It’s difficult to convey in words the sheer madness, scale and hilarity of the Songkran festival in Chiang Mai. It is a water festival that happens throughout Thailand but the epicentre of what has become nearly a whole week long event is right outside my front door. The excitement is mounting, the firecrackers becoming more frequent and at night a few huge orange glowing lanterns can be seen drifting silently up into the hot dark sky.
When we first arrived in Bangkok it was this time of year, and like most people keen to explore the land of smiles had planned a 3 day trip up to the wilds of Chiang Mai to ride an elephant through the jungle, walk through the mountains to a hill tribe village and get our feet wet on a bamboo raft. What we didn’t know is that it was Songkran. We didn’t even know what Songkran was but began to feel distinctly unnerved when people responded with either sombre advice about rescheduling or laughed nervously and changed the subject.
Like many festivals Songkran has its roots in ancient history. It is a new year festival that marks the shifting of the seasons and the changes of the sun. Until 1940 Thailand’s new year officially started in April rather than January 1st. It is a natural time of growth, rebirth and celebration. In the old days it was traditional to clean the house from top to bottom getting ready for the year to come. The last day of the old year by custom falls on the 13thof April, firecrackers are set off from dawn onwards, preparations made for the making of incredibly elaborate sand stupas (dome shaped structures housing important religious relics found in temple grounds), and the respectful sprinkling of water on senior members of the family.
It is this last bit of course that has morphed into the biggest, maddest and certainly the wettest party the world has ever seen. Nothing in any of the guide books will prepare you for it if you. It’s as if the grown up, sensible, normal world is suspended, wrapped up carefully and put out of harms way at the back of the cupboard and replaced by a children’s party version . The fire brigade use their equipment not for putting out fires but to drench anyone that comes into sight, every road is full of people screaming, laughing and throwing water over each other, thousands of pick up trucks gridlock the city, each one with a mobile party dancing in the back throwing buckets of water at everyone from big plastic “oil drums”.
I love the rather “grown up” advice to tourists in most guide books “keep doors and windows closed, protect your phones, wallets, cameras and any other valuables with plastic bags and drive slowly. Beware of water hitting you at high velocity”. It’s the last bit that gives it away isn’t it?
I propose that this advice in guide books be re-written. I think it would be more helpful to write something like; “If you are visiting Chiang Mai during the Songkran Festival please don’t bother to stay dry, if you have any valuables trade them in for the biggest water gun you can get your hands on and join in the biggest most wonderful wildest water party you will ever have in your life.”