Phil Roeland

Water wars

The infamous Songkhran festival

It’s the beginning of May and everything is getting back to normal in Thailand. Songkran is behind us and schools will open their doors again soon. This month’s article is about the famous – or should I say infamous – Songkran festival. Is it the best time of year to visit the Kingdom or should it be avoided at all costs?

The Songkran festival, which could also be called Water festival, is the Thai celebration of the Buddhist New Year and officially lasts for three days. Although it seems to be immensely popular with Thais, many foreigners, especially expats, thoroughly dislike it. Why is that? Well, unlike a lot of other (Western) countries where the main party attributes are crackers, party hats, confetti or fireworks, Thais use something else in their celebrations: water.

Songkran is all about throwing water onto one another. When you go out during the festival, expect to get wet. It doesn’t matter where you are going or what you are wearing, if you meet a bunch of Songkran revellers, you are bound to get doused. Although the old Songkran tradition meant gently pouring water onto other people’s hands to show respect (or something along those lines), the modern version is nowhere near that description. Today’s Songkran is synonym with water wars.

If some of you start wondering what the big deal is about getting wet, read on. It isn’t just about getting wet once. During the Songkran celebrations, people usually start throwing water a day or so before the official start of the festival and finish a day late. The water activities often start early morning and can go on until late at night. Whenever you go out, there is a good chance of someone throwing a bucket of water down your neck or using you for target practice with a big water pistol.

This might seem fun and it often is the first day of the festival, but when you get wet for the umpteenth time on the second or third day, the fun factor tends to drop dramatically. By the way, water isn’t the only ingredient anymore. Nowadays many people use a flour and water paste to rub onto each other. Instead of using cups of water, we’re now down to buckets, giant water guns, dirty water and even ice water. Although very dangerous and totally irresponsible, throwing a full bucket of water onto to oncoming motorbike drivers has become a normal and common occurrence. Water pistols will probably be replaced by water cannons before long.

Although most Thais claim to love the festival, I have the distinct feeling that there is a part of the population that really loves it and just as big a part that just undergoes it. Big crowds are usually seen on TV throwing massive amounts of water. Targeting foreigners seems to be some Thais’ favourite pastime during this period of water hysteria. Needless to say that the festivities are often fuelled by large amounts of alcohol.

Now I don’t mind a splash of water, but running around in wet clothes for the better part of a week is just too much. Moreover, it seems that some Thais are having extra fun at the foreigners’ expense. Should the latter dare to protest they get the ‘it’s part of our culture and you have to accept it’ lecture. I have the impression that they’re just shoving a part of their culture down other people’s throat. This is probably why a number of people barricade themselves in their apartments with plenty of provisions or spend a week abroad.

Although I’m not a great fan of the festival, I usually stay in Thailand. My favourite place to celebrate Songkran is Hua Hin, and this for two reasons. It only lasts for a day there and it’s near the beach. Is it a good idea for people to visit Thailand during this period? I don’t think so, unless you spend your holiday on an island or near a beach and don’t mind getting wet for the better part of a week. If you think you’d go crazy after a few days of this water madness, avoid Thailand at all costs.


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