Forget Auld Lang Syne, fireworks and a countdown. The Thai New Year, called Songkran, begins with finding the right water gun.
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in April 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Happy New Year 2545! In a Buddhist East Asian country we start with Buddha not Jesus, and we’re on the lunar calendar, not the Roman. But forget Auld Lang Syne, fireworks and a countdown. The Thai New Year, called Songkran, begins with finding the right water gun.
I found the lightsaber-looking pump-action one-shot to be the fastest to load while offering the most drenching accuracy available. Add a poncho and a pocket of water-ready balloons and I was ready to ring in the Year of the Horse.
Songkran was once, long before it became a country-wide water fight, a holiday in which jasmine-scented water was used to clean Buddha statues in a religious ceremony of cleansing and renewal, an annual baptism where one asked for forgiveness for wrongs of the past year and made a clean slate for the future, and it comes during the hottest month of the dry season to kick off a symbolic agricultural rebirth. But now Songkran is slipping into secularism and commercialism, a la Christmas, as the country reaps the benefit of an influx of tourists who come to play along in Southeast Asia’s biggest holiday.
The holiday is believed to have originated here in the northern capital, so Kate, the visiting Sadie, and I flew up to get as close as we could to the heart of Songkran. While checking in at the Bangkok airport one of the Thai Airways employees pulled out a small water pistol and shot Kate from his hip with a friendly, “Happy New Year!”
Once we arrived, we got our first spraying while waiting for a cab. A roving band of young Thais crowded into the back of a pick-up truck surrounding a large garbage can of water gave us a drive-by. I had filled up my soaker in the airport bathroom so I returned fire. Direct hit! Happy Songkran!
The three of us started early the next morning, the first official day of the five-day holiday. I threw on my poncho and filled up our water canons and restlessly shuffled in the hotel room while Kate and Sadie strategically picked outfits that would hold up under maximum wetness. I was like a kid in the parking lot of Disney World.
The main drag and parade route was only a few blocks away from our hotel and ground zero was just outside a favorite restaurant. But by the time we made it to our booth for breakfast we were drenched. From our view of the growing madness outside we made a game plan — we were going to hold fort on a traffic island at the intersection and get our own bucket and source of water. We psyched ourselves up for more soaking and headed into the melee.
There is a Thai word that speaks to the heart of Thai-ness: sanuk. It roughly means “fun” or “good times.” And it’s no surprise that the kingdom’s mega-holiday would drip with sanuk. From old Thai women who sweetly approach you with a bucket of water and pour a cup on your back and wish you “Happy New Year,” to the toddlers barely able to lift their water pistols, to the young girls who wipe the traditional talcum powder mixture on your face to ward against evil spirits, and the teens in their trucks dumping buckets on the crowds lined up along the roads — everyone is smiling and laughing.
Then there are the farang (foreigners), mostly nice, but too often bringing with them a slight hooliganish, mean-spiritedness to their water play. A Thai will slowly approach you with their pan of water, making sure you see them coming and that both they and their victim are in on the fun. But the out-of-towners have a different sense of sanuk. In one sad display of farang sensibility, an elderly Thai women poured her traditional jasmine water on a young guy’s back and he shot her a face full of high-pressure water from his gun in return. Kate, Sadie and I concluded that if this were an American holiday, the death toll would be high.
But the three of us were better than that. From our traffic island fortress we shot in self-defense or out of sanuk only. The elderly and camera-holding were off limits in our Songkran ethics. And we had hours upon hours of fun. Our friends who live in Chiang Mai joined us in the afternoon and we watched the parade of Buddha statues go by and shot/cleansed them with our waterguns as they passed in perfect serene Buddhahood. After about 7 hours of constant drenchedness, we headed back to the hotel, getting more soaked on the way, calling it a day, and a truly Happy New Year!