With only serendipity to thank, Iain and I have chanced upon a handful of Asia’s most remarkable festivals. We arrived in Trivandrum, India’s southernmost city, to find the world’s largest gathering of women boiling rice pudding on fires lit in the streets. We celebrated Holi, India’s Festival of Colours, amongst the ruins of the former Vijayanagara Empire, where we were so thoroughly coated in coloured powder and paint that our eyes blinked white against a mess of purple, pink and blue that covered our faces and hair completely. In China, we were invited to spend Spring Festival in a remote village in Jiangxi, where we drank homemade rice wine against the cold, but declined to eat the family dog. In April this year, we chanced upon Songkran, the Thai New Year festival, while in Bangkok. Also known as the Water Festival, Songkran’s three day water fights rivalled the mayhem of Holi.
Songkran is not unlike Holi: its origins are religious, and its modern day incarnation involves water, paint and intoxicants. Songkran is celebrated across Thailand, and the three day long public holiday often turns into a week-long event, particularly in the northern city of Chiangmai. Many Thais travel back to their hometown for the festival, where they may celebrate in a more traditional manner: by visiting a temple to witness images of Buddha being ritually bathed in fragrant water, and sprinkling – not pouring – water on their elders to bring them good fortune.
Celebrating New Year with water fights is not unique to Thailand. Other cultures within Southeast Asia have an analogous festival; today Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and parts of the Chinese province Yunnan, where the Dai people are concentrated, all celebrate New Year at the same time of the year, and in all these places water has become a popular part of the festivities. Songkran’s origins are, however, believed to lie elsewhere – in India. Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word saṃkrānti, a term that refers to the passage of the sun into the Aries zodiac. In classical Hindu texts, water splashing is a symbol of spiritual cleansing; sins are washed away during New Year, when gods and goddesses visit earth, and as a result of a long process of cultural exchange, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Hindus in Tamil Nadu and Muslims in Bangladesh are all also celebrating New Year while Songkran and its variations are being celebrated in Southeast Asia.
Songkran in Bangkok feels more like a monumental three day water fight than anything sacred. When Iain and I left our guesthouse on the second day of the festivities, we were forced to pass a family camped out on the street outside their house, brandishing water pistols. I strode casually until I was almost directly in line with them – then I ran. I escaped with only a few squirts from a child’s water pistol, but Iain – bending down to oblige – had his cheeks smeared with a white chalky paste. Chalk is the equivalent of powdered paint in India during Holi; it is an age-old part of Songkran, originally used by monks to mark blessings.
As we approached the Sky Train station, gangs of adolescent boys guarded huge tubs of water at intervals along the main street. People driving past on motorbikes had cups of water flung at them; passers-by yelped as they were squirted with iced water from nearby water pistols. At the foot of the steps leading up to the Sky Train, I narrowly escaped an ambush. Inside the station, buckets had been stationed at turnstiles, and Sky Train staff ensured that people emptied their weapons before boarding a train.
We emerged in the centre of the city, where well dressed people strolled below skyscrapers, and the chaos of Songkran was nowhere to be seen. A smiling young woman at a 7-Eleven sold us iced coffees and, while drinking them outside, she approached us with chalk paste in her hands and, giggling, proceeded to coat our faces in the most courteous manner possible. We followed the canal, where things were suspiciously quiet, until we felt a squirt, seemingly from nowhere. A car rolled down its tinted windows to reveal three giggling women wielding pistols. “Happy Songkran!” they called, before winding the windows up and driving off.
I was still relatively dry – and feeling quite pleased with myself. The streets around our guesthouse had been a war zone compared to the tame city centre. Then I heard laughing and whooping, followed by shrieking, and saw a pick-up truck driving towards us. Four young Thais were standing in the back, around an enormous barrel of water. They were looking straight at Iain and me, waiting for the perfect moment. I couldn’t bear standing there, just waiting to be drenched, so I held my position for as long as I could, then tore down the road. Iain stood, watching, as I ran directly into their line of fire and four buckets of iced water were simultaneously thrown at me, still running, screaming down the road.
We approached the area around Khaosan road – the heart of the Songkran battleground –where we realised that a pick-up truck with an enormous container of iced water was not unusual – or even the most dangerous weapon in the water war. All along every street, people stood filling and refilling water pistols and attacking mercilessly. Iain and I quickly procured two pistols, though – for once – I agreed it would have paid not to be cheap. My luminous little gun only held a glass or so of water and the luke warm water that we bought on the side of the road was ineffective, compared to the buckets of iced water that every second Thai I passed wanted to pour over me. A public bus drove by, with all its windows open, and the passengers shrieked as they were squirted with water pistols. The congestion meant that it couldn’t drive any faster and, as the shrieks got louder, we saw a man gleefully holding a high-pressure hose attached to a fire hydrant, relentlessly drenching the passengers inside.
It was not a hot day. In fact, it was one of our coolest days in Thailand, at around 25 degrees. The iced water was freezing and, futilely swinging my pistol in defence, we made our way to the road leading directly to Khaosan. Throngs of chalk-smeared people ran through the whitened streets; where it was too crowded to run, they edged forward, with nowhere to hide from the ceaseless ambushes. Groups of young Thais ran to street side stalls to buy refills of iced water or bags of chalk lumps. The more cunning – with plenty of foreigners among them – had stationed themselves behind stalls, and fired from a safe distance with powerful water weapons that squirted the faces of unsuspecting people, searching the crowd, mystified as to who was shooting them.
Iain had soon hijacked one of the enormous water guns and, while I drank bottles of Chang beer behind the shelter of a pillar with my new best friend, a tiny middle aged Thai woman, he became one of the menacing gunman and, eyes lit up like a child’s, begged the gun owner, “Just one more turn, one more!”, dashing off to fill the gun up at a water stall nearby.
The music played by street side DJs became louder as the sun went down. Chang beers were being sold at pace by stalls all along the streets. We drank for a while with a French girl who, with zip lock bags filled with money, headache pills and other rations, wasn’t surrendering any time soon. We bought towels and dried off – then got soaked again and lost our water pistols. The trance music got better and better and, on the street beside a makeshift stage, we danced until our toes were prunes.
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