The first splash of water in the face was a shock. A bucket of ice cold water comes at me without warning, except for the excited screams of the kids yelling “farang” or foreigner, which is their signal to strike with extra gusto. By the end of the four day Songkran festival (or week-long by some calendars) the water assault feels about as natural as breathing. Because during the world’s biggest water festival, you can expect to get wet…and stay wet the entire time.
Songkran, which corresponds with the hottest days of the year, also signals the New Year for South East Asia. It’s a religious celebration focused around cleansing the Buddha and one’s soul, but has turned into a week of celebrations and partying, the most famous spot being Chiang Mai.
I was in Mae Sot on Saturday morning, the official start of the festival, although people were throwing water days earlier. It was maybe a minute and a half since I left my house completely dry before I was doused from head to toe with water. Kids stood on the curb with giant super soakers of buckets of water, which they refill from a large basin, into which a hose of water is constantly running.
For the rest of the morning, my farang friends and I cycles around the street, egging on the kids while we fought back with piddly little squirt guns (the larger guns would come out after the flight to Chiang Mai). There’s a silent bond between people involved in a water fight. Two groups lock eyes, raise their nozzles and drive into battle. You try and shield your eyes while keeping focus on your target and you let out a warrior cry, either that, or a girlish scream, whichever one. The cry of agony is really a cry for more and a promise to return with equal vigor….until you run out of water and you’re to forced to sheepishly ask your opponent to use some of their water supply. Sometimes they will give mercy while you reload, other times they will pour buckets of water down your back in the process.
At one point, we stopped for water fight outside a Thai man’s house on a side street. A bunch of expats had gathered there, perhaps because of the free flowing supply of rice wine, whisky and beer, I can’t be sure. We battled each other across the street and then turned out attention to trucks that would pass by, loaded with passengers in the cab who were fully prepared with giant pools of water to rain down on the poor sods on the street.
The best party that day was outside of Aiya, the Burmese restaurant, where dance and pop music was blaring and the only rest from water throwing was dancing
We sadly tore ourselves away from the Mae Sot madness, the six of us girls hopped on a flight and said hello to crazy Chiang Mai. Jacintha and Kendra discovered that even the smallest of squirt guns are not allowed on commercial flights, lest they be used in an act of water terrorism. Driving through the main streets of Chiang Mai to our hostel, Little Bird 2, located just outside the north gate to the Old City, we were just happy the van was enclosed. It looked like a rain storm, so much water was showering down from every direction. When we set out, we ended joining a party of Thai people outside a t-shirt shop.
Sunday in Chiang Mai was the first true grasp of just how massive this festival is. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over Thailand, South East Asia and the world had flocked to Chiang Mai. Most people either dumped water from the cab of their trucks or gathered water in buckets from the foul-smelling, murky moat that surrounds the Old City. At the corner where the north wall meets the east, people had climbed up the corner of the crumbled fortress like snipers poised for attack.
It’s a constant change between warm, filthy river water and ice cold water, so that you don’t really notice the 37 degree weather. We stopped for food at this charming little courtyard with a traditional Thai band and dancers, a sort of respite from the water throwing. We munched on noodles, chicken satays and pork dumplings. Jacintha and I learned the hard way that any food on the side of the main street, especially water-sucking fruit, will basically taste like the river. After one soggy bite, we were like, ‘no river fruit for me, thanks, in the garbage you go.’
Walking toward ThaPae gate was like walking into the epicenter of the funnest war zone on the planet. Armed with our extremely intimidating Disney and cartoon themed water gun backpacks, we were ready for battle.
Dubstep and dance music blared from two-storey high speakers as reps wearing Air Asia swag sprayed the crowd with water from fire hoses. Everyone danced and trucks passing through carrying fellow Songkraners crawled through the mess of people. Those in the cab were happy to be stuck in the middle, with a prime vantage point of the best party in town.
The best thing about Songkran is that even though it’s a South East Asian holiday, foreigners are welcomed in. Everyone delighted at yelling “farang” and dousing you with added fervor. People pulled us on the back of their trucks, eager to know where we are from, how we like Chiang Mai and do we want some beer with that water? The answer: Canada, yes and yes.
One Brazilian woman earned admiration from Thais and backpackers alike for her role in what was in my opinion, the best water fight of the whole weekend.
It was around 6 p.m. and the big party around the Air Asia stage had died down. Those who didn’t want to go home yet hung around a small bar that faced onto the street. Three lines of traffic were passing through at a more constant rate but water fighters refused to call it quits. To ensure the two forces could exist in unison, the large and in charge Brazilian woman began to blow her whistle and thrust her hand out authoritatively to stop traffic and allow the two sides of the street to rush at each other, Braveheart-style, to battle it out. After about 30 seconds, she’d shoe everyone back to their sides and let the cars go through. It was so efficient that when a second whistle started to ring out, everyone was confused. It turned out an actual Thai traffic cop had arrived. He stayed not 10 minutes before he reazlied the Brazilian woman had the traffic and the Songkraners under control. He let her carry on. Such is the spirit of good humour and unity that defines Songkran.