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Songkran And The Thai New Year

Songkran, meaning move or change place in Thai, starts on April 13 every year lasting for 3 days and marking the start of the traditional Thai New Year. It is also known as the Water Festival; family members gather to express their respects to their elders by pouring scented water onto the hands of their parents and grandparents, as people believe that water will wash away bad luck. So I was left wondering as I was hit in the face with a bucket of ice cold water how it had developed into a full-on, city-wide water fight. This wasn't a fight, it was a war.

If you want to experience Songkran, go to Chang Mai. Where else can you see a whole city armed with water pistols, hoses and buckets, spraying anyone that comes in well, spraying distance. The main festival takes place around the moat which circles the old part of the city, so picture if you will...

"Sawadee Pee Mai Ka", the stranger said, as another bucket of ice water was poured over my head. "Happy New Year" I replied as I refilled my bucket from the moat and poured its contents over somebody else. This soaking of people is quite indiscriminate and all done in good faith. A traffic jam of pick-up trucks edges its way around the outskirts of the city, following the line of the moat. In the back of the pick-ups are huge barrels, full of water, from which Thai families, brothers and sisters, mums, dads, aunts and uncles, dip their buckets and re-charge their water pistols. Throngs of noisy, soaking wet revellers pass through the gaps in the traffic, firing streams of water at each other and up at the people on the back of the trucks. Walls of water come crashing down, giving everybody a fresh soaking. Lining the streets, in places 4 or 5 deep are more party goers: locals, expats and tourists stand by the side of the road drinking bottles of Singha and firing their water pistols before breaking into hysterical laughter, the child within all of us truly released.

This being Thailand and opportunities to make some easy money rarely missed, stalls selling the necessary weapons, blocks of ice and food, are set up all along the route.

People walk in and out of the traffic emptying their buckets over other pedestrians, whilst others fire their water pistols - although most are more like rocket launchers than pistols. Buckets of water are emptied up into the air to come crashing down indiscriminately onto the crowds. A group of girls scream as they are sprayed with ice cold water. A middle aged man sits in front of his shop spraying passers-by with his hose. People jump off the back off pick-up trucks to refill their barrels and to buy huge blocks of ice that some enterprising Thai is selling by the side of the road.

I am completely soaked. Everyone has their valuables in plastic bags and they remove their money from the protective plastic to buy food from a street vendor, amazingly he is dry and so is all his food. In this absolute madness there is respect too. Sound systems are set up everywhere, lady-boys dance outside go-go bars, finally having a good excuse to wear their colourful bikinis. It is hot and the sun heats the water, in parts ankle deep, to a bath temperature. It will be like this for 3 days.

I look around for Tanja only to find that she has climbed onto the back of a Thai family's pick-up truck, ice cold water is so much more fun and she is filling her bucket up from their barrel, which is filled with murky brown moat water; floating on the murky surface is a huge block of ice. The children in the back of the van are giggling as they squirt their pistol at a passer-by, he replies, as is customary with a thank you. Seconds later a huge wall of water floods everyone in the back of the truck. The children's father hoists me up onto the back of the truck.

"Sawadee pee mai Khrup" he grins, unable to avoid the temptation to pour ice water down my back. We are adopted by this Thai family for the rest of the afternoon, moving slowly around the moat, slow enough for us to jump off, refill the barrel and replenish it with more ice. It isn't long before the rice whisky is offered around. Poured into a communal cup I always seemed to take a sip just as another wave of moat water comes flooding in, splashing the rice whisky onto the truck floor, leaving me with a cup full of moat water to down. After drinking the vile concoction, small chunks of grilled pork are also offered, either for a sobering effect or to disguise the taste. Around 6.30pm the sun starts to set and the wetness brings the cold, half an hour later and by 7pm the water throwing has stopped, and a semblance of normality returns, at least until tomorrow…

By Stratford Blyth

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