Have you ever heard of Songkran? If not, you’re missing out. Songkran is the biggest water gun battle in the world — imagine World War III but with squirt guns and ice-cold buckets of H2O.
If you have partaken in this end-all-be-all New Year celebration or have seen evidence of this epicness, you know exactly what it entails.
If it was so damn awesome, how could one grow annoyed by Songkran in the country of smiles under the 100° heat of the sun? Depends solely on the outcome of the battle, and your patience after the first day or two of it.
For me, Songkran in Chiang Mai began as a childlike love. In the end, I was more keen to loathe it. And I couldn’t stand going outside to sneak around the streets for food.
Just to make it clear; I did not, at all, dislike the underlying celebration of Thailand’s New Year.
The beauty of Songkran is the massive celebration of the end of Thailand’s dry season where water flies wild and Thai people bless the entire population by splashing water on you. Also, obviously, it has become a freakin’ massive party with throngs of foreigners running amuck. Myself included.
Where did I decide to take part in this water battle to end all water battles? Chiang Mai, the epicenter of Thailand’s Songkran celebration.
So how is it that I, someone who had been giddy at the prospect of living a childhood delight of water gun fights in summer, except on a city-wide scale, actually dislike it in the end?
Well, there are aspects of both sides I liked and didn’t like, but it was a cumulation of misfortunes in the end that brought down my battle morale.
Let’s start from the beginning of Songkran…
My good pal Zach and I knew that we wanted to be in Chiang Mai for the Songkran festival, but last-minute took off to Bangkok for a Thirty Seconds to Mars concert and faced an approaching visa run.
To keep a grueling mis-adventure short, we took a bus to Cambodia to get stamped, checked out Angkor Wat, and then came back. What we didn’t know was that flying from Siem Reap would be about 10 times the price than to cross overland, so we were forced to take a bus back to Bangkok, and a late night bus from there to Chiang Mai.
Within that three-day span, the total time spent on buses would be over 36 hours, with a combined 6 vans and 4 buses in the mix.
By the time we reached Chiang Mai on the day before the Songkran festival began, we were well beyond exhaustion. But alas, we were still stoked to prepare for battle and jump right in.
Even though some splashing had already taken place on the 12th (rumblings that it was mainly farangatangs or douche foreigners) the real celebration is held from the 13th-15th. So we basically slipped into a coma the night before to get our energy back for the next day.
And so the madness began.
Songkran Day 1: Arm Up!
Zach and I took to the streets as the battle cries were already ringing through the hot stagnate air, the sound of dubstep pounding loud in the distance were the war drums of the day. We were unarmed in the beginning, searching for a way to make it to a stand to purchase a worthy weapon of water, but as we made it to the moat near Chiang Mai Gate, we could already see chaos had engulfed the city.
Quite obviously, there was a slaughter of water everywhere. People running and shooting at others. Trucks filled with water barrels and manned by feindish Thai bucket-chuckers hurled water with insane accuracy. Whether you were on foot, or in a car, or on a motorbike, you were targets.
Especially if you were dry…
And being that we had come into the fray unscathed and unarmed, we were now in the crosshairs of everyone. Drenched in 2.5 seconds flat to the smiles from those who walked up and casually dumped a bucket of ice-cold water on our heads — inducting us into the battle.
With now rocket-like nipples from the shock of the cold and an eagerness to join in, we snagged our weapons; The Super Shooter 5000, and began our own mercenary-esque water gun mission.
We winded our way through the street wrought with H20 destruction and every step along the way engaged in skirmishes with foreigner and Thai alike. Though, warning to would be future Songkraners, watch those cute little Thai kids — their fun smiles are evil smirks as the lure you in close just to shoot ice water colder than the arctic in your face.
Finally we arrived at the main battleground — Thapae Gate at the east end of Old Town and a place that was now a sea of saturated, drunk, foamy, raving madmen and madwomen.
The shock of how absurdly wild the gate was had yet taken hold before we rushed in to join the battle, spraying everyone along the way who crossed our paths.
This — this was my childhood dream!
That was when I encountered my first annoyance.
As Zach and I squeezed our way though the raving crowd beneath a high stage spewing foam and the fire hoses showing down on us, some Thai people began rubbing my face and arms with this white paste. This paste come to find out, is normally talc powder mixed in buckets and wiped on people as a blessing, but this white paste was no blessing at all.
They touched my face out of nowhere with this paste, completely throwing me off in a “what the fuck?” kind of way, but I figured it was something of a ritual for this celebration and Buddhist holiday. As we made our way into the open street battling along the way, I began suddenly wondering why my back, arms, and forehead were burning. And since nearly everyone targets faces with super shooters like mine, the white paste began dripping near my eyes.
It felt like fire.
My eyes were on fire and it burned worse than accidentally brushing your manhood with icy-hot after pulling a groin. Been there, done that. Okay, maybe not THAT painful, but up there. I was rushing to wash off my face, and at the same time my arms and back felt as though I had searing sunburn.
(just a random example, maybe hers was talc?)
Turns out, instead of the normal talc powder, some company was trucking around throwing out bottles of “cooling shock” menthol powder that people were smearing on everyone. And also began sneaking it into the barrels of water to shoot.
It felt like a big practical joke. Why not stick to the classic non-burning talc powder?!
Though it was an annoyance, it was just a small one. After that, I made sure to avoid that shit every time a smiling Thai with a bucket came to rub me down with that white molten lava.
Now that my eyes were working again, it was back to the gnarly water battle and cause some ruckus.
Shortly after arriving, we met up with Hannah and Adam of Getting Stamped and Amy of Throwing the Bowlines blogs and formed our A-team. One side of this street faced off against the other side of the street in skirmishes, and trucks crept through hurling gallons upon us.
Oh, and the swat team showed up with guns.
We had battled all morning, so we all agreed it was beer O’clock and we all deserved an ice-cold Chang. We went over to one of the few places selling beer nearby and that is when we ran into another annoyance.
Before I knew it I was under the soaked and dirty arm of a great big Maori dude who was raving about some drunk nonsense. While I had been buying my beers, it seems the rest of the group had been drawn into a conversation with the rowdy herd of rugby players. A few Maori, a few Aussie, and a few Samoan. Even though I was excited to blurt out I everything I loved about New Zealand, I was also weary of the big raging bro type as well. Seriously, all they talked about was Wrestling and insulted each other.
Soon we found ourselves in a fierce and sloppy game of flip cup with everyone, pouring pitchers and slamming cups. Funny thing is, it wasn’t the people from the U.S.A. that were pumping fists and yelling “Murica!” but the group of rugby players strange enough. Actually not strange.
Since we were playing flip cup amongst the chaos of Songkran, it was an often occurrence that someone would be spraying water at us, which inevitably ended up in the beers we were drinking. And drinking. And drinking.
After a few games and a few pitchers of Chang spiked with moat water, the “bros” were getting quite rowdy, a tad pushy, and a bit confrontational, so we decided it was time to exit the scene.
The sun had begun setting and clouds gobbled up the last bit of daylight, and since we were still in sopping wet clothes, the shivers took hold. It got freezing. At one point I glanced to Hannah and she had blue lips and looked as if she would freeze solid in her place.
As we waddled back to their place to dry off, people were still battling in the darkness and drenching us with buckets. We all tried desperately to dodge it, but inevitably we took more ice-cold buckets to the face adding to our cold misery.
Tired, but all agreeing that it was one of the best festivals we had been to.
Finally in the comfort and protection of an apartment, we all relaxed and dried off a bit, decided that dinner and drinks we in store for the capstone of the first day.
Songkran Day 2: Defeated.
I woke the next morning with what I could only assume was a hangover since the A Team had all gone out for a bit of drinking after drying off that night. Knowing that we had drunk more beer throughout the day before than water, and that I drank some whiskey after said beer (breaking the liquor before beer rule), I figured that could be the only cause.
Well, little did I know that wasn’t why my stomach felt so wretched and painful.
I was reluctant to get out and into the water war again but my buddy Zach dragged me along, even with my abdomen having an uncomfortable pain and slight burning sensation. I had forgotten my gun at the flip cup table the day before, so I zombie walked to a stand to buy another, all the while with a hand on my stomach.
(not feeling well)
Already I could feel my attitude was changing. I was not in the mood to frolic about spraying water and getting soaked, but more-so to stay in bed all day. We went back to Thapae Gate where we fought the day before, and just as then, it was madness.
This time we stayed closer to the refill stations because I wasn’t feeling so mobile. Also so we could have unlimited ammo. But, looking into the refill stations, I realized that all of the water everybody had been spraying around was this brown murky liquid pumped from the moat.
Though it was seriously nasty looking, not many seemed to care, and everyone went on with their battle business full on fury.
Some even were scooping up the stagnant and dirty ankle high water into buckets or sucking it up into their guns and hitting people in the faces with it.
Myself included as victim of a street water bucket.
And though it was hilarious running around and shooting water guns at people, the amount of times I was sprayed full blast with dirty water into my eyes and mouth eventually took its toll.
It didn’t take long for Zach and I to lose each other in the chaos, but it was time for me to raise the white flag and quit for the day.
Except that wouldn’t be easy at all.
I was at the east end of the Old Town, which meant to get to my house behind the airport I would have to walk through the entire Old Town to the west side. That wouldn’t have been bad, but I was cutting straight through more hostile territory, and sure enough I’d get soaked.
And soaked I got. It was cloudy again so I was shivering and my mood had turned to grumpy and my stomach was killing me and every time I was shot or splashed, I wanted to yell. Mainly, I just gave the death stare.
When I finally reached the other side of the square, I saw the road was at a complete standstill in traffic like it was a parking lot. I managed to find a songthaew (truck taxi) nearby going up the street I needed to and hopped in. When I asked him to take me to “Wat Pong Noi” he repeated it and nodded his head to assure me he knew. Which he didn’t.
This happens quite often in fact and isn’t a big problem ever normally, but when we arrived at the completely wrong place and I told him where i actually needed to go, he upped the price 100 baht. Even though we were 75% of the way there and away from the celebration. I thought, “Fuck it” to myself and just wanted to get home.
That’s when the real pain hit.
That entire night at home the pain in my stomach grew from just uncomfortable, to occasional shooting pains. For the rest of the day I dared not move, just sleeping on and off hoping it would be gone by morning.
Songkran Day 3: The End is Near
The pit in my stomach was bottomless, but I had no appetite at all. I hadn’t eaten anything other than a ham and cheese toasty the morning before, but at that moment I didn’t even think I could stomach anything.
The headache was beating in my head. I had body aches and it hurt to move. My eyes hurt if I closed them too tight. I was going to the bathroom every 30 minutes (sorry, but details are details).
That day we were supposed to meet up at Hannah and Adams place for her birthday celebration, and though I struggled to move, I knew I wanted to at least say hi. Getting there would obviously be the most trying part I thought, but luckily my new roommate allowed me to borrow her mountain bike into town.
After biking down the freeway and nearly running into a car door after a guy decided to get out of his vehicle without looking, I made it to their apartment moderately dry. It was cloudy that day luckily which made the bike ride in my weakened state a little better. But I could feel myself internally cursing every time someone attempted to soak me.
We relaxed a bit and I couldn’t help but gobble up the marvelous looking ice cream cake she had at her birthday which caused me even more pain. Soon the A Team was aching to go outside for a fight on the last day of Songkran after a few jello shots.
Me? No desire to at all. But I did tag along because I wanted to help Hannah have a good birthday.
Immediately I regretted going outside. It was still cloudy and now even more people were out in force, guns loaded. We walked down a seemingly small Soi which then became a busy party street and no sooner did I mumble “fuck my life” did I get 3 ice-cold buckets of water on me.
“I should just steal a baby and walk around with it, they wouldn’t splash a baby!”
Along the way to avoid getting sprayed, I faked entering into cafés as a manoeuvre around the bucketeers along the road. When we came to Maya mall where there was supposed to be a concert going on, it more looked like a scene out of the movie Waterworld. Speakers blaring and thumping, fire hoses spraying, and people battling it out in close quarters.
Looked like one helluva party, and I didn’t want any part of it.
“I’ve gotta’ get some food in me” I told the group, and parted ways to find something to eat. Even eating white rice pained me, so I decided to go grab my bike and retreat back to my house.
I avoided everyone at all costs. Down back alleys and small streets I walked down, often hitting dead ends. When a group of people armed to the teeth would be marching down a side alley that I was on, I’d retreat and pretend to be looking for something in my bag around the corner.
I managed to make it to the bike dry and hurried on my way, dipping, diving, and dodging crowds and taking back roads all the way home. And I only managed to get a splash on the leg.
Feeling weak and having cutting pains across my stomach, I decided I’d go to the hospital and get checked out the next day.
The Songkran Sickness
The way to the hospital the next day was completely dry which I was so very happy about. After seeing the doctor and her doing a standard tickle the tummy procedure, she deemed that I had an intestinal infection.
“Oooh, Songkran water very dirty. Moat water bad. Very bad.”
“Ahh” I said.
After the stomach problems had lasted a couple of days I figured it was from chugging the water being tossed around since we were hit in the face so much. I had even heard rumors from other Thais that there were articles written about how bad the moat water was this year. But all the while it was used, and it made me terribly sick.
2000 baht later, I’m on three types of pills and I cannot eat solid foods for 3-5 days. Numerous people on my Facebook commented on their own experiences getting sick or knowing others that had — from stomach issues, pink eye, fevers, etc.
From Love to Loathe?
I can say a few things that are true. Yes, I was utterly annoyed by the festival by day three. I had gotten very sick from the water battle. Some things that were small annoyances were amplified by me being ill.
But did I actually get sick and tired of Songkran?
While I wrote about this epic festival and looking back on it, I realize that I didn’t really dislike it, I just had a bad personal misfortune that compiled and one BIG one which caused me to not enjoy the rest of it.
More likely, I got sick and tired from it, not of it, and that made me hate everything at that point. But there is no way I could hate a water gun battle. Especially celebrating with people like Thai people who love to have a damn good time! I can truly say it was one of the craziest New Year celebrations I’ve ever been a part of, and that it was one wild party. Everyone should experience this unique cultural celebration in Thailand.
I know full well that if I was 100% healthy, the small annoyances mentioned that piled up wouldn’t have bugged me one bit.
But this water warrior went down early in the fight, and being sick did not allow me to truly love it.
I really don’t know how some survive the 3-5 days of celebration really. This was the biggest party I had ever seen and I was out by day 1. It’s like Thais have a superhuman Songkran gene.
Or just a lot of M150.
Some things to remember for Songkran:
- Being prepared with goggles or glasses to prevent water getting in my eyes.
- Not drinking beer that had water accidentally gunned into it.
- Not viking roaring when I shoot so I don’t get water in my mouth.
- Avoid the moat.
- Get much more proper rest before and during.
SIDE NOTE: Songkran isn’t solely a water gun battle and party. There is a lot of cultural importance to the festival; parading important Monks images to be blessed by all, washing away the “dirt” from the past year and praying for good fortune, inviting the rainy season and fresh crops, and more. Unfortunately, it has become in the larger cities just one big Spring Break like party (with partial clothes on) and I’m bummed I didn’t get a chance to see the calmer and more culture based side.