When I asked my Thai friend about Songkran, she looked me up and down, laughed, and said, “You’re a walking target.”
She used her spoon to dig out a chunk of mango from our shared bingsu. “We throw water at foreigners,” she said. “You’re going to get soaked.”
I’d heard about Songkran when I first arrived in Bangkok, but not much detail. A few people called it “the water festival.” I imagined people boating or placing flowers in the Chao Praya River that cuts through the city. It wasn’t until my friend and I shared the bingsu at the night market that I realized water would actively be involved. Of course it would be. Just like the shrimp or whiskey festivals in coastal Georgia—you don’t just stare at the shrimp or whiskey. You consume it. Or, in Thailand’s case, you throw it.
Songkran is Thailand’s most famous festival. Also known as Thai New Year (Happy 2561 everyone!), the name Songkran comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “passing” or “approaching.” Lots of Thais head home to spend the holiday with their families. Everyone wears colorful, Hawaiian shirts. The water is a sign of respect and well-wishing. It represents washing away someone’s bad luck so that they have a happy new year. Elders, monks, and Buddha statues get the water poured gracefully over their hands and heads. Everyone else gets the water chucked at them, basically drowning them in good luck. (And let’s be honest, after my past few years, someone can just dunk me in a pool of luck.)
As Songkran’s three-day celebration neared, friends and coworkers kept doling out advice: Stockpile food and alcohol; Don’t leave your apartment unless you have to; Accept that you’ll be soaked for three days; People will rub a floral-scented powder on you without asking for permission; You’ll get groped; Don’t punch anyone who grabs you; Leave your cell phone at home. I wasn’t sure whether to be excited, annoyed, or nervous. Having water thrown at me seemed funny, and a splash of ice-cold water would be a welcomed relief from Bangkok’s heat. Having people smack me with powder…that did not seem like a good time. My natural instinct would be to hit anyone who grabbed me out of the blue. Also, I wear glasses. If they break, I’m screwed.
Since no one could give me specific details on what to do or expect during Songkran, below is a step-by-step guide based on my personal experience.
Step 1. Be Waterproof
On the first day of Songkran, I wore a swimsuit under workout clothes. I knew I was going to get wet, but I still questioned just how much. Were friends exaggerating when they said people would pour buckets of water on me? I popped my phone, money, and train pass into the waterproof pouch I normally reserve for kayaking, slung a water gun over my shoulder, and headed out the door.
I made it about two blocks from my apartment before getting wet. A woman and six kids leaned over the railing of the sidewalk and threw water at passing cars. When the woman noticed me she motioned to the kids. All seven scrambled to refill their cups and buckets. I had to pass with only a few inches between us so they mostly tipped the water against me. Thank god the kids were toddlers and could only reach my waist. The lady dumped her cup on my head.
For the full three days of Songkran I was doused with water fairly consistently. One morning I was splashed on the leg while leaving the train station. Another afternoon I was walking alongside a road and felt a spritz hit my face. I turned and saw a guy smiling and holding a water gun like he was Bruce Willis in Die Hard. At a club, two men chucked buckets of water at my friend and me. Then the club itself kicked it up a notch and turned on the sprinkler system.
Step 2. Join the Festivities
If I live in Bangkok for years, maybe I’ll become as annoyed with Songkran as my coworkers. Since I’m still a newbie, I went with friends to Silom, one of Bangkok’s two big Songkran celebration areas. Silom, Bangkok’s unofficial downtown, was cordoned off from traffic so that revelers could have the largest street water gun fight you’ve ever seen. People ambled up and down the street for about two kilometers, shooting each other with water. Then they’d turn around and do it again. It was like the world’s slowest, wettest parade.
A video from the Silom celebration.
Step 3. Drink
I’m sure I’m going to get some flack for listing this as a “how to” step, but when you’re being pelted with water nonstop, you need something to take the edge off. Some of the water guns felt like water cannon. At times you’re being sprayed from multiple directions, and there’s always that idiot who shoots you right in the face (or in the ear—why?). Do you really want to be stone-cold sober for that?
Take a shot or two before joining the festivities or pop down one of the Sois and have a drink at a bar. Or you can take the classy route like my friends and I did: buy beers at the 7/11 and shotgun them outside the automatic doors. Then fill up your gun with water and jump into the fray.
Which leads me to the next step…
Step 4. Have a Working Gun
At first I didn’t want to buy a water gun for Songkran. I don’t love calling attention to myself, and spraying unsuspecting strangers with water just felt uncomfortable. I bought a gun only when I realized I needed it not to spray people, but for my own self defense (how American of me, right?).
I bought a Mickey Mouse gun specifically because it reminded me of my dad and I like to include his memory in every holiday (even if it’s a holiday he’s never taken part in). Unfortunately, my gun sucked. Water spurted from the gun like a hose slowly being turned off. The water also wouldn’t stop. I tried tilting the gun to the sky or plugging the hole with my finger, but nothing worked. A pathetic stream flowed out of the gun until the water reserve ran dry. I spent most of the time at the Silom Songkran festival using my friends as human shields.
Step 5. Stay With Your Buddy
This is specific to the large water gun fights. The water fights are crowded and just plain bedlam. Your cell phone is tucked away in a waterproof pouch, which makes it hard to use. If you get separated from your friends during the water fight you might as well make new friends because you won’t find your people again.
Step 6. Always Be Prepared
After one day of Songkran in Bangkok, my friend and I traveled to Koh Samet for the long weekend. We took a bus to Ban Phe, a ferry to the island, and a songtaew to our hotel. A songtaew is a taxi-like pick-up truck with a raised roof and benches in the flatbed. As the truck motored down the narrow streets, locals threw water at us. The whole ride was like a water based war zone. Kids shot at us from the side of the road. Whenever the truck stopped, they ran and threw buckets of water. At one point half a bucket was poured straight over my shoulders.
Step 7. Enjoy
This step is really just a combination of Steps 1-6.
Songkran is a fun holiday. Everyone is happy because they’re off work and it’s the turn of the New Year: a time to make a new start. Unlike in the U.S., where the New Year happens during the coldest months, Songkran can be spent outside in a bathing suit and shorts. Some of the water guns are aggressive, but, on the whole, having ice-cold water thrown at you in ninety-degree heat feels really good. Playing with water guns makes you feel like a kid again, and at least the powder stuff you get hit with smells nice. Even in a city as large as Bangkok, you feel like you’re on a beach holiday.
The U.S. could really benefit from a holiday like Songkran. Obviously we have things like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, where everyone celebrates in roughly the same way, but it’s fun to have one specific thing that everyone takes part in (Songkran: the water, Holi: the colors, Batalla da Vino: the red wine).
My Number One Tip:
Everyone should come to Thailand and experience Songkran! Even if it’s just for a day. Then you can escape to a beach, where you’ll still get wet, but who cares—it’s only water.