Songkran: The Thai New Year

by Ilana Silver

“New Years” for many brings to mind an image of staying up until midnight, enjoying the company of friends, watching the ball drop, and making resolutions for a better year to come. In the Land of Smiles, a rather different ceremony occurs every April as witnessed by visitors interning in Thailand. In small cities, the celebration may last only a day, but in the capital Bangkok a full-on ‘war’ may last five days or more. But the smiles only broaden, because this is warfare of a different sort: a country wide water fight.

Be prepared to be drenched while on the road during Songkran.
Be prepared to get drenched while on the road. Photo by Heilwig Jones

Though Thailand is surrounded by water, the rainy season lasts only about half the year and drinking water especially can be scarce. But on New Years, or “Songkran,” local people celebrate the ensuing rains by saturating one another in imitation of what they will soon experience at the hands of mother nature.

What has now become known as a mischievous festival, originally splashing water onto one’s countrymen was intended to show respect; the water symbolically bathes away all of the accumulated faults of the past year and leaves participants purified.

In its earlier years, water would be recaptured after poured over Buddhas in a cleansing ritual. This specially blessed water would then be distributed to cherished family and community and poured over their shoulders to help them cool down at this feverish time of year as well as wash away any negativity from the previous year.

As the holiday of Songkran has evolved, it is easy to see how a water fight has come to be a favored form of celebration. Most people look forward to this time of year with eager anticipation, and interns will most definitely enjoy joining in the fun!

Imagine a Thai-Style Water Fight

Morning dawns and soldiers take their positions on the sides of the road. In the cities, some roads are closed to traffic for safety reasons, but in more rural areas, drive at your own risk; expect no mercy from the ruthless gangs of children, teenagers, adults, and elderly. Imagine, if you will, people of all age, nationality, gender, and religion armed with the equivalent of super soakers. For once, an even battleground where child may be pitted gleefully against adult. There is no discrimination nor language barrier, merely a day where everyone expresses affection through a sincere soaking of the enemy (and quite possibly your friends too; wouldn’t it be insulting not to wish them a happy new year, too?) .

Songkran Festival

Songkran Festival

The Greater the Saturation, the Greater the Number of Good Wishes for the Year to Come! 

For optimum success, it is recommended to know where water sources are located at all times, but be prepared to share with neighbors. Remember: the rains will soon be here and water will be in abundance! Barrels and hoses are strategically placed for easy access, but should you decide to make a daring raid on those across the street you can trust that there will be even more reloading locations. Ammo can be safely stored in plastic backpack arsenals cleverly disguised as ladybugs and butterfly wings, but don’t be fooled by the innocence; they are full of icy cold water.

To leave home means to return drenched worse than the rain storms that will send down sheets of water in the following days and months.

Once you find yourself entirely soaked, you may receive the final initiation into the new year by having your face lovingly smeared with a concoction of talcum powder, water, and food dye. Faces and clothing alternate between a haphazard tie-dye effect and a squeaky clean depending on the stage of battle one is at. Amidst all the merriment a general code of kindness exists and though the battle may rage with intensity, one can trust that this is all in good clean fun.  

“Sawadee pee mai ka!” 

As the sun goes down a cease-fire comes into effect, but the water has already permeated bones to the point of chill. It would be a very daring deed to leave home for fear of further dousing. The last cries of “Sawadee pee mai ka!” or “Happy New Year!” may be heard reverberating in the puddles created by the day’s events. Inside homes warriors dry off and either prepare for tomorrow’s combat or laugh about the joy of Songkran, should the festival have come to an end in their region. 

Normal life will resume once the holiday ends, but a lightheartedness that may have evaporated over the course of the past year exists once more and all the remaining talcum powder will be washed away in the forthcoming rainstorms.

Check out internship programs in Thailand and start planning your water fight strategy in preparation for Songkran next April!