It was mostly by accident that I found myself in the midst of the biggest water party on earth. But it wasn’t an accident that I was in Thailand. I landed in Bangkok amidst the city heat and planned on leaving the country one month later from Chiang Mai, after traveling through the country.
It’s not as if I didn’t do my research before I left, because I did. Though somehow I had overlooked or forgotten the dates of Songkran. My mistake would have delighted me if I hadn’t showed up in Chiang Mai unprepared.
There are two Songkrans in Thailand: the traditional and the modern. Songkran used to be celebrated as the Thai New Year. Historically, the dates were determined by the transit of the sun through the constellation of Aries. In 1940 the dates were fixed to April 13 to 15. (If you’re traveling to Thailand in the spring, be sure you remember these dates!)
Songkran is a religious celebration. Visiting temples, watching or partaking in parades, giving alms to Buddhist monks, and paying respect to the elderly were the highlights of the weeklong festival. And yes, water has always been involved. Perfumed water is still poured over statues of Buddha, which is then used to bless and cleanse the hands of the elderly.
This cleansing ritual brings luck for the upcoming year. Water is a ripe symbol of a fresh start, something that washes away the past and clears the path for the New Year.
That the train to Chiang Mai was packed with people should have been my first sign to get ready for anything. Of course, in the preceding weeks I had noticed the country-wide preparations and taken note: the selling of water guns, the building of stages, and the telling conversations about Songkran and its epic water fights. But no amount of talk or preparation adequately forewarned me about what was in store for my backpack and me in Chiang Mai.
To say that the whole city—and further, the whole country—was engaged in one enormous water fight doesn’t cut to the heart of what it means for everybody to be throwing water at one another from dawn to dusk for several days.
Upon exiting the train station, I realized that there were very few tuk-tuks around, so I decided to walk into town, looking forward to stretching my limbs after being on the cramped train. In retrospect, I’m grateful that there wasn’t an open-air tuk-tuk available because, as I later learned, they make an excellent slow-moving target for bucketfuls of water.
Water, water everywhere!
My plan to walk into town began to alter when a little, sunny-eyed girl drenched me with a bucket of ice-cold. She laughed at my shock and darted back inside for a refill. At first I thought, “Wow, that feels pretty good!” For a moment, the sweat running down me was gone. My second thought was, “My backpack!” But the girl had doused only my side, so all was fine.
Mistakenly thinking the first bucket was the last, I continued down the road. I heard a truck come up slowly behind me, and all of a sudden water was dumped onto me from what felt like every direction. As I stood there, shocked and dripping, the truck drove on.
I dove into the first shop I saw and requested a taxi. The good-natured shop workers watched and chuckled knowingly as I removed my backpack and studied it for any damage. But water is only water, and I couldn’t help but to crack into a smile.
Eventually a taxi came, and I was slowly brought to my hotel through the clogged traffic. Water ran over the closed windows as if we were passing through monsoon season.
I laid out my things to dry, and then eagerly went back out to join the show. I got a bucket and drenched the first target I saw. Showing up in Chiang Mai during Songkran was one of the best mistakes I’ve ever made.
Have you ever experienced anything like a city-wide food fight or water fight? Would you run for cover or get into the middle of the action?