The Reality of Songkran
Songkran is probably the most famous Thai holiday period to foreigners. What started out as a traditional washing ritual to honor one’s elders has mutated into an all-out water fight that takes place all over the country. At least that’s what the local and foreign media will have you believe. The reality of Songkran actually lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Don’t Believe all the Hype about Songkran
First of all, the thing to remember is that the media have a way of distorting things. They tend to focus in on the most flamboyant and colorful aspects of a subject and ignore the more mundane day-to-day aspects and the way they’ve portrayed Songkran is no different. This is completely understandable. The sight of junior members of a Thai family gently pouring water over their elder’s hands is not exactly visually riveting to anyone but the family involved.
On the other hand, images of thousands of scantily-clad, soaking-wet young people dancing to thumping music and bombarding each other in a frenzy of water and talcum powder is infinitely more appealing to the ratings-conscious media.
However, it’s the marketing teams pushing Thai tourism and the media who have created all of the hype about Songkran, not the Thai people as a whole. Those mass water-fight spectacles are largely staged for the benefit of tourists in popular tourist locations around Thailand. The idea that all of Thailand celebrates Songkran in this manner is simply ‘fake news’.
How Songkran is Really Celebrated in Thailand
To the vast majority of Thais, Songkran is an opportunity to return home, spend time with their families, pay respect to their elders and simply take some extended time off. The fact that most Thais return to their family homes means that the roads are particularly jammed during the opening and closing days of Songkran, especially around Bangkok. So, if you must travel during those times, be sure to factor in extra time to reach your destination.
There are also regional festivals held all around the country that will show you a more traditional and gentle, but just as colorful and interesting, side of Songkran.
Of course, Thais enjoy a good water-fight as much anyone. But they’re generally much smaller than the ones staged for the tourists. In the cities and towns of Thailand you’ll see small groups of Thais every few blocks who have positioned themselves at the side of the road and are hard at work throwing water and talcum powder on any approaching vehicle, usually to the accompaniment of Thai pop songs played at ear-splitting volumes. Some of the revelers drive around in the back of pickups as well. The pickup truck crews will engage the road-side crews in spirited water fights as the pickups cruise around the streets.
This year, because of the death of His Majesty, King Bhumibol, the government has asked all Thais to tone down their celebrations in respect to the late King’s passing. So, if you’re visiting Thailand for the first time expecting to see the raucous celebrations you’ve seen through the media, you may be slightly disappointed.
Nevertheless, we’ve put together this list of what every visitor should know about surviving the Songkran holidays, just in case.
5 Rules to Surviving Songkran
1.) Maintain a Sense of Humor
This is number one on the list because it’s the most important thing to keep in mind. If you lose your cool, you lose face. This is an unspoken rule in most countries in Asia. If you get angry and create a scene, expect things to go downhill very quickly. Songkran is meant to be fun. Keep that idea in mind and be forgiving of any perceived slights. If you’re out on the streets during daylight hours, you should expect to be splashed with water and receive an application of talcum powder paste. This is the reality of Songkran. Don’t treat it as if getting splashed is the end of the world.
2.) Be Polite
If you’re targeted by a band of soaking-wet revelers, dancing to thumping music and armed with buckets and squirt-guns – simply extend your hand and smile. Thais are innately polite. If you show good manners towards them, it will be extremely uncool of them to act badly in return. By extending your hand, you’re giving them permission to pour water on it and demonstrating that you welcome their attention. They’ll smile, pour some water on your hand, rub some talcum powder paste on your cheeks and go off looking for their next victim.
3.) Stay Off of Motorbikes
The number of accidents in Thailand rises dramatically during Songkran and about 90% of the vehicle deaths reported during the Songkran period are due to motorbike accidents and mainly caused by drinking and driving. Revelers on street corners enjoy throwing water and talcum powder on any vehicle passing by and this includes motorbikes. Getting a face full of water and powder while trying to negotiate a wet road can have disastrous consequences. If you absolutely have to get somewhere by motorbike and you encounter a group of revelers, stop and extend you hand as in Rule #2. It may take a while to reach your destination, but at least you’ll arrive in one piece.
4.) Use a Condom
Yes, you read that correctly. Use a condom as a low-cost solution to protect your phone from water and talcum powder. Condoms have amazing stretching abilities and are much more waterproof than a zip-lock bag, which have an annoying habit of becoming unsealed when they’re in your pocket. Simply stretch the condom over the top of the phone, then un-roll it over your phone and tie a knot in the open end. You can even swipe, tap and text through a condom. After you’re done, simply cut off the knotted end and peel the condom off your phone. Just make sure to keep phone away from keys or other sharp objects that can poke holes in the condom.
5.) Beware of the Water Source
Revelers in the heat of a water battle rarely give much thought to the cleanliness of the water they’re throwing around. Most of them re-load from open-top, fifty-gallon drums filled with water. The source of that water can be a concern. Keep your mouth closed and wear swim goggles if you’re actively engaging in water fights. At the end of the day, it’s a good idea to wash your eyes out with commercially available eyewash to prevent any chance of an eye infection.