Many take it for granted that January 1 is the “real” New Year’s Day. The Chinese cleared up that misconception in February with the start of the Year of the Snake. Muslims, on the other hand, quietly rolled in their latest new year ahead of schedule last November (following a lunar calendar). Now it’s Southeast Asia’s turn.
This weekend millions in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma will celebrate the three-day New Year holiday of Songkran, which occurs when the sun transits Aries. What Songkran lacks in epic firework displays, it makes up for with a crowd-pleasing deluge of water. And while water will be flung in all corners of the region this weekend, Thailand will be the wettest of them all.
In the Thai capital, what was originally a religious holiday during which people went to temples to wash monks has “evolved into what it is now, which is pretty much a city-wide water fight fueled by an endless supply of Thai whiskey,” Joe Zeiler, an international high school teacher in Bangkok and Songkran veteran, told The Diplomat.
Along with getting wet, people also lather up with talcum powder mixed with water. “It’s meant to represent the sins of the past year, which are then washed away by the water,” Zeiler explained.
In the weeks leading up to Songkran, shops stock up on obligatory “Songkran shirts” (basically, Hawaiian floral print shirts) and water pistols of every shape and size: double barrel, multiple water tanks; some even come with water storage backpacks attached to cut down on time spent reloading.
Locked and loaded, people set up lawn chairs on the side of the road or hop in the backs of pickup trucks to spray everyone in sight with torrents of water. Some are downright ruthless, filling their squirt weaponry with ice water (from ice melted in buckets), ensuring that people not only get wet, but shiver too.
“Thais get extra pleasure out of drenching foreigners so if you're white you're a walking target,” Zeiler added. “Be prepared to get soaked.”
Look beyond the carousing and there is a rich history behind all the fun. If Thailand is Songkran’s party headquarters, Cambodia, Burma and Laos are its bastions of tradition – relatively speaking. Songkran falls on slightly different days in each of these countries, but largely takes place over three days between April 12 and April 16. In Thailand, it begins on April 13; in Cambodia, April 12. The word itself is derived from the Sanskrit word Maha Sankranti, indicating the holiday’s Indian roots. In fact, Songkran is the first day of the traditional Hindu Solar Calendar.
On the first day of Songkran in Cambodia, for instance, people go to shrines to light candles and incense, and pay homage to the Buddha, bowing, kneeling and prostrating to his image three times. They play games, eat traditional foods and use holy water to wash their face in the morning, chest at noon and feet in the evening – a toned down version of what takes place in Thailand. Similar festivities, along with water fights, take place in Burma (where the holiday is called Thingyan) and Laos. While some live for the wild side of the festival, others prefer the more traditional approach.
“I stay at home and enjoy quality time with my family,” said a man from Bangkok who prefers the Lao approach. “In Laos, they celebrate Songkran in a better manner than Thais, concentrating on the traditional meaning, which is to celebrate the New Year and pay respects to elderly family members. Water used in the ceremony will be mixed with flowers and tradition perfume.”
In response to last year’s event, which was particularly wild, Bangkok is trying to rein it in a bit this year. There were an alarming 320 traffic-related deaths during Songkran last year, according to Deputy Interior Minister Pol Lt-General Chatt Kuldiloke. In 2011, 271 people were killed, while 3,476 were injured.
Another major hazard at Songkran is getting sick from the water. Zeiler knows these dangers all too well: “It is impossible to avoid getting it in your ears, eyes and mouth, and a lot of the water comes out of polluted and sewage filled canals,” he said. "I got a major bacterial infection in my ears from my escapades in Chiang Mai and my friend got bacterial dysentery. It's a good idea to wear earplugs and some people wear swim goggles.”
Even with dysentery, Zeiler has fond memories of Chiang Mai, widely considered the wildest of all Songkran celebrations in Thailand, if not the region: “It was the craziest party I've ever been to. Amazing!”