Thailand’s three-day water fight is great fun—if you enjoy the feeling of being dunked in a swimming pool with your clothes on while children mercilessly laugh at you.
Story by James Small, Photos by Naomi Cohen
When our driver in Chiang Mai took us only partway to our hostel, suddenly refusing to go any further, it became instantly clear why. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to finish the route, but because he couldn’t—the main street, we quickly realized, was packed with a slow procession of local and foreign partiers trading buckets of water and wildly spraying each other with water-pistol fire.
Within seconds, I had several cups of water dumped on me—lukewarm, murky water that just added to the humidity rather than refreshed. A truck slowly passed by and I was doused in cold water by a group of screaming and laughing kids. Still a bit in shock, we managed to escape the frenzy on a side road, away from the revellers, in search of our hostel.
This is Songkran, Thailand’s new year celebration, starting April 13. On paper it’s a three-day event of clemency and cleansing, traditionally meant for Thai people to prepare for the new year and offer food to monks. The young are encouraged to bathe the hands of their elders as means of washing away their sins; reverence for the old and spiritual leaders is meant to be the focus.
In practice, especially in big cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Songkran is organized chaos—little more than a joyous excuse to dump water on and laugh at everyone you see. When we got to our hostel, I changed my clothes and left to do our laundry. Our hostel’s street was a small one with mainly local businesses. The owners of the stores and street-food stalls, the ones that were open, seemed indifferent to my bag of dirty clothes.
All was relatively calm until I turned a corner onto a bridge, where a little rascal was waiting for me. I had enough time to lift the bag above my head before a boy, aided by his father, dumped an entire bucket of freezing water on me. Two foreigners sitting at the bar opposite the scene laughed and joined in with their water pistols.
It was only the first day of Songkran, and if there was even a hint of decorum to the water-dunking then, it was all but gone on the second day.
My wife and I walked the streets among people wielding water pistols hooked up to backpacks full of water shooting everyone mercilessly. Hotels had swimming pool–sized receptacles on the pavements in front of them so that patrons could fill up their weapons and douse every passer-by, motorcycle and car in sight.
At first I was surprised at how my wife could walk through these encounters unscathed, but quickly learned that she was signalling to the approaching trouble-makers to hit me with water instead. The betrayal was served cold and from the end of a Super Soaker.
The rule of night-time ceasefire was not in effect on the second day, either. Groups of Thais roamed the streets in flatbed trucks laughing, shooting and chucking water whenever they could. We hailed a tuk-tuk to another main party area; the driver asked us if wanted to get wet, we said no, so he took us through the backstreets, his neck craning around every corner on the look out for possible attackers. The experience rivalled any good thriller chase scene I’d seen in movies.
After he dropped us off at our destination untouched, we paid and thanked him. Almost immediately, a truck drove by and dumped water on my wife.
On the third day, I noticed I’d come down with a serious sore throat—the drought in Thailand had been so bad for the previous two years that the city’s moat water was extremely low and stagnant. This had not stopped anyone from using it as ammunition, I noticed, and I had clearly swallowed quite a bit of polluted water.
Though the city felt as if it had exhausted itself, there was still some of Songkran alive. We went to the night market square in the east of the city and sat on hay bales and ate burritos. We ended up with a group of different travellers sitting and sharing tales. In the background, as live bands covered ’90s pop songs, we noticed a group of foreigners playing with some Thai kids, each of them brandishing their guns and shooting water indiscriminately, much to the kids’ enthusiastic squeals. The three foreign guys teamed up with the kids to shoot the two women, and both ran off laughing, only to return with fully filled backpacks of water and chase their enemies off.
As the group ran off laughing and trading shots, the local band kicked off another song. I gave a heavy sigh as the group retreated into the distance. Finally, Songkran was over.