Songkran is Thailand’s most famous festival. It celebrates the traditional Thai new year (the 13th of April) and is marked by a nationwide water fight. It started with the symbolic sprinkling of holy water – for good luck, as well as to wash away your ‘sins’ – but in the same way western Christmas is now super commercialised, Songkran is basically a three-day splash fest.
Prior to booking my flight, I’d never heard of it and had no clue that I’d be in Chiang Mai (apparently the best place in the country to celebrate) so this has all been a very happy accident. I’ve never experienced anything quite so crazy and almost don’t know how to write about it in a way that truly captures just how awesome it’s been.
A few days before the festival, peeps around me told me to ‘prep’. I was told to buy a plastic pouch for my cell phone, snap up a water gun and brace for chronic wetness or hide away in my hotel room for three days straight. ‘Things are going to get wild’, they said, and I smiled and nodded. Ja, ja. Drama queens. Still, I bought an el cheapo plastic pouch for my phone when I spotted them at 7-Eleven.
My first taste of potential wetness arrived on Thursday morning when I saw Songkran creeping in early. Two Thai kids and some backpackers were on the doorstep of my guest house using water guns and a hose to blitz anyone passing by. Cute! Fun! But whatevs. I kind of felt duped into buying that stupid pouch. If I kept my phone in my handbag, it would be fine, right?
I spent the rest of the morning in my room, murdering deadlines on my laptop, then decided to step out for lunch. Within a second of setting foot into the street, the kids from earlier had thrown a bucket of ice water at my crotch. Oh my God! The little shits! Well, at least I’ve got my Songkran on, I thought. I was dry but now I’m a bit wet. Annoying, but no biggie. Now let’s go get that curry…
It was then, seconds later, that I became the victim of a drive by as a tuk tuk whizzed past and its passengers zapped me in the face with their (super powerful) water guns. My freshly applied sunscreen immediately poured into my eyes and boy, did it sting like a bitch.
What! The Fuck!
I stood there, blinded and bewildered, and immediately resolved to buy a gun. A big one. Songkran was serious.
The next morning, I woke up to what felt like the apocalypse. Music was blaring, throngs of people were screaming in the street and everyone had some kind of water weapon, be it a bucket, hose or gun. It was like the world had gone mad but at least this time I was prepared. My phone was in its pouch. My ‘handbag’ was a plastic packet (my leather bag, along with the rest of me, had been drenched the day before by a group of crazed Americans), I’d marinated in water-proof sunscreen and I had a gun.
I spent the rest of the day running wild through the streets, getting soaked to the bone and gleefully causing a nice amount of damage of myself. The communal energy was electric and would continue to build to a frenzy. So much so that, by mid-afternoon, I felt like I was high on drugs and honestly can’t remember when I had so much fun.
I managed to put together a little video of what I captured earlier in the day on my cell, protected in its little pouch. You’ll see that things were pretty wild but believe me when I tell you that this is nothing – NOTHING! – compared to the descent into utter madness that occurred after lunch which is round about when my battery died. In a way, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to film it but also glad because I could be fully present and there isn’t a piccie in the world that could truly convey the experience. It! Was! Mental!
Things I learned this weekend include the following:
1. Thai dad’s love their ice buckets. If you’re going to be iced from behind it’s going to be by a Thai dad in board shorts while his devil children cheer him on. Thai moms are face pasters. They’ll rub this white chalky stuff on your cheeks as you pass them in the street (another Songkran thing, apparently) but the look is short lived as it’ll be blasted off you by a water gun two seconds later. As for Thai children, they’re pure evil. The devil himself has nothing on a 12-year-old garden hose-wielding Hello Kitty-clad Thai.
2. When it comes to foreigners, the most aggressive in terms of ‘attack’ are the younger Aussies, Russians and Americans. (American moms and dads, however, generally scream a ‘sorry, honey!!!!’ as they run away.) Young sletterig English girls tend to roam around in the least amount of clothing (not cool in conservative Chiang Mai) and later turn a lekker shade of lobster before getting carried away in stretchers. Old people, from anywhere, are not to be underestimated. Ever. The amount of times I thought it was safe to walk past someone who looked like a mummified version of Riaan fucking Kruywagen and got blitzed with an icy spritz from a squeezy water bottle (their weapon of choice) are too many to count.
3. Things get a bit too mental around the moat, particularly after lunch. (Chiang Mai’s Old Town is surrounded by a giant moat and the crumbling remains of what was once an ancient wall.) Initially, it’s one hell of an experience but the novelty wears off fast. You will be pelted so thoroughly – and so continually – while trying to escape (slowly too, due to the crowd) that it’ll soon just become a complete blur. It was kind of like being caught in the mosh pit of Slipknot concert with the rain machine from White Squall.
4. The real fun is in the ‘quieter’ streets. I use quotes here because nowhere is truly quiet but here you’ll be with fifty people as opposed to fifty thousand and so you can actually enjoy the interaction. And by that, I mean appreciate any bloodcurdling screams you’ll induce when getting someone ‘fresh’, enjoy revenge on anyone you zapped you first or, better yet, call their bluff. The latter involves pointing your gun at someone, ready to strike, while they do the same to you. You move passed each other slowly, narrow your eyes and telepathically agree to let the other pass unscathed. It’s a truce. But then, if you’re a complete poes AKA me, you’ll whip around, squirt them to hell and gone then run for your life.
5. Joining a gang is rad! At one point I was standing in an alley trying to retrieve my flip flop which had slipped off and was about to float into a gutter. I got surrounded by a team of pistol-wielders intent on giving me a mass soaking but not before I heard one of the girls speak Afrikaans. (‘Vat dit!’) I immediately threw up my hands screaming ‘I’m South African! I’M SOUTH AFRICAN!’ They dropped their guns, one of the boys grabbed my flip-flop and another pulled me onto the curb, just as motorbike flew by, leaving a shower of ice cubes in its wake. We then spent the next hour or so roaming the side streets like a pack of wild animals. Our squad’s name? Day Zero. (South African’s will get this.) Our MO was identifying those who’d somehow managed to get dry or had just stepped out of their guest house, surround them like a rabid wolf pack then drench them right down to their onderbroek.
I’d eventually get separated from my band of brothers (and two sisters) when we hit a super crowded main street but if any of them ever finds this please know you were a big part of one of the coolest, weirdest, funnest, craziest and WETTEST days of my life.
If you ever find yourself in Thailand over Songkran, make a point of getting to Chiang Mai. Young or old, it’s an experience you want on your bucket list. (And that bucket will most definitely contain ice!)