The Thai New Year falls amid the hottest months of the year. In Chiang Mai the air is thick with exhaust and smoke from field burnings, the pollution so bad that I can make out the outline of Doi Suthep only. During these hottest weeks, when temperatures routinely rise to 100 plus, all anyone can talk about is Songkran – the Thai New Year. The holiday lasts three days from April 13-15, but spills over into the days preceding.
Songkran originated in the temple, as most Thai holidays did, this particular one involving a ritual cleansing for the new year by pouring scented water atop Buddhas and each other. Today this has evolved into a countrywide water fight, with Chiang Mai at its epicenter.
Similar to Loi Kratong it is near impossible to fully understand or appreciate Songkran without experiencing it, with this in mind I will attempt to paint a sketch only. There is no possible way to stay dry during Songkran (unless of course you hibernate indoors for three days and refuse to leave the confines of your house – a practice that some Thais do follow.) Indeed I have never felt wetter in my life then I have during the holiday and that includes any time I have ever gone swimming. The feeling comes from having bucket after bucket after bucket thrown over your head in rapid succession while simultaneously being shot at by about five water guns from odd angles. Sawadee Bee Mai! (Happy New Year) people intone as they pour icy water over your head.
Songkran is the closest I have ever got and hope to ever get to warfare. I started off the holiday by driving into the old city on the back of a friend’s motorbike, watergun cocked and ready taking out targets as we dodged buckets, hoses, and streaming jets.
For some unknown reason many people feel the need to buy large blocks of ice to chill their ammunition. Traveling in a pack we devised a scoring system for those who shot us with bone-chilling water, covering each other by aiming at sensitive areas – 50 points for the mouth, 60 for the teeth, 75 for the ear and 100 for the eyes. Others stick to the moat as their source, which is pleasantly warm in comparison though has the minor downsides of probably being filled with diseases. At one point along the north-east side of the moat there is a stretch where you are never not being doused with a bucket. To prepare myself for the days I stuffed essentials in a waterproof pouch, filled my water guns, threw on a bathing suit, jean shorts and donned a yellow shirt that said in Thai “Chawp Len Nam” (I like to play in the water).
Perhaps what was most startling about the three-day holiday was that it was not startling. True there is nothing else like it that I have ever experienced and probably will ever experience, true I was wetter then I will ever be again, true I danced to Lady Gaga in the streets of Chiang Mai with strangers, doused monks with water and got thrown into a water cooler by friends from the climbing wall, but despite all this the entire experience did not feel not normal. Rather it felt decidedly normal. I had this thought specifically on the third day hemmed in by thousands of soaking Thai people completely clogging Huak Kaew road, dancing and screaming to Thai bands while being sprayed with nozzles of water from above. Oh Chiang Mai how I love you. What a way to welcome in the new year! Sawadee Bee Mai!