Thank you for your patience in waiting for this final post about Songkhran 2008. While I didn’t resolve my video issue, I went back and started the project from scratch and was able to complete it before receiving any video card errors. As such, it is much less complex and much less polished than my original project, but it still conveys the different ways I saw Songkhran celebrated this year.
Songkhran is celebrated in many different ways, from the traditional to the contemporary, from the docile to the daring, and it all forms an interesting view into different aspects of Thai culture.
Songkhran is the Thai New Year, celebrated at the end of the rice harvest season and as we head into the hottest time of the year. It is a time to pay respect to your elders and to wash away the grudges and transgressions of the year past and move into the next year with a cleansed heart.
What started out as gently dabbing scented water on the hands and faces of your elders and washing Buddha statues evolved into something more. Songkhran came to more closely resemble another Thai word, songkhram, or “all out war”.
In some sections of Khrungthep, especially Khao San and Silom Roads, hundreds of thousands of people converge for the mother of all water fights. Armed with “super soaker” pump action water guns and barrels of water with large blocks of ice in them, the alcohol-fueled revelry is ninety parts fun, nine parts mischief and one part malice.
These water sports do have their gentler side. While we were in Phrachuap Khiri Khan province we drove around the country roads to see how things were playing out. Small groups were celebrating alongside the roads, music playing, armed with water. Other groups rode in the back of pickup trucks, usually with 50-gallon drums of ice cold water. As the groups passed each other there was splashing of water and usually some smearing of a talcum powder-like paste on each-others’ faces.
Below: An crowded stretch of street on the outskirts of Khrungthep gave revelers a space to slowly drive around the block and splash each other with the water. This mostly appeared to be all in good fun although plenty of participants were sitting about, looking dazed and confused and a little weary of it all.
Most of what we observed was pretty playful and lighthearted. The water was splashed with bowls, buckets and hoses, but the talcum powder was just lightly dabbed. All in all, not an unpleasant way to spend a warm afternoon.
But we also saw the darker side of the celebrations. At one narrow section in the road just after a curve, there was a large gathering of young people (some thirty people, mostly men) dancing to the music and clearly very, very drunk. Several were staggering about. The group would stop traffic in both directions and have their water fights but took it to an extreme. Some young women in a passing motorbike received a little more than just a dabbing of powder in what looked more like a group grope.
The police barely escaped from the mess as a patrol truck came by and the young men blocked it, wai‘ing to the officer and asking for permission to “decorate” the truck. He kept waving “no” and inching forward, eventually passing by, left.
We were caught up in the mess as heading back to the resort, the good natured fun started to sour a bit when the young men pounded on the car as we kept inching forward. We didn’t want to stop and let them decorate our car and they didn’t like our being poor sports. The doors were locked so we were probably safe, but it occurred to me that this wasn’t Songkhran as the tourism authority intended it!
We returned to the resort safely – I should point out that there’s no reason to think we were actually in any danger – but that experience had taken some of the fun out of the afternoon. There is a point where too much alcohol can deflate the fun in almost any event.
Right: The car after being smeared by talcum powder. The other side had received powder that was blood red. Thankfully, we got by without too much powder.
During our drive home on Monday, we passed a lot of other Songkhran partiers. The police were enforcing a ban on the splashing of water along highways and major arterial streets, so travel back to the city was safe. Once we entered the larger metropolitan area we encountered traffic wherever groups of revelers were gathered, as pictured above.
Take the group traveling in the truck on the left. They were going along the road at about 80 kph (50 mph) and the guy at the back is splashing himself with water from the barrel, not hanging on to anything and not being held onto by anyone.
All it would take is a bump in the road, a swerve or sudden acceleration and he could be thrown from the back of the truck.
Farang are known for thinking too much but it seems that a little more safety would be a good thing, especially considering that the fatality rate during Songkhran is double the average. We concluded the 2008 festivities with 368 deaths and 4,803 reported injuries on the road. The estimate is that road deaths in Thailand cost the equivalent of something like 2.5% of GDP. What a waste!
Anyhow, we returned home safely and had a good time on the trip. I keep thinking, one of these years I’ll go down and party on Khao San road for Songkhran. But I realize that the fun wouldn’t last very long and I’m not the type to fuel my fun with excessive amount of alcohol. Maybe I’m just an old fogey now!
In either case, looking ahead to Songkhran 2009 I think a nice two-week vacation outside the Kingdom would be fun.