SONGKRAN – New Year, Thai Style

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Thai style

‘Songkran’ is the name given to the New Year period in Thailand.  Its celebrated from 13th – 15th April, and I was in Chiang Mai – home of the most famous ‘Songkran Festival’, this year to get the gist of the celebration.  It falls at the hottest time of the year, which also marks the end of the dry season, and though the 1st of January is the mark of the new year in Thailand, Songkran is still a big occasion, a national holiday and called ‘new year’ (students are on holiday from school at this time, and when they return, it will be to a new school year).

Songkran is most famous in Chiang Mai – where celebrations go for six day,s or even longer, because new year was originally only celebrated in the north of Thailand.  It is believed the Burmese bought the tradition over the border, and during the 20th century, the festivities made their way south to include the rest of the country.

Traditionally, Songkran was a time to visit and pay respects to elders, friends, neighbours and family members and, being a Buddhist country, a time to visit a monastery to pray and give offerings to monks.  The pouring of fragranced water over Buddha images – at home and in monasteries, is believed to bring good luck and prosperity for the New year.  In many cities, including Chiang Mai, images of Buddha from local monasteries, are paraded through the streets so that people can toss water at them, bathing the images as they pass by on decorated floats.  Traditionally, the run-off was collected and used as ‘blessed water’ to give good fortune and luck to elders and family, by pouring over their shoulder and its this tradition, which has given rise to what Songkran is today – its traditional celebration, plus lots of water!  The streets are lined with revelers, armed and ready to wish a watery new year to others, be they beside them, passing by, on foot, by bike or in vehicles, which can also make for a very welcome respite from the unrelenting heat, which can get up into the 40s at this time of year, as I found out!

I arrived in Chiang Mai on Monday the 12th, and was staying just outside of town – I reasoned that if it was a super crazy week, Id still get some sleep when I needed to! On my way into the town that night, I had my first taste of Songkran – small groups of people, roadside, armed with water – hoses, water pistols and 44 gallon drums, with containers they could scoop out the water with and lob at passersby.  From the safety of my air-conditioned ride, I witnessed, and we didn’t get a drop on us.  The ones getting wet were those on scooters and, the other ‘groups’ – in the back of 4x wheel drive utes, they seemed to be everywhere!  Up to six or so, in the back with the trust ’44 of water’ for refuelling of water pistols, bowls and any other ‘arms’.  Those in the back of the tuk-tuks and open taxis were also targets.  The night market was safe, I can guarantee – anywhere with stalls means no water!

So, I was under an impression that maybe, Songkran wasn’t as big of a deal as I’d thought – it seemed to be youths only, involved, and they only targeted each other, however! Two days later I went into town to do a spot of shopping in the old city.  Forget it, very little is actually open! It didnt even enter my head as to what may be happening in town (and obviously, the staff where I was staying didn’t think to warn me either!).   So, off I went, on the 14th April,  towards the old town for some site-seeing and spending….

For those who haven’t been to Chiang Mai, the old town is bordered by a moat, and, in some places, remnants of a brick wall.  And as we made our way down one of the streets that borders the outside of the old city, we were right in the thick of ‘Songkran’.  Traffic was at a standstill, and on the river side of the street, party-goers were using buckets, tied to string, to scoop water straight out of the river and no-one was safe!  In parts, there was flooding starting to happen as drains struggled with run-off.  I, bravely, opened the window to get some photos in-between ‘rounds’ of water.  It was game on, for young and old, with locals and tourists alike, all in for the fun.  Eventually, our taxi driver gave up on trying to enter the old city, we were dropped off just outside, to make our own way in.  Well… we didnt quite do that, we decided on checking out a market – because it was open!, instead.  Waiting to cross the road at a busy intersection is where I received my biggest splash of ‘good luck’ – and I opened my arms up to receive!  It is a welcome break from the heat, and its all done in such a fun and good natured way.

While many of the smaller, local shops are closed during the week, the night markets still run each night, food stalls operate, taxis are easy to get (and they don’t charge more for new year like some places) and day trips and tours are all still happening.

I reached the conclusion, that if I came back again for New Year, the way to celebrate would be to hire a scooter and ride through the masses and just get really wet!  Or, take a tuk-tuk and your own stash of water so you can throw it back.  The drivers of the tuk-tuks we saw were well set up for it, covered from head to toe in plastic protection.

The 13th of April is the day to see the street parade of Buddha statues and floats, making their way down the main street in the old city – passing through the main gate and coming to a stop about another km down from the gate.  That night, there is a beauty pageant at the old gate – traditionally to celebrate beauty, but taken that step further with girls lining up to show themselves off.  While I didnt see this, Im told that the winner is picked by how many ‘admirers’ she has.  You can buy a necklace to show your support for the girl you want to win – whoever has the most ‘necklaces’ worn in her support, is the winner.

The last weekend of that New Year week is watery – seems the weekend players come out for the last go at wetting others.

But, its been and gone for another year, and Im still in Chiang Mai, but out of the city area now, and in the hills.

Sa wat dee pee mai’ – Happy New Year!! from Thailand!!

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