Songkran in Chiang Mai
I’ve had many friends over the years rave about how good Songkran is, so naturally I had to find out for myself. I have already attended one incredible festival in Chiang Mai, the Yi Peng Lantern Festival, which I didn’t think could be topped. I would have to say that Songkran has blown Yi Peng out the water (pun intended.) In fact Songkran might just be the best festival I have ever attended.
Songkran marks the start of the Thai Buddhist new year, and the throwing of water is a symbol of cleansing for the new year. It just so happens that the Thai new year starts in mid April, which is the hottest time of year in Thailand. Perfect weather for a water fight.
Songkran in Chiang Mai goes for four days. All day for four days. I often found myself stopping to take all the madness in, still in disbelief that such a festival can exist. Anywhere else it would make sense if the festival went for four hours and it be contained along one blocked off street. But no, this show is city wide – nationwide – and here in Chiang Mai it is on all day. There is an unspoken armistice at sunset, which is for the most part observed, apart from the occasional stray shooter.
Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and during Songkran the smilometer is turned up to eleven. My first day out during Songkran I walked from my apartment to the old city. There were already people in my street with water guns, and as soon as they saw me their faces lit up into a broad smile at the sight of a dry farang. The first guy who tried to spray me was hilarious. he went to shoot me but his gun malfunctioned. The look on his face was priceless and as I sprayed him we were both laughing uncontrollably. That set the scene for the next four days (did I tell you this goes on for four days!)
There is lots of laughing involved in Songkran. How can you not laugh when you are assaulted with such lovely smiles as these.
Songkran – Where tradition and modernity collide
Traditionally the water used in Songkran was from water that had been poured over Buddhas for cleansing. The collected water would then be poured on your shoulder with a small cup, like the ones used in this parade.
Somewhere along the way Songkran has morphed into a monster waterfight party that rages for four days, with a mashup of international influences. I detected a bit of a Halloween influence, with many young Thais wearing masks like this.
Another feature of modern Songkran is the iced water. All around the moat there are ice dealers, selling ice to the party trucks. Good thing it was 38c every day, which made the buckets of iced water down my back slightly more palatable.
Choose your weapons
As Chiang Mai has a ready supply of water from the moat, buckets are a popular item.
I wasn’t sold on the idea of getting a bucket, but if you are staying in one spot by the moat to douse passing cars it is a better option than a water gun.
We were wandering around so the water guns made a better choice. Plus it just looks cooler.
If I can give you one piece of advice it would be to shop around before buying a gun. I made an impulse purchase at the first “gun store” I found. Turns out the range of my gun was terrible compared to some of the others on sale.
In addition to being continually blessed with water, there is also the chance of getting your face painted with muddy chalk. Apparently it is also good luck. I got a faceful of good luck from my man pictured below.
Nowhere to hide
The wettest parts of the city was around the moat, so I went inside the old city down some side streets to meet up with my crew to avoid getting too wet. Even in the smallest streets there was no place to hide. You will always find someone ready to water you down.
One lunch time our group found a quiet courtyard with no one around. With some takeaway food it was the perfect place to dry out for a while. Dave and Lauren didn’t get the memo about the lunchtime truce.
If you douse someone, expect to be doused in return. I was just snapping photos randomly here as my viewfinder fogged up, and I caught this great sequence of Anthony about to squirt a little child…
…followed by her bucket full of sweet, sweet, revenge.
Songkran car party
Chiang Mai is supposedly the biggest Songkran city in Thailand, even bigger than Bangkok’s Songkran party. The city layout lends itself to being the perfect Songkran location, with its square moat and road that surrounds it.
Each side of the moat is a mile long and all of the roads around the moat are jammed with cars for the entire four days.
The slow moving cars made for easy targets, but most of them are armed with ice, so expect an icy bucket of water thrown your way if you pick a fight with a pickup truck.
This brave/adventurous couple had their wedding party drive down around the moat in an open Tuk-Tuk.
As the traffic is reduced to a crawl for the entire circuit, the road resembles a tailgate party.
Chiang Mai Moat
While it’s not the Ganges, the Chiang Mai moat is a murky body of water that I never thought I would go swimming in. So here I am now, post Songkran, wondering what came over me to think it would be a good idea to go swimming in the moat. I was overwhelmed Songkranitis, that is what happened. The euphoria of Songkran can make you do some crazy things.
I was by the moat with two friends refilling our water guns. Next thing you know, we are all in the moat playing with the local kids. We lent our guns to the kids to play with for half an hour while we sat in the green and murky water.
While I was casually wading in the moat water I met this man who was by far best in show for headwear with his Princess Leia inspired towel wrap.
If I ever come back to Songkran I must learn how to wrap a towel like this.
Everyone is in on it
I got tricked a few times into showing mercy upon little kids and the elderly. Big mistake! Trust no one at Songkran as I found myself getting wet from all age groups.
I was even surprised to find the police in on it. This police woman was AWESOME. She got such a soaking that she had to take off her riding boots to empty out the accumulated water (not the best Songkran footwear.) I made sure I got a shot in, if only to be able to say I shot a cop.
My poor camera
In addition to a DSLR, I also have an old pocket camera that was already on the way out. I decided that I didn’t wan’t worry about trying to keep my big camera dry, so I opted for the pocket camera.
My little camera got thoroughly soaked and the viewing screen died for a while. There was also the problem of getting water on the lens and not being able to find a dry square millimetre of cloth anywhere. as a result I was taking photos blind for much of the day and some of the photos literally have watermarks.
Songkran – Would I go again?
After four days of non stop watery fun, I was ready to dry out and get back to a normal routine. I figured I had experienced enough Songkran to last me a lifetime (I’ve certainly had enough moat water for this life time.) Funny thing is though that the day after Songkran I was walking around the almost deserted streets, wondering if it was all a dream. I also started thinking that it wouldn’t be half bad to do it all again. Part of that might have been that it was 40 degrees celsius when I thought that. Mostly though, it really was that good. We shall see.