Wet, me worry?

Wet, me worry?
Water battles are a common sight during Songkran,

Soaking in the spirit of Songkran -- Thailand's biggest and most colourful festival

Shamik Bag
June 19 , 2014
06 Min Read

A middle-aged Thai gent walking alongside me and seemingly of perfect social disposition suddenly turns his head at a right angle and spots me. Instantly, something changes in him and in teeth-gritting guerrilla pose he shoots at me from his pink-and-green gun. Point blank. My chest feels a sudden wetness from the sniper attack while the Thai sophisticate grins arrogantly at his hapless prey.  Meanwhile, at the streetside food stalls set up along the moat in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai city, sausages float in bowls of plain water.

For three-four mid-April days in Chiang Mai as well as the rest of Thailand, nobody minds — or dare not mind — the water. It’s not really about the water that quenches thirst but that which drenches you in an overpowering festive spirit that marks the beginning of the traditional Thai New Year. Happy Songkran, a reveller wishes warmly from an overhanging balcony, moments after he has overturned his orange bucket of cool water over my head. Yet again, I’m at the receiving end of an ambush and a wet welcome.

Water, and its import, is a constant reminder at the festival of Songkran, which takes its name from the Sanskrit word Sankranti. Indeed, ancient Hindu traditions govern some of the rituals of the Thai Songkran festival, though despite the obvious likeness, the use of plain water is likely to be a laughable proposition in India’s Holi festival. The Thai traditional New Year coincides too with similar New Year celebrations in many parts of India. Over the three-day national festival in Thailand, which often stretches to five days in Chiang Mai, liberal amounts of water is used to bathe the images of Buddha in the Buddhist-majority country, to clean stupas and homes, poured on elders as a mark of respect and revered for its soul-cleansing properties and as the most vital element in the forthcoming harvest season, and in an agricultural way of life outside the cities.

On day one of the festival, a portion of the road near the Tapae Gate area of Chiang Mai is under ankle-deep water by early afternoon. Hundreds of Thai youngsters and a smattering of visitors from across the world have lined the moat end of the road, armed to the elbow with colourful plastic guns of various shapes. Underestimate the power of these guns at your own peril — once pumped up and released, they shoot a sharp stinging line of water, sometimes reaching targets forty feet away. While all parties involved — the shooter, the shot and the onlooker — seem to have permanent smiles fixed on their faces, there is collective laughter as a gunshot snuffs out the lit end of a cigarette hanging out of the lips of a Westerner. Nothing or nobody is spared here: a lady carrying a fat-bellied gun sticks the nozzle inside a van and rat-a-tats indiscriminately at the wretched passengers like a desperate Nazi; a dozen Thais waylay a military vehicle and ensure that none of the commandoes escape the spray; and most cars with rolled-up windows get a free wash. In between, the water warriors aim at each other. Thai funk-metal concerts, foam-spraying electronic music gigs, traditional dances, food stalls, wet bobbing heads and a constant spray collectively ensure the transmission of the Songkran spirit from one soggy soul to another.

That this is Thailand’s biggest festival — and arguably the world’s largest water fight — was apparent on landing at the airport where harried immigration officials wore a wide smile and floral half-sleeved shirts characteristic of the festival. The flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was packed too as the latter city, traditionally a raucous epicentre of the festival, was chosen to host this year’s official inauguration programme by the Thai government.

The general manager of Khum Phaya Resort & Spa, a luxurious and spacious property with elegant landscaping, welcomed us in one of those red floral shirts. The rooms are carefully appointed and blend in seamlessly with the surroundings, but the spa showers and jacuzzi in the bathrooms can only be second best to a few rounds in the charmingly designed swimming pool with its shaded areas, bridges, slides and water cascades — a dip or a lap or two there setting the agenda for the water festival ahead.  

Later that afternoon, around the main public park of Chiang Mai, the grand inauguration was flagged off by senior officials. A city of little over one million people, Chiang Mai, with its hilly backdrop, the languid Ping river, waterbodies, gardens, wats, leafy avenues and the gently flowing moat, constantly gives the impression of an unhurried life in sharp contrast with Bangkok’s frenzied vibe. The inauguration is a major event in the city’s cultural calendar though, and as participants from Laos, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand — the monsoon-fed rice-growing belt that shares some common Songkran traditions with the host country — walked the street in a colourful parade complete with props and floats, the crowd clapped, cheered and, on more than one occasion, sprayed the traditionally attired women participants with water in return for their feigned irritation.

On day one of the mega splash, the popular Bangkok Post newspaper runs a long article that pleads for water conservation in a country where forty-five provinces are facing drought-like conditions. In a different context and while doing the rounds of the newly established convention centre in Chiang Mai that will host a multi-nation Water Summit in May, the Bangladeshi ambassador to Thailand, Kazi Imtiaz Hossain tells me about how water resources, unless managed, is likely to be the next point of conflict in the world. And Sampan Junkrajang, a guide with the Bangkok-based World Travel Service, laments Songkran’s transformation from a festival where water was poured gently on the shoulders of elders to the current ‘throwing’ habits of youngsters.

At the Wat Chedi Luang, a majestic fourteenth-century Buddhist shrine, which found an earthquake reducing the size of its chedi (pagoda) from ninety metres to a still-imposing sixty metres, it is apparent how the two Songkrans continue to co-exist in Thailand. Like in other wats, here too, elderly Thai couples line up to tenderly clean the idols of the Buddha and, while we were there, young volunteers worked on a rope and pulley that would carry buckets of fresh water to the top of the chedi the next day to clean the superstructure itself. In front of a gigantic statue of the seated Buddha, a plaque bears this legend from the pre-Enlightenment time of the Buddha when he would often be visited by murderous evil spirits: ‘So the Goddess of Earth came to help Him by twisting her hair that was full of water… There was so much water that the evils were flooded.’

On the penultimate day of Songkran, they are selling water at Bangkok’s famed party central district, Khao San Road. Five bahts for a refill of the water guns. The area is throbbing with the wet and the wild, the air is rife with jet sprays, a vaporous haze and bubble bursts. Cheap and free-flowing beer bacchanalia ensures a kindred vibe as bodies rub and laughter commingles. Corporate-sponsored stages blast borderless music for a multinational crowd. Guns in hand, the festival seems to have turned the clock back to an age of innocence for the adult water warriors. Children shriek merrily through the moments.

Soon a burst of lightning flashes through the dark gathering clouds. Some more follow. The skies part to let loose a short voluminous burst of rain on the revelry. It seems almost to reiterate the command water still has over Songkran.


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