Songkran Water Festival

When we initially planned our trip, we kept telling our friends and family that we would be back around late April or early May. The main reason for that is that we wanted to be in Chiang Mai for Songkran, the Thai New Year’s festival that occurs on April 13-15 (coinciding with the Buddhist astrological calendar). We didn’t know too much about it until the festival started, except that it is the world’s largest water fight, originating from a Buddhist water blessing, and that the entire city of Chiang Mai celebrates. In fact it’s the most important holiday in Thailand, and the celebration is best in Chiang Mai – people even travel here from Bangkok! Well, the three days of Songkran 2016 just ended and it was even wilder than we expected it to be.

Our celebration of Songkran actually started out very tame. We went to the Chiang Mai Zoo for the second time; we enjoyed our first trip so much and wanted to see some of the exhibits again, and they had some traditional Songkran celebrations going on. After walking around and seeing all of the exhibits we wanted to see (full blog post on the zoo coming soon, by the way), we sat down and had lunch while people played traditional Lanna folk music. It was a very calm and relaxing way to start the day…but that calm feeling wouldn’t last long!

We drove on our moped from our condo towards the Old City, the main part of town where the biggest celebrations are during the day. We had heard that parking (and driving in general) is quite difficult in the city during Songkran, but the owner of a spa that Julia became friends with allowed us to use her store as a home base! Our plan was to park there, then wander around the city for a while. But we didn’t realize how tough it would be just to get there!

We took the highway for part of the way to the Old City, but soon got off to take back roads the rest of the way with the intent of avoiding traffic. We soon got our first taste of Songkran in Chiang Mai – just as I noticed that one particular spot on the road was wet while everything else was dry, some locals came out with buckets full of water and emptied them on us while we were driving! It was over 105 degrees already, so although the impact of the water was shocking, it felt very nice! All along the route to the old city, locals were set up by their shop or home, ready to ambush people with buckets of water and squirt guns. Most people drive very slowly during Songkran – getting hit with a bucket of water while driving 30+ mph is quite dangerous. Thank goodness our helmets had visors that protected our eyes! The locals are always careful to not shoot people on mopeds that are driving too fast, and will even motion to them to slow down so that they can soak them. Many drivers are glad to oblige, even coming to a complete stop while they get a bucket of water poured directly down the back of their shirt!

Once we got closer to the Old City, traffic came to a basic standstill. Even with our moped having the ability to drive in between stopped cars, it took a long time to go even a small distance! It was at this point that we began to see how crazy Songkran is. Many of the cars in traffic were pickup trucks – the back full of people (usually at least 7 or 8) armed to the teeth with squirt guns and giant buckets full of water. And they don’t just have any regular old water – they have a giant barrel or trashcan full of water, complete with a huge block of ice to cool it down. Getting hit with warm water on a hot day feels nice. Getting hit with ice-cold water, no matter how hot it is, is quite the shock!

By the time we got to the spa and parked, we were completely soaked – we couldn’t have gotten more wet if we had jumped in a lake. Luckily, we had planned for this and bought some waterproof cases for our phones and money. The largest part of the celebration was by the canal that surrounds the Old City on all four sides. The obvious reason for this is that the canal is a constant supply of water for refilling buckets and squirt guns! We tried not to think of the bacteria in the canal water, but rather just concentrated on not swallowing any water that made it on our face. Thankfully though, there was a thunderstorm (!) just a few days prior, so the water wasn’t too bad at all, and we had heard a rumor that the city had chlorinated the canal because people get sick when it gets in their eyes and mouths. Arming ourselves with squirt guns that we had purchased at a market the previous day, we set out to explore the festival!

It’s impossible not to get completely wet while walking around the Old City during Songkran, so the game is to either splash/shoot people that aren’t expecting it so that you get a little shock value, or to instigate someone into attacking you (every time we started drying off and getting hot again, we’d shoot someone with ice water to cool us off). The holy grail is to find someone that isn’t wet yet and get them as wet as possible – bonus points if they are tourists foolish enough to think that they can avoid getting soaked! The unspoken rule about who *not* to shoot seems to include: monks, the very young and very old, merchants selling wares/food, people eating, and people visibly holding electronics that are not water-protected. But if any of the above people break the contract by shooting or even holding a gun, then they are fair game to shoot!

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These locals wore cupid costumes, complete with a squirt gun resembling a bow and arrow!

We made our way to Wat Phra Singh, the largest and most famous Buddhist temple of Chiang Mai. Today Songkran is mostly a cultural celebration – a way to cool off during the hottest part of the year and to call forth the rainy season of May – but it does seem to have religious aspects, as well. Inside the temple area, everyone was still very respectful – the squirt guns were holstered, and reverence reigned. We bought a small bottle of “rose water” – water mixed with rose petals, and followed the locals’ example by pouring it on the Buddha statue in the middle of the concourse. It was quite the change from the chaotic nature of the rest of the festival!

Walking around and getting buckets of water thrown on us for several hours was surprisingly tiring, so we escaped the Old City to the relative safety of the rest of Chiang Mai – though we definitely got splashed many times on our way back home!

The next day, we met up with Patrick, one of our friends we met playing Magic. He organized a driver with a pickup truck for us to drive around the city in! The three of us and four other friends drove to the city, and Julia and I were ready for a view of Songkran from a different perspective. The truck was loaded with eight different water guns, lots of buckets, and two giant plastic tubs for holding our water.

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Our mobile water artillery unit

One of the first differences we discovered is that although the truck gives us a great vantage point to find targets, and an easier way to carry our weapons, it also draws attention to us. A *lot* of attention! When we’re stuck in traffic and not moving, we have to be a little careful of who we shoot at – if our target is well armed, we’ll get soaked and unable to make a hasty getaway!

After a couple hours of driving around the city, refilling our water barrels quite often (with both water and giant blocks of ice), we drove outside the city for a small break from the hectic inner city festival. We stopped at a park with a waterfall, swings and lawn games that served beer – a great combination! We chatted for a bit, including about Thai politics, which was very interesting to us since Thai people usually do not like to talk about politics – or rather, they are unable to because it can be dangerous or illegal!

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Taking a break for beers during Songkran

After that, we headed up a mountain to see a view that Patrick said was very good. The way up was slow and windy, and even way out here there were lots of people just waiting to douse us with buckets of icy water! Sometimes our driver would slow way down so that they could really soak us, and sometimes the driver wouldn’t slow down and we’d get hit with a bucket of water while driving forty miles an hour. Ouch! At one point, I got hit in the face so hard that my sunglasses got knocked off and fell in the road! Luckily, the car right behind us didn’t run over them, and the guy that had thrown the water on me stopped the other cars from going any further so he could retrieve my glasses. Nice guy!

Before we got to the top of the mountain, we saw a place on the side of the road that had ziplines and a small roller coaster. The guys were in the back and the girls inside the cab at this point; the guys assumed we would keep going since we were almost at the top, but the girls had asked the driver to pull over! As we stop, the girls were jumping up and down saying “we wanna go on the roller coaster!”. It was nice to take a break from riding in the back of the truck, and it turned out to be a lot of fun! I was a little wary of getting on a roller coaster in the middle of the jungle in Thailand, but there were German instructions all over the equipment, which immediately made me feel a lot better! The cars were actually all separate from each other; we rode down one at a time. The cars even had their own handbrakes so that you could slow down if you got too scared! They wouldn’t let me record a video while I was on the coaster, but I found promotional video on Youtube that has some great unintentional comedy (and is also pretty cool at the same time).

We continued up the mountain and finally arrived at the top. We took just a few minutes to check out the view and take some pictures. We took some really corny pictures with another couple that went with us, they actually turned out not bad!

It took us a while to get back into the city, so it was almost dark by the time we got back! We played at water war for a bit longer, then stopped to get some street food. After that, we headed to a shopping plaza north of the city called Central Festival (which Julia and I had actually never been to before), to a place advertising a “foam party” with live music. Sounds great! Well, we got there, and the foam party was not quite what we expected…

But the rest of the party was crazy, though! There was a concert with a big stage and TONS of people in the crowd. There were platforms of people shooting water on the concertgoers, and giant sprinklers getting everyone wet around them. Even though we had just started to dry off from our long ride down from the mountain, Julia and I got completely soaked after being in there a few minutes. The songs were all in Thai, but everyone knew all the words and it was hard not to get excited!

Exhausted from our day of soaking and getting soaked, we headed back to our condo to rest. Songkran had another day of celebration, but we felt like we got our fill on the first two days already! We spent the last day of Songkran relaxing, starting to pack our bags, and going out to dinner with our Thai friends to celebrate Man’s birthday! Songkran was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we planned our trip around, and we’re so glad we did!

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