Songkran in Chiang Mai: Now That’s What I Call a Water Fight

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The transition to a new year is celebrated in many different ways around the world.

In much of the western world it’s an excuse to drink too much, watch some fireworks, and kiss a random stranger.

In Sri Lanka gifts are exchanged, food prepared, and oil lamps lit to mark the occasion.

In several Asian countries money is given out in red envelopes and plenty of noise made to scare away evil spirits.

And in Thailand they have one hell of a water fight.

After our traumatic tsunami experience in Phuket we were very pleased to arrive in Chiang Mai and jump in a cab without the earth moving beneath us. The Songkran celebrations didn’t officially start until the next day, but the local kids didn’t seem to be too hung up on the details.

Cheeky faces peeked out from behind power poles and bushes, swiftly followed by the contents of a water pistol or bucket as we drove by. As we climbed out of the taxi a pint-sized assassin lay in wait, just itching to unleash a firestorm of ice-cold water on us. Walking towards the 7-11 to buy weapons of our own, the street was suspiciously damp.

And that was just the beginning.

The next day dawned hot and sunny, and a group of us left at 10am to head into the old town armed with as much water as we could carry. Being relatively early, I wasn’t sure whether the party would have kicked off in earnest yet. Two minutes later the answer was quite clear.

It had.

Crowds at Songkran

It was mayhem out there. Thousands of people thronged the streets of the Old City, especially along the moat that surrounds it. Pickup trucks inched along the congested roads as the people on the back engaged in a never-ending battle with pedestrians. Barrels of water filled with enormous chunks of ice were commonplace — being hit with a bucket full of frigid water was a hell of a wakeup call.

Quickly realising that quantity was more important than accuracy, I bought a plastic bucket with a string attached and filled it up with moat water. Given that I had been completely soaked within seconds, I thought it only fair to repay the favour. As often as possible. I reckon I must have refilled that bucket five hundred times over the course of those few days.

Amidst the madness, a few Thais stuck with the original Songkran tradition of gently sprinkling (presumably) holy water, on locals and foreigners alike. Most of the time, though, the ‘sprinkling’ was done with a high pressure hose and a huge grin.

And that was the thing. Like just about everything else in Thailand, the drenching was done with a smile. Some people even apologised as they proceeded to dump several litres of water on my head. It was wonderful.

So much happiness, so much fun, so much excitement on the faces of young and old alike. We were out there for hours, soaked to the bone and unable to walk a couple of steps without another dousing, and it just kept getting better.

Dave throwing water at Songkran

I have so many wonderful memories, and most of them revolve around the kids.

The little boy who was so desperate to unload a bucket of water on my head, but couldn’t reach high enough until I squatted down for him. The smile on his face as he ran back to tell his dad could have lit up a room.

The girls who simply wouldn’t let me pass until they’d daubed my face with white paint, barely able to contain their giggles as they did so.

The two young brothers who fought a running battle with me along the moat for ages, ducking in and out of trees and passers-by with abandon as they sought to land another squirt of water on the silly farang.

God I loved it.

Other than monks and the very elderly, nobody was off-limits during daylight hours. Scooter riders and tuk-tuk passengers were nothing more than target practice. There was no point trying to stay dry, it just wasn’t going to happen.

By the end of the last day the novelty had started to wear off, but it didn’t matter. It had been an incredible party. I had never been a part of anything like it, and unless I happen to be in Chiang Mai for Songkran again, I don’t know that I ever will.

The best thing of all is that this experience is available to everyone in Thailand, young and old, foreigner and local alike. There’s not much you need to do if you’re in the country in mid-April: the fun will find you. Just buy a plastic bucket and join in the festivities. You’ll never forget it.

I’m damn sure I won’t.

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  1. Looks like an EPIC water battle…can’t wait to check it out someday! Why doesn’t ever nation have a celebration like this?!

  2. What an awesome experience! To think you went from near disaster to shooting people with water guns and getting completely soaked! I think you capture the experience well with your stories of the kids – a child-like approach to having fun.

    Songkran is a great reminder that we remember to just act like kids sometimes. The smiles on our faces, the joy in our hearts, and the happiness we experience with others seems worth it.

  3. Sounds like one fantastic experience – and the great thing is that everyone had a great time with wet bodies rather than sore heads being the outcome!