The end of my time in Thailand was rapidly approaching. It had only been three weeks since I first departed from Sydney, yet already I had experienced so much, seen some incredible things, and met some amazing new people. Yet there was one final event I was to attend in my final weekend in Bangkok – the Theravada Buddhist New Year festival celebrations, better known by its traditional name, Songkran.
Songkran is celebrated throughout South East Asia in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. It’s traditional origins as a water festival come from a practice where the younger generation pours water on the hands and feet of the older generations, symbolic of a recognition of the knowledge and wisdom of their elders, and as a sign of respect. While I’m sure these traditional values are still upheld, the modern translation of Songkran is a huge water fight, where major roads in the city are closed off and people flood into the streets with hoses, buckets, water pistols and super soakers, and anybody on the streets becomes fair game for a hearty drenching. All throughout my time in Bangkok, people would repeatedly ask me, “Wait, when are you leaving? Are you gonna be here for Songkran?” Truth be told, the timing was a complete coincidence, but my flight out of Thailand was to be on the Monday after this wet and wild long weekend. As the weeks passed by I saw many of the corner shops stocking up and selling small waterproof pouches for money and valuables, and water guns of virtually every shape and size, and I began to think I was underestimating the significance of this festival.
“The whole city basically turns into a mosh pit”, Brendon had told me. “The Saturday afternoon of Songkran, this road will just be completely full of people. You’ll barely be able to move.” We were in a taxi going down Silom Road, and I peered out the window. The traffic was a blurry rush of taxis and tuk-tuks, cars and buses, the blaring of horns all around us. This was a major road in this area of Bangkok, and it was then that it really hit me that Songkran meant business.
As fate would have it, Silom Road was to be the destination of my very first Songkran. Nervous, excited, and not knowing what to expect, I set out with Rathana and his friends and caught the BTS to Sala Daeng. When we exited the platform and descended the steps down to Silom, I realised that Brendon’s description had not been an exaggeration in the slightest.
The road was packed. In place of the regular traffic was a steady flow of humans, almost like herds of cattle, being pushed along the street by the momentum of the crowd. Every man, woman and child was armed with a water pistol of some description. As we merged into the congregation, I could already feel the splashes of water coming from basically every direction. It was basically a free for all – I shot a random passerby with my super soaker, and he immediately whirled around and returned fire. But it was the normal thing to do – people were expecting to get wet, so no one seemed to get upset or annoyed. I’d been a little terrified at the though of entering such a massive crowd in a relatively unfamiliar city, but the whole vibe of the festival was one of complete, unabashed fun, indulging in the simple pleasures of a mass water fight in the streets. Even when I was copping a water pistol to the face, nothing could wipe the enormous, goofy grin off my face.
Except for maybe the flour. The were lots of people running around with buckets of (what I hope was) flour mixed with water, painting the faces of passers by with their hands. While I’m not afraid of getting a little dirty, some of the attackers weren’t as gentle with their application of the white paste, and a couple of times I got a stinging eyeful of floury finger. After that, I viciously defended my face, giving anyone who approached me with a bucket of flour a heaving dousing to the face from my super soaker.
The streets were wild. At various points there were what appeared to be fire trucks, or at least huge tanks of water with huge hoses attached. They rained down on the streets, and everyone cheered and screamed as we all got absolutely drenched. On the sides of the streets, people were selling more water guns, bottles of water for refills, beer and food, but their were joining in with the drenching just as much as the rest of the soggy mass of people.
We moved up and down through the packed street a couple of times before taking a turn down Silom Soi 4 – because obviously the gays really know how to throw a party. As we walked down the narrow street, people in the bars on either side assaulted us with an onslaught on water. We ran through, screaming and laughing, attempting to squirt them back. We ran into more of Rathana’s friends, and soon we were part of the mobs of people squirting water at the passers by, and engaging in water warfare with the groups on the other side of the street. While the only water refills available out on Silom Road came from bottles that we had to buy, the bars at Soi 4 had big buckets for us to refill our water guns, so the water fights continued long into the afternoon.
At one point there was a lull in the madness, and a parade emerged from the throng of people. Boys, and a few girls, in matching outfits and shiny black thigh-high high heeled boots marched down the strip, and they were showered with lots of cheering and even more water.
But after the procession passed, it was back to the water fight. As the sun begin to go down, some of us decided to leave Silom, go get dry and celebrate with dinner somewhere else. We ran back through the torrential rains that were the water guns of Soi 4 and back out onto the main road. If I’d thought that the streets were packed when I first arrived in the early afternoon, I really got the shock of my life on our return trip back to the BTS station. Earlier, we’d been able to move with relative ease in the mass of people, as long as we followed the flow of the crowd. However, now the flow of people had practically come to a standstill. Moving in either direction was difficult, and numerous times we found ourselves trapped, surrounded by either people who were going the wrong way, or walls, carts, and other stationary obstacles. There was a mild hysteria brewing in some of the crowd, as we were forced to move in the wrong directions, or simply stand still in a crush of people while waiting for the chance to move at all.
Deaths at these kind of festivals aren’t unheard of – tourists that got trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time, and other travelling horror stories. Luckily we all made it out alive, only slightly traumatised, and I commented to my companions that despite being an absolute logistical nightmare, the vibe and mood within the crowd of people never strayed from that of lighthearted fun and enjoyment. Had a similar thing happened at an Australian event, I have no doubt there would have been aggressive vibes, pushing and shoving, and inevitably break outs of violence and fights. So despite being packed into such a throng of people, and there not being any security guards or crowd control to speak of, I never at any point really felt unsafe.
Songkran traditionally lasts the whole weekend, but I needed to spend the Sunday getting my things together and finalising plans for my next destination. But I was also exhausted from the celebrating that I did do – the water festival was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’s always pretty amazing to see how another culture reinterprets historical events in their own fun modern ways. I had so much fun in my first Songkran, and somehow I have a feeling it’s not going to be my last.