Thailand hosts the world's biggest water-fight - the Songkran Festival
By Mike Hanlon
April 16, 2012
On April 13, 14 and 15 each year, Thailand celebrates its New Year with Songkran, a traditional festival that falls in the hottest time of the year and involves the throwing of water.
Unlike many of the most prominent supposedly religious traditions celebrated in western society, (Easter eggs evolved from a Pagan ritual to become the hallmark of a Christian celebration and Father Christmas is modeled on a character in an old Coca Cola commercial) Songkran has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years and has always involved the throwing of water.
It's a much-loved local tradition, and all of Thailand's 60 million inhabitants get involved, plus a few million "farangs" who fly in for the fun. If you've neglected nurturing your inner child, there's nothing quite like a water fight to bring junior to the fore.
Believe it or not, these images were captured in one of the less crazy parts of Songkran in Bangkok - they were taken from the safety of the Australia Bar in Soi 11 Sukhumvit and I didn't stray much outside the bar for fear of what would happen to my gear.
The Songkran Festival in the Khaosan Road area of Bangkok makes the goings-on captured here look tame, and the celebrations in Chiang Mai are also much crazier. Add up the whole country, and Songkran is unquestionably the world's largest water fight.
In ALL Thai cities, groups of Thais roam the streets, usually on scooters or on the back of a pick-up truck, with a vast array of water guns and buckets, while groups also congregate by the roadside with large ice-chests full of water.
Ice trucks patrol the streets so that ice can be added to the water chests, adding a lot of extra bite to the water that gets thrown over you. When they've run out of ice, a bucket of water down the back of your neck is easily endured because it's the hottest time of the year.
Ice cold water is an entirely different matter though, and you will remember getting doused with close-to-freezing water.
The action gets going around midday, though it's entirely possible to find yourself on the wrong end of a bucket of water at any time during the three days of the festival, regardless of the hour of day.
Once upon a time, the action finished at night fall, but these days the water throwing often begins a day before the official celebrations and in some cities continues for several days afterwards, and long into the night as well.
I was amazed that my cameras didn't get soaked, but as I became more immersed in the spirit of the festival and a little braver, I realized that some sanity actually does prevail and from time-to-time, when someone caught me outside the confines of my safe haven, they were quite considerate about the cameras - though there was no mercy for the body or my clothes.
In such circumstance, it's best to just hold the cameras above your head and "cop it." If you look through the images you'll see women holding their Gucci handbags above their head while they are drenched.
All cameras taken into the fray should be waterproof, as this fellow found out.
I saw several people spared a thorough dousing during the three days - one was on crutches with a leg in plaster, one was an elderly woman, and another was in a wheelchair.
Children were invariably treated kindly and gently by all and it was amazing to see whole families equipped with water cannons, going hunting for fun.
Don't you wish you had a dad like this?
If you're planning to visit Thailand for Songkran, remember you are a guest in the country and respect the local customs, including getting wet gracefully and with good humor - I saw several foreigners getting quite angry and threatening at being repeatedly doused.
Getting angry will not help (actually, it rarely does regardless of where you are), but if you're on the street during Songkran, you're fair game.
After extensive travel across four decades, I believe Thailand is the safest country in the world, except of course, Thai roads. If you are respectful at all times, you will never encounter physical danger from a Thai. So if you've got ice cold water filling your $300 loafers, remember to smile.
As far as traveling on Thai roads, the road toll in Thailand is horrendous in comparison to more developed countries, and it is never more dangerous than at Songkran.
The first five days (April 11-15) of the Thai New Year period saw 253 deaths and 2,751 injuries in 2,581 road accidents. Drunk driving is the major cause of accidents, as it is in all of the world's countries, with speeding coming in second, as in the rest of the world.
The Thai Government mounted a major publicity offensive on road safety prior to this year's Songkran but the number of accidents remained almost identical to last year, and the number of deaths soared (from 188 last year). There is no workable solution to reducing this in the short term, so my suggestion for travelers to the Kingdom would be to get to your destination early, and stay off the roads entirely while the carnage unfolds - and don't run into the roadway to avoid getting soaked.
If you're old enough to know what Songkran is, then you'll get the full treatment. If you enter into the spirit, you'll forget how old you are and have a ball. If you don't like the rules, go somewhere else for the week of the festival because you will not enjoy yourself.
The white cream you'll see on the faces of many people in these pics is also a relic from the true meaning of the festival, these days played out by sometimes mixing methylated talc with the water.
With the sudden rise in popularity of smartphones over the last two years, many of the casualties of last year's Songkran apparently involved dead Android and iOS devices. I came prepared with a special bag I'd purchased in a camping store overseas - it cost me US$50.
Entrepreneurialism is alive and well and living in any Asian country though, and this year there were dozens of vendors walking the street selling high quality (with ziplock and fold) plastic bags which were very similar to the one I'd brought with me, though at 30 baht (US$1.00), somewhat cheaper.
I'm sorry I couldn't supply images of the Khaosan Road area where the action mirrors what is happening in these images, but there are tens of thousands more people all getting crazy in the one spot. Had I ventured there, the camera and lenses would have unquestionably become collateral damage.
Perhaps if I'm lucky enough to be here next year, I'll have some measure of protection for my gear that will enable me to venture into the midst of the action and deliver something very special. (Editor's note: Mike did go back and revisit Songkran in 2013)
If you're young at heart, regardless of your age, I am certain you'll love being in the midst of the biggest water-fight in the world.
There are some great images in the photo gallery and we've just added several features to make scrolling between pics very easy - including the use of arrow keys.