The checklist reads thus; a pouch of powdered sandalwood and some unpronounceable substance sold by the sides of the road, light clothes, possibly a hat, a large water-gun, water-balloons, lightweight buckets to carry water, and maybe a couple of fire-hoses to boot – it’s Songkran in Thailand! Songkran beckons the Buddhist New Year – coinciding with the hottest time of the season. The annual festival (Thursday, April 12 through Sunday this time) sees celebrations the likes of which can be compared to only the one in Buñol and that has to do with tomatoes.
The whole mayhem starts innocently enough – there are a few stray sprinkles of water and a gentle dusting on the cheeks with the fragrant sandalwood powder. A welcome ritual that gives away no indication of what’s to come.
On Khao San Road, buy the time its noon, gallons of water fly across the street. There are double-barrelled water guns to be spotted everywhere, and all of them ominously seem to be aiming for you. And of course, there is a very formidable reinforcement always present just round the corner. But the war is a peaceful one. No matter how much of an oxymoron it sounds like. It is all good natured. The “land of smile” does not disappoint. In turns innocent, feverish, gentle, adventurous and sometimes erotic, its a raindance like none other. There’s a rather simple reason to include the water – it signifies the cleansing and purification of one’s soul before the start of the New Year. While the whole city goes for a dip, there’s sangtip (a fiery Thai amber-fluid) on offer. Usually sold in the numerous shacks and more permanent establishments on the roadsides.
The festivities, although particularly magnificent in Bangkok, Chianmai, Pattaya and Phuket, they are just as easily spotted anywhere else in the country. More organized versions are held at Ayutthaya. And Chiang Mai has made a name for itself for the street food that mushrooms at the time.
In Phuket, the merry-making takes over the numerous beaches. There are night-long parties, communal water-baths, gushes of scented lustral water, and more recently, a string of events at the Dolphin Park, the port and the Jungceylon plaza.
The purists, of course, frown just a little at the extravagance. A much more tame but nevertheless fascinating side of it can be seen on visiting a Wat (Wat ka Phrew would be prime for this). Mystical prayer ceremonies are held by the monks and the Buddha idols are cleansed with intense devotion. In the northern parts of the country, people usually carry hands-full of sand to monasteries. The belief is that they recompense the dirt (allegorical) which they have accumulated at their feet over the year. The sand is then used to form miniature stupas.
While the entire nation celebrates, shopping takes the biggest hit; malls, flea markets, shopping streets, everything remain closed. However, away from the ‘party’ areas, things take on a much-missed quiet veil. A great time to stroll leisurely along a city’s many attractions, if one would rather not be throwing water balloons.