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“This is the hottest and driest time of the year in Thailand,” our guide tells us. “A rain like this is quite unusual.”
It is the middle of April, which is when the Thai people celebrate their new year during the Songkran Festival. (The Thais are actually fortunate enough to make New Year’s resolutions three times per annum, as they also celebrate the Chinese New Year as well as New Year’s Day on Jan. 1.)
The rain, however, hasn’t put a dent in the revelry for the Thai people, who are drenched to their skins. While rain is unusual, getting wet during this time of year is actually quite common, even anticipated.
The Songkran Festival goes by many nicknames, but my favorite was “The Water Splashing Festival,” which encapsulates the spirit of the season perfectly. Although in retrospect “Water Hurling Festival” might have been a better nickname, or even “The No Way You’re Going to Stay Dry Festival.”
In any case, while there are plenty of strategies for getting more wet during Songkran (hurling buckets of water from the back of a truck, which made us open-season targets, is how we opted to celebrate), there are precious few ways to stay dry.
Walking along any of the main streets in Chiang Mai is pretty much an invitation to participate. Here children guard storefronts with massive water guns that are often bigger than those who are carrying them. Locals who have access to a hose are not afraid to turn it on the trucks and tuk tuks (motorized taxis) that pass by. The real threat comes from the slightly intoxicated tourists, who haven’t been indoctrinated with generations of Thai hospitality, and who will happily use water to annihilate anyone who comes into their path.
Our hotel, Le Meridien Chiang Mai, located in the center of the city’s commercial district was fully prepared for the festivities, with towering mountains of towels waiting for returning guests and a sign, in English, encouraging guests to dry off before entering. In case guests missed the sign, hotel bellmen stood at the ready to gently — but insistently — make sure guests didn’t drip their way through the hotel.
While visitors to Thailand often reminisce fondly over the water fights, Songkran is about so much more than just throwing water.
Initially the celebration was traditionally a time to visit families and pay respect to the local monks. Part of the rituals included cleaning the Buddhas in household shrines and those at the local temples.
Because Songkran does fall during the hottest time of the year, eventually the cleansing ritual developed into the sprinkling of flower-scented holy water onto the Buddha and the monks, ultimately developing into a way to pay respect to one and all during the season.
The Thais are a gentle people and will mostly ask permission before directly targeting visitors — unless of course they are participating in a free for all from a moving vehicle. Then it becomes a free for all.
While many visitors to Chiang Mai focus on the more aquatic aspect of the holiday, they would be remiss to miss the celebrations happening at any of the area temples.
An early-morning visit to one of Chiang Mai’s local temples proved to be quite a moving experience for our group. There the head priest quite lovingly prepared the Buddha to take part in the local procession, while monks and novices — many with cameras to capture the occasion— gathered. Thai musicians and dancers celebrated outside the wat (temple), while inside, Buddhists gave thanks and offered their prayers for the coming year.
Incidentally, the temple grounds were one of the few places in Chiang Mai where visitors could stay relatively dry. Although there were some children and teens with water guns, as soon as water came anywhere near the local merchants set up around the temple, the shopkeepers would come forward, flapping their hands and shooing the perpetrators away from the merchandise.
Visiting Thailand during Songkran does pose its challenges. After the first day of celebrating, our group was quite finished with the experience of getting drenched, which made it nearly impossible to walk anywhere. Taxis and tuk tuks are reluctant to travel in and out of the main areas of celebration, often charging fees some four times more than the usual amount, which makes getting around difficult. Furthermore, because Songkran is an official Thai holiday, many shops, museums and attractions are closed during this time.
That said, however, the images that have stayed with me — children grinning as they look for the next target for their brightly colored uzis, teenage Buddhist novices on tiptoe trying to catch their first glimpse of Buddha, our truck driver, Doi, cackling as he ducks the barrage from a neighboring truck of warriors — are all moments that will stay with me, having made this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Buddhist monks and novices snap photos of the procession. // (c) 2011 Monica Poling
Small children look forward to Songkran all year long. // (c) 2011 Monica Poling
The author has no idea she's about to get the water dunking of her life. // (c) 2011 Monica Poling