In recent years, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience Songkran in Pattaya, Bangkok and Chiang Mai and it was Chiang Mai where I again celebrated Songkran this year. The city is considered one of the best places in the country to enjoy the festivities and I would have to endorse that view.
Parades, musical concerts and special events took place at various diverse places all over the city including Thapae Gate, Kad Suan Kaew (Central Shopping Mall), Chiang Mai Zoo and Wat Phra Singh. During the course of the three official days of the festival, I visited locations throughout the city to enjoy the spectacle. The entire moat area that surrounds the old city becomes a mass of tens of thousands of people involved in a massive water fight using buckets, water pistols and garden hoses. Adults become children again for a few days and the atmosphere is fantastic. Roads are gridlocked as entire families clamber on to pick-up trucks loaded with huge barrels of water to soak all and sundry. Motorbikes, tuk-tuks and songthaews are all singled out for special treatment. And amongst the aquatic madness, street vendors sell their food. Heaven forbid that a Thai person should go hungry. No matter that the grilled chicken or sausage may have the added condiment of Chiang Mai canal water, an army marches on its stomach and food and drink are as pivotal to Songkran as water throwing and merit-making.
There is also a less happy side to Songkran. Every year thousands of people are injured or lose their lives as a result of accidents. Many are caused by drink-driving but some are also caused by people hurling buckets of water at motorcycles. As the drivers avert their eyes, accidents happen. It is easy for people, Thai and foreigner, to get carried away with the sanuk. And whilst most of the water dousing is accepted with a smile and good grace, don’t think for a moment that anything goes. The elderly are supposed to be immune from being soaked, such is their place in Thai society.
Having lunch in a quiet area in the west of the city I witnessed a middle-aged Korean gentleman (old enough to know better) hurling a bucket of water at a motorcycle carrying an elderly Thai lady on the pillion. The Thai driver and the lady were both furious and the Korean man was lucky not to receive a severe beating. A similar incident occurred on a songthaew I had boarded one morning with two elderly Thai women immaculately dressed in traditional Lanna costume. A bucket of water was hurled by a young Thai man into the back of the songthaew soaking the two women, my sister and myself. One of the women rebuked the man and was greeted with laughter and another bucket of water. As it transpired, the women were on their way to the temple and they must have been bemoaning the way that a previously respectful festival has degenerated.
Many Chiang Mai residents head for the southern beaches and islands to temporarily avoid the northern heat and the excesses of Songkran. Going about your normal daily business is virtually impossible and even at night (when water throwing is meant to cease) many Thais and foreigners still find it amusing to soak unwitting people who may be on their way for a meal or a night out.
Don’t get me wrong, Songkran is a fantastic experience in Chiang Mai, but there is an element that take it too far and ignore the real tradition of the event. I just wanted to point out that there is another side to Songkran and visitors coming for the festival in the future should be prepared, but don’t let it stop your enjoyment.