A Year in Bangkok – Songkran

16 04 2011

May your new year be full of wetness!

Well, here we are at Songkran again. The Thai sense of fun really comes out at Songkran, the Buddhist new year in the middle of April. As almost any excuse will do for a party, we celebrate three new years here. First we celebrate the western new year which is now officially recognised as a public holiday, then we celebrate the Chinese new year but the big one is the start of three days of madness and mayhem properly known as Songkran.

Good fun whatever your age.

Most of Bangkok’s population comes from the rural areas so they mainly go home to be with family, much as we do at Christmas. On the first morning, people traditionally visit their local temple to build sand stupas and wash the Buddhas. By lunch time though, the festivities are in full swing. Stemming from the tradition of giving water to the Lord Buddha at this, the hottest time of year, people stand on the streets or drive by in pick-ups and soak anybody within range, topping it off with talcum powder.

Water for the Buddha.

One tradition behind this is that if you wet the hands of an elder, they will grant you a wish. The powder bit is just for fun.

My first year here, I managed to miss it in town on the first day as I went in shopping early but going home was a little different. As the little red bus dawdled up the street, people threw buckets of water through the open doors, many of them throwing it at the ceiling to ensure that it would splash back down with maximum effect.

Wetly getting off the bus and walking home, one of the local stall holders squirted me with her water pistol so I warned her – one more time and she was going to be tickled.  Of course, she took up the challenge and my shopping lay abandoned while I chased and tickled her. I was made to wait a few minutes and she came back with a lotus garland which she put round my neck along with a little sniff kiss.

Getting back as far as my apartment block, I was greeted with “Ah, Khun Ben” from some of the staff who then thoroughly soaked me yet again and covered me in talc.

Sadly, drunk driving is a major problem during this festival and huge numbers of people are killed, they even ran death counts in the corner of the TV screens when I first came here but now, that is restricted to the news programmes. In just one year the road death count over this three day holiday period was around five hundred and forty with another four thousand injured. Apparently most of these people were on motorcycles. Human life is relatively cheap out here and I can only imagine the outcry over such a thing happening back home.

During the evening of the main Songkran day in my second year here, I went night-clubbing Thai style with some friends. We always eat there, and get live cabaret style entertainment with lots of slapstick comedy and some really good singing. This goes on to about midnight, after which there is western music and dancing. No dance floor though, everybody just stands at their tables and dances. The cost of such a night out including all food and drink is normally under ten pounds a person – UK prices are always quite a shock to the system when I go home for a holiday.

Officially, the three day holiday is divided as follows: the thirteenth of April is Elder’s Day, the fourteenth is Family Day and the fifteenth represents the first day of the new year. Songkran comes from Pali and Sanskrit and means ‘a move or change in the position of the sun from Aries to Taurus’.

Lots of countries in this region celebrate similar festivals at this time of year although they have different names in each country. Essentially though, they celebrate the start of a new year after a harvesting season is over and before the start of summer. This year it is 2554 but they no longer advance the date at Songkran, they moved that bit to 1st January some time ago to fit in with the ‘developed’ world.

This year, we spent the final day of Songkran cycling round the Ancient City in Samut Prakan. I forgot to take anything long sleeved and I forgot sun block so I now look like a cross between a giant stick insect and a lobster.

Regardless of the history of this manic festival, I’m perfectly happy to simply think of it as the biggest water fight in the world! And many thanks to Alex for the use of some excellent photos here.

Most accident victims are on motorcycles.

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