Songkran Water Festival in Bangkok and Chiang Mai
The Songkran water festival is how Thais ring in the New Year, and I gotta say New York with its little ball dropping’s got nothing on this. It began with the tradition of pouring a little water over friends and family to wash away any bad luck, letting you start the New Year off fresh. Eventually this morphed into a multi-day water fight fueled by cheap plastic water guns, buckets of chilly water, and booze. We got to experience Songkran water festival in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai and both experiences were great.
Songkran Water Festival in Bangkok
Our last day in Bangkok was the first day of Songkran Festival, and since our overnight bus to Chiang Mai didn’t leave until 8, we got to spend the day soaking up the fun. The streets were packed by 12, and even though they were celebrating Songkran all over the city, we heard the Silom station near Lumpini Park was a good place to go. The road underneath the BTS track was filled with thousands of people and surrounded on both sides by vendors. We immediately picked up some water guns and joined the fun. Mine was a Batman pump action gun, and Alex got one with a backpack reservoir. This seemed like a good idea, but broke too quickly.
There were people of all ages and nationalities participating, united in the common goal of
getting soaked and having fun. The first time I got sprayed I giggled like a child, the first time I blasted someone with a cold jet of water I was transformed into an 8 year old passing by a carefree day with 10,000 of my closest friends. It’d been years since I’d been in a water fight, but I dare you to get in one and not feel like a little kid. Some vendors along the street had ice cold water that would send a shock through your body the instant it touched your skin, but quickly become a reprieve from the Thai heat.
Don’t worry— this was all perfectly safe. There were city services all around… in the form of firetrucks blasting giant streams of water into the crowd. Women were a more frequent target, especially those wearing white, but it was all in good fun and it never seemed aggressive. The only part that was annoying was the people walking around with buckets of grey paste. I’m not sure where this fits into the tradition, but they’d come up and rub it on your face, arms, clothes, anywhere. I could’ve done without all the strangers touching my face, but it was a small price to pay for being part of this incredible festival.
Songkran Festival in Chiang Mai
We arrived in Chiang Mai damp with dried up grey past flaking off of us at 4am, excited to get two more days of water fights. We were exhausted after the overnight bus ride, but the
first cold blast of water wiped all that away. Songkran in Chiang Mai was even wilder than Bangkok. A major congregation point filled with music and stages was at a place called Tae Pae gate. The gate was maybe a 10 minute walk from our hostel, but we barely made it down our alley before water was dripping off us. There were people everywhere along the way filling up buckets with dirty moat water and throwing them around. The moat was filthy, and I couldn’t imagine that people were jumping in to get water, but this was no time to think about bacteria.
At Tae Pae gate we saw the first hints of corporate commercializtion in Songkran. Companies like AirAsia had big stages set up in a square. It was easy to overlook all the logos though, with great beats bumping from the speakers and people spraying hoses into the crowd. We danced and played and played while we danced, squirting aimlessly into the crowd while we moved to the music. All around us was nothing but a sea of writhing bodies, soaked to the bone, with ear to ear smiles on their faces. We were jumping around, dancing our heads off, water mixed with sweat dripping down our chins when we looked at each other and had one of those “can you believe this is our life” moments!
We sloshed our way away from the stages and started walking up one of the streets by the
gate. It was there we found a bar with a 2nd floor balcony overlooking the revelers below. Looking down on the chaos, it reminded be of being in New Orleans looking down on Bourbon St. The cheap beers and cheap buckets full of Jack and Coke were flowing. We stayed up on this balcony for a while and even went back to it the next day. It was great being perched above the crowd spraying down on unsuspecting passersby while still in range of their return fire.
The empties piled up and we met a lot of fun people. One older Canadian couple was there and the guy was a little sour, not really understanding what the big deal was. So, I leant him my gun and challenged him to go participate. We didn’t see him again for 45 minutes. As his wife was starting to get nervous he returned soaked through with a wide smile on his face and the sourness in his eyes converted to glimmers of joy. Another grown man converted into an 8 year old by something as simple as a cheap plastic toy.
The whole experience was amazing. The sense of comraderie, the joy, the laughter, the
feeling of a cold blast trickling down your body and the look of shock, then laughter as your own cold blast catches someone unaware. After three days of being soaked and pruny we were ready for it to end, but we felt so lucky to have participated in this most unique and awesome of traditions. This festival made going to Thailand during the hottest month of the year well worth it. Songkran is supposed to wash away all the bad luck, but for me it felt like Songkran washed away the need to be a grown up for a few days and gave me a great excuse to act like a child, albeit a child with a bucket of Jack and Coke.