This was not my first Songkran.
I had previously been to the Songkran of Khaosan Road, in Bangkok. 4 years ago, which also had me witness a full-blown protest. And the 3 days spent there were the craziest 3 days of my life. Street parties are a very rambunctious and boisterous affair, but a street party with water involved; it almost feels like the whole atmosphere is jacked up on steroids.
Songkran is Thai New Year. And if you are wondering why the name seems so familiar, it is because it’s borrowed from ‘Makar Sankranti’, the Hindu harvest festival of India. And that is also why Songkran shares its dates in almost all years with other Indian festivals like Lohri, Pongal and Bihu. A fact that doesn’t make my mother happy, as my celebrating Songkran in Thailand would mean that I have to skip my own new year, i.e, Vishu in Kerala.
But unlike the different new year’s celebrated in the Indian harvest calendars, Songkran has a very important differentiating factor. The purification of the mind and body through the act of pouring water on a person. When tradition was introduced to tourism, they both had a very interesting love-child. Songkran became the largest water fight on earth, with an entire country pouring water on each other. Or better, shooting strong rapids of water from powerful water guns. Or even better, shooting strong rapids of ice-cold water from powerful water guns. Ah, ice-cold water on a sweaty April morning. That can literally tase you. And leave you in a comatose form for a few seconds.
For this year, I was already sure that I wouldn’t be going to Bangkok for Songkran, as my age meant that I was not into crazy partying anymore. But I was not sure if I would be going at all, especially since the death of the late king, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej. The king’s death marked a tragic year for the entire country, and many festivals were cancelled (including the full-moon parties of Koh Phangan) in October, after he died. So, I waited till March to figure out how Songkran would play out.
As expected, Bangkok did cut down (just a little bit) on the partying; understandable since the king’s palace was there. But Chiang Mai seemed to have no restrictions in place. So, I went ahead, booked myself a flight to Chiang Mai.
As I expected, Chiang Mai turned out to be a much better place for Songkran than Bangkok. Bangkok displayed the touristy Songkran, where they even charged you to refill your waterguns. But in ChiangMai, most households and shops had a giant syntax tank kept outside, with a block of ice inside them. As long as you could fend off that vicious kid who keeps shooting water in your face, you can refill your guns without paying anything. Also, unlike Bangkok, Songkran in Chiang Mai was more of a family affair. Entire families came out, with water-tanks on their SUVs, and shooting water at you, innocently standing by the side of the road.
If you find yourself ending up in the mother of all water-fights, know that there are 3 simple steps to enjoy it.
The first thing you do when you arrive during Songkran, is to ensure that you get your bags safely to your accommodation without getting wet. I barely managed to do that, evading the waterthrowers and reaching my hotel. Bonus points if you book your accommodation close to where all the action was supposed to take place. In my case, I booked at the old town itself.
The next step involved finding a weapon of choice, and a gang to support you. To engage in a water-fight, they are many different choices of weapons for you. It could be something as simple as a pail or a bucket. Or something more advanced like a super-soaker water-gun, which costs about 300 THB and can shoot really powerful water-streams. And trust me, those ones are really powerful. I know because I mistakenly took off a friend’s fake eyelashes during my Bangkok Songkran, with one stream!
Also, there are plenty of strategies that one can deploy in a waterfight. But all of them involve groups. If you try to be a Rambo-like lone warrior on the streets of Songkran, you are going to get drenched in no time. So, find a gang. It could be people who travel with you to the Songkran (the best choice). Or mates you meet at the local hostel. Or even check for meetup events on couchsurfing.com or meetups.com.
And if you are carrying any valuables when walking around (camera, cash, phone etc.), make sure these are well-covered and protected. You can get a waterproof pouch, or a waterproof bag for about 100 THB.
Pick a fight! But be nice.
Once you are armed, ready and raring-to-go, all you have to do is pick a fight. This is also the part where your dreams about having a machismo-filled waterfight slows drowns into abysmal glory –because you will find that most of your deadly foes turn out to be little kids. Oh, those kids are vicious! They can dunk entire buckets of water on your head, and stare at you like you owe them money! Drench that kid! But be a nice adult, and wish them ‘Sawadee Pimai’ (Happy new year) AFTER you drench him.
Still wondering whether you should head for Songkran next year? Plan early, because the flights and accommodations get more expensive the closer you get to the date. And watch this video for how Songkran actually looks like, and what else you can do in Chiang Mai. (Sorry about the shakes in a couple of places though. Steadying the gopro is almost impossible during Songkran!)
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