was soaking wet and covered in brightly colored talc.
SHARING SMILES AND LAUGHS WITH PEOPLE FROM AROUND THE WORLD!
Walking around with no real destination, Christine and I tried our hardest to take it all in, loving the fact that we stumbled into the most amazing water fight ever! It was playful, but not aggressive. The local Thai people were careful not to get water in the eyes or face of people passing by. Water was aimed at shirts and down your back. Little children with super soakers twice their size asked for permission to spray us and giggled when we said yes. They then laughed and ran away after they “got us good.” As we passed each group, everyone said a friendly hello and happy New Year.
Christine and I were shocked that such a gigantic water fight could be kept so calm, so controlled and still be so fun! We realized that if this same celebration happened in many other countries, it could easily evolve into an affair using fire hoses, water balloons, tactical assaults on enemy water positions, lots of booze, and eventually, be too competitive to enjoy. The only time we were sprayed in the face was by other foreigners as we passed each other on the sidewalk. This is an event that highlights the remarkably unique nature of the Thai culture and people.
The only “shenanigans” we noticed were people sneaking ice water into their water guns and bowls. As we stopped to refill our homemade water squirters at one of the many 55 gallon barrels placed on the street for all to use, people would pour their icy refreshments down our backs and laugh as we lost our breath from shock! The water may have been too cold but Songkran takes place during the hottest month in Thailand, so we recovered very quickly!
Our walk all over town was a mixture of traditional festival, all out party, and child’s holiday. Some restaurants were open and welcomed us in to be waited on by talcum covered, soaking waiters, which made us feel right at home since we matched them exactly. Alcohol was not banned but it wasn’t around much. Revealing dress all over town was discouraged, with only a few foreigners found in just bikinis or board shorts. It is a respected holiday and it seemed like almost everyone knew and abided by certain unspoken rules. Even the Thai military got in on the festivities!
As the evening drew closer, the water fights of Songkran began to taper off. Families from all over Thailand went out to eat dinner with each other, then filed onto the beaches to watch the sun go down. Christine and I ended the festivities soaked from head to toe, covered in talcum powder and sore faces from laughing non-stop for an entire day. We had walked the length of town several times over and seen hundreds of families happily playing in the water, locals and foreigners alike. Our first Songkran will not be our last as it was a powerful and magical event that made us feel like part of not only the beautiful community of Ao Nang, Thailand but also something bigger. Smiles were exchanged more freely between people from diverse cultures and backgrounds than I may have ever seen before. The feeling is something I will never forget and want to continue experiencing in the future.
READ MORE ABOUT FESTIVALS YOU SHOULD ATTEND AROUND THE WORLD HERE!