Thai Songkran: Prepare for a Soaking!
Nowadays the Thai Songkran Festival is perceived by lots of people as nothing more than a massive water fight. It’s a shame really because it is also a sacred celebration in Thai Buddhism and the most important holiday of the year.
Songkran is always celebrated 13-15 April and represents the traditional Thai New Year. This holiday used to determine the start of another year on Thailand’s traditional Buddhist calendar. However, since 1940, Thailand follows the rest of the world where New Year starts on 1 January.
Since ancient times Songkran is celebrated in April because the time of year for the Aries the Ram is the closest sign of the zodiac to the vernal equinox. Other April festivals around the world based on astrological events include Indian Holi, China’s Ancestors’ Day and the Christian festival of Easter.
The water throwing part owes to the importance of water in their long history of rice cultivation and as a symbolic ritual of their Buddhist faith. Water is used to perform ritual cleansing of the Buddha images. Sprinkled on family members, the water confers blessings as a sign of respect and to bring good fortune. Along with the blessing, it is customary for elders to rub clay paste on the cheeks of younger family members, similar to a monk’s blessing. Songkran is also a traditional time to do spring-cleaning around the home and make New Year resolutions.
The influx of tourists to Thailand started in the early 1980s. Travelers arriving during Songkran were usually pleasantly surprised. Joining the fun meant purchasing a small water pistol and accepting the idea of shooting water and getting soaked in return. Over the years, the market responded with more powerful water guns and the water fights became more outrageous. The clay paste tradition remains, although nowadays there is a good chance your travelers will get a handful pushed in their face or hair. Luckily, there is always someone nearby with a hose or bucket to remove the offending paste in seconds.
Less charming onslaughts are getting hit by an ice cold water balloon or drive by shots from pick up trucks holding a drum of ice water. It is quite a shock to the system to get hit with ice water and can actually be unsafe if partiers target fast moving motorbikes.
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Despite the excesses, Songkran on the whole is a fantastic holiday celebration in which almost everyone participates, even police officers. Of course having this holiday during the hottest season of the year is another good reason to enjoy getting soaked. For a more traditional Songkran celebration, your travelers should go to the local temple. Monks and nuns are immune to the raucous water throwing.
A final word of warning: if you carry valuables, take care to keep them covered in plastic. Your travelers as foreigners are top targets even if they raise their hands and plead no contest. This strategy is doomed to fail; in fact it only encourages more vigorous soakings.
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