Songkran Festival: My Three-Day Water Fight in Bangkok

Songkran Festival

The coldest days in Bangkok happened right in the middle of the Thai summer, ironically during the hottest month of the year, when temperatures were over 100 degrees. But from April 13-15 I was the coldest I have ever been. I was trying to cross the street to go to the 7- 11 and suddenly, I realized I’d been hit right in the chest from the stream of a M-110 super soaker. It was my security guard who nailed me.

Songkran is the Thai New Year, celebrated for three days in April. It is devoted to spending time with family and religious worship. It is a way to cleanse and rejuvenate. The pouring of water is symbolic of washing away all of the sins and bad luck from the year and refreshing for the New Year ahead. Traditionally, children splash aromatic water on their elders to ask for blessings. It is said that pouring perfumed water on the Buddha images can bring good luck as well. It is a long established tradition for families to conduct reunions, offer prayers and goods to the monks, visit Buddhist monasteries and rid their homes of junk during this New Year celebration.

Mistake number one: going to the biggest water party ever with nothing to throw water with.

Songkran has changed a bit over the years especially in the busy filled streets of Bangkok. My Songkran was quite different from what I described above. I have never seen the streets of Bangkok so empty. The usual traffic had dissipated from the streets and the normally too-crowded-to-walk-on sidewalks were cleared. Kiddy pools, coolers, water guns, buckets, cups, and just about anything that could be used to carry water replaced the normal street vendors and never-ending rush hour. The scorching heat seemed to disappear and was replaced by street parties, family reunions and water fights.

Songkran Festival: My Three-Day Water Fight in Bangkok

I spent the first day of the festival on the famous Khao San Road. After asking numerous Thai people where I should go to celebrate and hearing the same response of Khao San, I remained dismayed. Why would I want to celebrate Songkran on a street known as the backpacker capital of Bangkok? But I finally caved in. To my surprise, the street was packed with Thai people, all Thai people, so many that I could not even move. Entering on a side street, it took me twenty minutes before I even made it to the main entrance. It was crowded but glorious. The street, which was usually overrun by vendors selling bootlegs, buckets of alcohol and elephant pants, was transformed. It was filled to the brim with people, all armed with water and ready to strike, except for me.

Mistake number one: going to the biggest water party ever with nothing to throw water with. Everywhere I turned there were young people, old people and foreigners smiling and splashing water at each other. There were people dancing on chairs and spraying hoses into the crowd. No one was dry. Watching the reactions after someone had water dumped over her head never got old. No matter how many times it had been done, there was always the wide-eyed look of shock. Groups of friends made their way down the street in tango lines so they wouldn’t lose each other dancing and singing as they walked.

Songkran Festival: My Three-Day Water Fight in Bangkok

Remember the ice bucket challenge? Songkran makes the ice bucket challenge look weak. Songkran is the ice bucket challenge on steroids. The coolers normally used to store beer and soda had been transformed into giant containers to fill up your water guns or buckets. I started noticing signs: “Fill up cold water 5 baht.” It was genius but also pure evil, you actually looked forward to someone throwing warm water on you. Mistake number two (one I actually couldn’t help): being a foreigner. As soon as they see you, you become an instant target. Get the farang! My arms were limp and I was shivering from head to toe.

Day two felt like a more traditional experience. On a side street, I found myself getting into water fights with kids and old men, and dancing to Thai music. Mistake number three: thinking the old men would go easy on me. Young kids and old men all came together at the water “station” drenching each other, the people walking by, the group across the road and of course the people driving by. Motorbike drivers, pick up trucks, tuk tuks, and any other form of transportation with open access had been turned into a water throwing machine–a catapult, armed with water guns and giant buckets ready to attack us as they drove by.

Remember the ice bucket challenge? Songkran makes the ice bucket challenge look weak.

We joined this group and were gifted leis of jasmine flower buds and immediately began harassing the people passing by. A woman stood on the street making slow circles, while dancing to the Thai music floating through the speakers. Moving her hands in the most synchronous way, you couldn’t help but watch her hands glide through the air, each finger making a precise movement. I shuffled over and she urged me to join her. I tried to mimic those beautiful motions and we stood there dancing in the street for a while with the occasional stream of water hitting us. I couldn’t help myself from smiling.

In this more personal water fight, I was able to get to know the Thai people on a new level. A woman approached me, smiling and carrying a silver bowl. We made eye contact and her gentle eyes looked down at the bowl and then back at me. I nodded and she delicately rubbed a pasty substance onto my cheeks and neck. It had a sweet scent to it and the intimacy of the motion made it even sweeter. I later learned that this substance is a sign of protection that promises to ward off evil.

Songkran Festival: My Three-Day Water Fight in Bangkok

I experienced many things during Songkran from the craze of Khao San road to raging water wars in the once peaceful neighborhoods. During the celebration, I thought about the misfortunes and struggles from the previous years being washed away. With those troubles gone comes a clean slate and hopefully lots of good luck.

 

Songkran Festival: My Three-Day Water Fight in Bangkok // Songkran Festival

About Kirsten Iverson

Kirsten IversonKirsten is an ESL Kindergarten Teacher in Bangkok, Thailand. Sick of freezing winters, short summers and an office with no window she moved to Asia to teach and travel. She can be found on the back of a motorbike taxi hanging on for dear life, trying to order coconut shakes in Thai or lounging by the pool.

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