Those who are presently studying a TEFL course in Thailand have timed it well. Not only will they graduate in time for the annual school intake of teachers but they will also be here for Songkran. If you’re planning on taking the May course, come two weeks early and join the fun.
Thailand’s ‘new year’ water festival – erm, make that ‘water fight’ – is one of truly memorable world celebrations, and similar versions are held in many neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. But Thais do it best, what with their ‘sanook’ (fun) attitude towards anything they do.
The tradition passing of the year in Thailand is held at the end of the hot dry season in mid April. It’s a time for families to get together, pay respects to their elders, take the time to spring-clean their homes, and lustrate the Buddha. This is where the water comes into it, where traditionally you would tip a small amount of water on people’s shoulder – symbolically auspicious for the coming year.
Of course, when temperatures reach 100 and there’s been no cooling rain for far too long, the temptation to drench people in a whole bucket of water has overcome the ancient Hindu rites on which this festival is based.
Nowadays Chiang Mai’s old town becomes one big riotous water fight that goes on for days – a week even – making it the most memorable city in Thailand to celebrate Songkran. This 700-year old town is idea for the shindig, surrounded as it is by a moat. Traffic comes to a standstill on the concentric roads either side of the moat as people line the streets and take aim.
It’s impossible to avoid a drenching; there’s always some mischievous kid lurking with a bucket of ice cold water, and some of the water guns on sale these days would make the National Rifle Association feel proud! The saber-like plungers have even been banned, since they have the ability to knock someone off their bike.
You’ll either love Songkran or hate it, but anyone game for a bit of child-like fun should plan at least one day among the mayhem. You can opt for the full-on battle opposition McDonalds on Thapae Gate, or join the ‘wet party’ of thumping music later in the afternoon outside Kad Suan Kaew shopping mall down the road from Unitefl’s offices.
Then there is the flea market on the plaza at Thapae Gate, and the cultural parade on the final day (along Thapae Road), a beauty pageant, sand pagoda building for the kids, or the
chance to sit in one of the roadside cafes out of reach of the water, simply watching it roll on tirelessly. The Unitefl course usually takes a couple of days break to allow you to get involved. Getting around anywhere is a nightmare, however, the traffic gets gridlocked and those on motorbikes are fair targets to anyone with some water to splash. Usually the activities cease after dusk.
Another good place to celebrate, if you can’t make it North, is the Khao San Road in Bangkok. It’s reckoned to be the capital’s best place to party, and the pedestrianised road makes it an ideal venue. The foreigners and Thais alike get stuck into this unique occasion. But every town in Thailand will have a locus of water fun, while kids in the villages and suburbs sit on the street-side preying upon passers-by.
The official dates are April 12-15, this year however the final parade is scheduled for the 16th. Some people get their water pistols out as early as the 10th. The earliest days are the most enjoyable, by the third day the atmosphere becomes jaded.
Safety is a major consideration, with motorbike accidents at their most frequent during this long weekend. Roadside water splashers are reckless, therefore ride slowly or prefer biking or walking. Although there is apparently a blanket no-alcohol enforcement, you can expect plenty of drunk, annoying people. The water can become dirty, especially if drawn from the moat, so open cuts and sores need to be covered. Needless to say, cameras and phones need to be waterproofed.
Travel during Songkran can be a headache. Thais travel home to be with their families so you can expect flights, trains and buses to be full. National highway traffic is congested and prone to increased accidents. If you hate getting wet, then plan to spend all day in-doors with a supply of food, books and movies. But that would be boring wouldn’t it. And in Thailand teachers who shun Songkran fun are, well, boring.