Getting wet - Songkran 2008

Songkran is a 4 day water party

Fancy joining the world’s biggest water fight? Your timing’s perfect, visitors to Thailand during April will have a chance to get involved with the famous Songkran Festival. All across Thailand for four straight days you’re going to get wet, but you’ll have a lot of fun.

Celebrated annually with great gusto and, oh yes, a lot of water, Songkran is the highlight of the Thai festival calendar. It’s an event all children and those young at heart look forward to as the country takes a break from the hot season. Everything grinds to a halt as city centres and villages across the Kingdom relieve themselves with a refreshing splash.

Areas like Bangkok’s Khao San Road, Chiang Mai’s moat, Pattaya’s Walking street and Patong central in Phuket descend into a chaos of ‘friendly fire’ - from water pistols that is - as crowds gravitate towards the fun. Others resolutely avoid them, and if you lack a sense of humour and fun, or would rather not ruin your hairdo, you’re better off retreating to a spa or your hotel room for the duration.

What the rest can expect is an exhausting but riotous few days of mayhem where everyone and everything is a target for a drenching. And with temperatures soaring into the 40s (Celsius) you won’t mind having a bucket of ice cold water dumped on you. Some streets are closed to traffic and are crowded with locals and foreigners alike whose only aim is to get everyone else wet. They use buckets, hoses, small pails, water pistols, cannons and all sorts of paraphernalia on sale. Most restaurants and businesses located in the thick of it provide large drums of water supplies, often laced with blocks of ice, and there are specially installed taps on hand to fill up your weapon of choice.

But there is far more to Songkran than just drenching others. Its roots in tradition mean there are a host of activities for all, including parades, pageants, sand castle building competitions, religious ceremonies and the all important lustrating of the Buddha. This is pious part of the festival when an important Buddha statue is paraded through each town for lay Buddhists to pour ‘religious water’ on. Wrap your camera up well in plastic covering and you will capture some wonderful moments of the Thai concept of fun, known as ‘Sanook’.

Lots of fun activities and sights

Songkran is in fact a time for Thais to visit their home villages, spend time with the family, enjoy hearty meals and help spring clean the house. Many will make house calls to visitors and present hampers to the elderly of the village. What started out as a beckoning of the rainy season with a gentle tipping of some water onto the shoulders of others has turned into a typically Thai celebration of fun. And even among all the chaotic splashing you’ll still experience old ladies coming up to you and softly tipping water from a pewter cup onto your shoulder.

And it’s not all a wet affair, it is possible to observe from the sidelines or to find quieter temple grounds where kids activities are taking place. However, if you want to go anywhere be prepared for a spoiling as someone defies your polite requests and drenches you anyway. Keep spare clothes in a waterproof bag, and put your phone and money in a ziplock. There are no rules during Songkran.

That brings us to another point. Take care. With so many people enjoying themselves they tend to get carried away. Thais seldom let responsibility get in the way of fun, and there can be drunken and disorderly people about. Accidents are higher than usual, especially when kids line busy roads throwing buckets full of water at passing motorbikes. Use a car and you might find yourself stuck in congestion. Others fail to notice you might have a camera in your hand and cover you in water.

We suggest getting out for the first or second of the official days (12 and 13 April) when enthusiasm is at its best, by day three many have had enough and deserted the party, but there’s still plenty of water throwing about so plan your itinerary carefully. Travelling between the 11th and 20th of April is going to be congested, so book your flights, buses or trains now. There is also likely to be higher incidents of road accidents on each weekend buffering this festival, so drive with caution or preferably not at all. All businesses, except tourist related, will be closed. Fortunately, the splashing ends at dusk and you can move about freely.

Where to join the fun:

Chiang Mai: is considered the best place in Thailand to experience Songkran since its moat around the old city provides the ideal venue, with plenty of water. This historic town is popular with Thais and it fills up, so arrive early. Thapae Gate is the busiest but all around the moat you’ll find a great atmosphere. All roads leading there are usually congested. There is also a huge party held outside the Kad Suan Kaew Mall nearby the Northwest corner of the moat.

Bangkok: actually empties out during Songkran as many go back to their family homes, which makes it more pleasant and less congested. The pedestrianised Khao San Road near the Grand Palace is the place to be, it’s complete mayhem but the atmosphere is great. Alternatively head to Siam Square or parts of Sukhumwit road such Soi Nana. Silom road is also lively.

Arm yourself for ‘friendly fire’

Phuket: the Thais all celebrate in their adminstrative centre, Phuket Town, and the town’s central streets are full of local revellers. But tourists won’t escape the fun if they remain in Patong or Karon. Patong is perhaps the best place to be, centred on Bang La road. At resorts in the quieter areas like Bang Tao, Surin or Kata Noi you might miss it entirely, but each hotel puts up a small ‘fight’ for the tourists.

Pattaya: all along beach road lining Pattaya bay, and the popular Walking Street at the southern end you’ll find the action. The particular atmopshere here includes all the bar girls as the open fronted beer bars down all the lanes are ideal for retreating for a beer and break in-between splashing those passing by. Look out for the ladyboys who just love an opportunity to show off their busty bodies!

Samui: Chaweng and Lamai beach centres, along their main roads, are where you can join the fun. The other beaches have no real nucleus so you’re better off catching a taxi to the heart of the action on the West coast. You can always escape to the beach if you’ve had enough.

Krabi: there are two choices here, Ao Nang beachfront road and Krabi Town. The former is for the tourists and likely to be full of fun if you couldn’t be bothered commuting 20 minutes to the provincial capital where all the Thais are enjoying themselves. But sometimes it’s better to join the locals in their city centre, afterall they really do know how to have fun.

Locals advise:

1. Rent a tuk tuk for the day (they take their canopy off), pick up a drum of water, squeeze in a prowl around the action - it will be slow going however and you’ll be a prime target for pedestrians with water guns.
2. Go solo by abandoning all plans, and carrying nothing but some money. Pick up a water gun at one of the road side vendors and drift from one location to the next. When you’ve hadd enough exit the action on foot to a point where you can safely catch a taxi home.
3. Wrap your valuables: such as cameras, mobiles and money in a plastic bag and keep it safe.
4. Mind your drink: it’s easy to get carried away, but lots of others will be drunk too, including those driving vehicles which share the roads with all the water fighters.
5. Have a sense of humour: all sense of protocol disappears and you can expect to be a target everywhere, wet or dry, ice water or tap water.
6. Choose you weapon wisely: there are vendors on the spot, the biggest ‘cannons’ are often impractical to carry, if you are going to be mobile choose one with a large reservoir. The pump action ‘stick’s are supposed to be banned, but will be on sale anyway. By the end of the day you might have lost your gun, they only cost $5-10.

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