Songkran, the Thai water festival, just finished. Two years ago I celebrated Songkran in Bangkok where they celebrate for three days. This year I celebrated Songkran in Chiang Mai, where the festival is celebrated with exceptional zeal. The festival starts early and ends late—five days of throwing water!
Songkran is not specifically a Thai festival, though the Thai take it to a whole other level. The festival celebrates the lunar New Year. Originally based on the Buddhist calendar, the dates have changed over the years. The Thai now align their New Year with January 1st of the Christian calendar, though they still date the year from Buddha (the year is 2557 in Thailand). Today, Songkran is always from April 13 to 15, except every four years, when it is April 12 to 14 (to accommodate a leap year).
Thais visit a wat (temple) to pray and bring a handful of sand to replace that which they carried away on their feet during the year visiting the temple. Songkran was traditionally the time of year that the family Buddhist statue was cleaned. The water was scented with herbs and poured over the family Buddha statue. A small amount of the “blessed” water left over from cleaning was gently poured on the shoulder of elders and family members symbolizing washing away the bad and renewal.
This is still done today, though the festival eventually evolved into throwing water at each other everywhere, probably because it falls during the hottest time of year in Thailand. The temperature in Chiang Mai was at least 100° F (38°) every day, and even reached 104° F (40° C) one day. For a little extra fun, ice is added to the water.
In Chiang Mai, buckets of water are taken from the moat surrounding the old city and tossed at passing cars and people. Water guns of every variety are also used to spray people. It is considered very bad form to spray people in the face. Of course, this is exactly what foreigners do. Don’t do this!!! Aim for the shoulder or the body. Also be careful not to throw ice cubes or other objects at people.
Naturally people will accidentally hit someone in the face, but to deliberately aim for the face is frowned on by everyone. This should be obvious, but for many it is not. When someone asks you to stop, you need to stop. I had a situation where a non-Thai lady shot a high powered stream of water at my face and would not stop when I yelled for her to. I was actually going to eat and it was night, so I was dry and about to go into a restaurant. While I still expected to get a little wet, when you aim for the face and you keep it up after someone tells you stop it’s just plain rude. I was not happy, nor where the Thais around me.
If I am harping on this point it is simply that it demonstrates a lack of respect for the origins of the festival and plain common decency. The Thai find it disrespectful and it’s highly inappropriate to spray a person’s face on purpose. Certainly have fun, just be mindful.
Remember, someone spraying you is a good thing. It is not about “getting them back” or being upset you got wet. They are showing you respect. Thais use a little chalk mixed with water and smear this on your cheeks. Most likely this comes from a similar practice that Buddhist monks perform. This is also a blessing. Do what the Thai do, thank the person and smile. They are showing you respect by doing this, do the same in return.