SONGKRAN: What is Songkran Water Throwing Holiday?

Songkran 2007 Water Festival!

Time to make a Songkran PVC water tube!

I know a lot of expats don’t seem to like Songkran holiday, but for me it’s the most fun I have every year. This will be my 3rd one. We’ll be in Ubon Ratchathani or Sisaket for it.

I thought that the entire country takes part to the extreme in every city, but recently I was told by co-workers that here in Surat there is not a large group that takes part… In the northeast – which is all I know, it is a huge bash – that nearly everyone takes part in. The city area is jammed with traffic by 2pm bumper to bumper on the main roads as trucks full of revelers drive up and down the streets until sundown.

In Chiang Mai I’ve heard it’s quite crazy. In Phuket – Patong – same. I just figured everywhere is nuts. But here in Surat it’s rather tame. Come here if you don’t want to get into it much. I’m not sure about Samui, I would think it’s quite crazy. Anybody been to Koh Samui for Songkran?

Last year I told one of my English students during conversation class that I wanted to find one of those PVC pipe tubes that shoot the water really far. She brought one for me the next week – her own. I used it and was planning to return it – when, on the third day some kids that borrowed it destroyed it… man, what is it about Thai kids errr, Thai people and borrowing things – there is no special care taken for things that they borrow. Half the time I lend something out – it comes back broken or in worse condition than when I lent it to them. Has everyone noticed this? Even Thai people notice this! The man and his wife that rent us the house here told us that they’d rather rent the house to “farang” because we take care of things in the house better than than Thai people! They wouldn’t rent to Thais!

That’s another post though – I’ll list the things that have come back to me destroyed – or that just haven’t come back at all!

So, last year was great. I had a PVC tube that was able to push a heavy stream of water over 20 feet. 30 feet with the wind favorable. It’s the coolest Songkran squirter because you can hit people covertly. AND, it’s a decent quantity of water. AND it’s good to shoot only ICE cold water so they really are surprised when it hits.

If you haven’t enjoyed Songkran water holiday in Thailand yet here is a short description what happens. Well, here is what the first day is typically like.

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The night before Songkran I spend some time making sure that everything works. I’m staying in a hotel in Sisaket and I’ve got my things in thick waterproof plastic bags – my cellphone, money, ATM, passport copy, drivers license, camera. This year I’ll have a video camera that I attempt to keep mostly dry. It half works anyway -so no worries if it finally succumbs to someone’s well placed PVC squirt from a covert location.

I have a towel, 2 changes of clothes and sunglasses under the seat of the motorbike. I have 5 or so squirt guns – to give to the kids whose photo shop we stand in front of every year. I have 2 water scoopers with handles – that I use if I don’t have a PVC tube to squirt with.

We (g/f and I) go to bed early so we can get up early and get some breakfast somewhere before people start throwing water. We’re never totally dry when we arrive to eat because invariably there’s some kids already throwing water at 7 am. If they are tiny kids – babies really, we swerve the motorbike over and let them hit us and act surprised… let them laugh at the farang. Ha! This is half the fun – letting them GET the farang.

So, we eat as much as possible and drive around the city on the motorbike. It’s probably not too hot at this point, and hopefully we’re not hit by really ice cold water so early – but, it happens… Eventually we tire of driving the motorbike around and people are a little aggressive with the water throwing – I’ve had buckets thrown under my helmet in my face which temporarily blinded me… so – I don’t enjoy the motorbike rides all that much.

I prefer to stay on the side of the road and throw water from there at all the trucks going past. It’s safer – I know the surroundings – and people are nicer to me – because they’re a bit surprised to see me. If on the motorbike or in a truck a group of guys can be more aggressive about throwing water on the farang. I’ve even been dragged off my motorbike and thrown into a large red plastic soda container – ice chest – FULL of ice and icewater – and dunked. This was a Vietnamese group in Ubon Ratchathani. I thought I’d show off my Thai and so I called them “Chow Yoo-Un” and from that point on – after the dunking – they didn’t really talk to me much. They were a bit shocked.

In hindsight I think “chow yoo-un” must be a racial epithet that Thais’ call Vietnamese – and it might not be the fondest of terms. But, they weren’t mean to me – guessing it was due to my ignorance, but there was a slight mistrust toward me from then on – I only stayed about 40 minutes before moving on, feeling totally unwelcome after my slip of the tongue! ANYONE know – is Chow Yoo-Un a BAD phrase to call them?

So – we usually camp out in front of this photo place where there are 14 kids around 5 garbage cans full of water. The kids are very fun and they remember us from years prior. We give them the squirt guns and they love to pour the iciest of water down farang’s back. Sometimes I chase them down and return the favor – othertimes I just let it go – giving them the shocked reaction they’re looking for.

Things get going about 9 or 10ish am. There is LOUD music across the street a few doors down – I think it’s a speaker STORE so they have extremely loud music. It’s great to watch trucks of people stop, get off the truck and dance to “Baby’s got Back” or some other hip hop music while the rest of everyone is throwing truckloads of water on them as they pass – and from the streets and windows above them.

Things REALLY get going about noonish when those drunk from the night before wake up and want to get in on the action. I usually forget to eat lunch until about 2 pm as the fun is so intense that I forget about it. From 2pm on though it’s ROTI for me – and lots of them. Roti with bananas is a great snack that substitutes for lunch during songkran. The guy that makes the roti in Sisaket at this certain area we are at – is a real trooper! he is dodging bucketloads of water, some of which ends up sizzling on the burner in my roti – but he keeps going, ducking and smiling and keeping to the task. He must make about 9000 baht a day making these things. I can’t remember how much they are – maybe 15 baht each – maybe 10. I really can’t remember. They’re too little for what he’s going through to make them. He’s gotta make 1000 of them in a day. He pushes his cart along and stops wherever he gets customers. That is everywhere he goes. In fact he usually sits in front of our place for over an hour making them – until the demand dies down. I eat 4 of them or more myself everytime I see him, and my g/f has 2-3. The kids just attack him and order 10 at a time.

SO, as we’re standing there on the side of the road – and trucks full of people, motorbikes with all kinds of people, pedestrians walking next to trucks… everyone is throwing water and smiling and laughing and having the best time. There are motorbikes with a sidecar loaded with huge blocks of ice – 50 pound blocks maybe – and they sell them for 50-100 baht. I think they were 100 baht per block if I’m not mistaken. There are hoses running from every house into the street to fill up 100 gallon trash cans full of water. There are water and ice fillup stations where trucks can stop and fill up with these HUGE diameter hoses – about 8 inches in diameter! I don’t know how much they charge… I’ve ridden in a truck once and that is great fun also – but a little cramped and definitely uncomfortable. Seem to get more ice water poured down the back too – which, after 7 hours or so, can get a bit annoying.

Young people are drinking Kao Kao (Thai whiskey in coconuts or dirty bottles), between 12 and 4 everyone that’s drinking is feeling good – everyone is in a good mood… after 4 there are some getting TOO drunk and there are some temper problems sometimes after 4 pm. It is complete MAYHEM in the streets from 2pm until sunset. Picture everyone in the entire city coming out to jam the streets full. There are trucks mostly – inching down the street, most of the time stopped. There is loud party music always – playing from speakers that line the streets. Within my earshot I can hear 3 different songs playing at all times, though 1 place is the loudest and almost drowns the other two out. Everyone is soaked to the bone wet.

Occasionally you’ll see an older person that is relatively dry – riding a tuk tuk or sam lor and waving their one hand like, please spare me – I don’t want to get soaked. And if someone sees that they don’t want to get wet – they won’t usually soak them. Occasionally though the water thrower doesn’t see the person waving and they get it anyway. Others soak them on purpose – figuring nobody is getting out into the streets and staying dry – everyone on the street is fair game. Police can get water thrown on them at this time – and cannot do anything about it… well, “won’t do anything”.

The whole idea of Songkran is that it’s a celebration to cool everyone off with water during the hottest time of the year. It really can get HOT during this time. Isaan is on fire during this time – temperatures around 40 C. Even at night it’s hard to sleep, my skin seems to always be damp even with the fan directly on me. I sleep on the floor at the house or in A/C at a hotel. I hate using A/C but during this time of year it’s nice sometimes.

The other idea of Songkran is that it’s a time that young people can “court”. It started off years ago as a polite festival… people that didn’t know each other would throw or sprinkle water on another person and rub some powder on their face to make them fresh… It was (and still can be) a very nice, affectionate gesture.

What it has become though is something quite different as most people are practicing it nowadays. People throwing water can be quite rude or aggressive when they throw it. Their demeanor is still one of fun and games – and they are always smiling – I’ve NEVER seen someone do it angrily or in an obvious attempt to really piss someone off by drowning them in water. But, I think that people are too rough and that for some people – it’s a reason why they don’t enjoy Songkran much. Some will lock themselves indoors for 3 days or longer in Chiang Mai – just to avoid the insanity. It’s understandable maybe, it can get to be a bit much. If you’re someone that doesn’t enjoy cold water on them – and can’t laugh it off repeatedly and you’ll get upset after 5 times, 10 times, 300 times – then you should dry-dock yourself and don’t come out until night time when most people have stopped throwing water. Keep in mind that there are water throwing splinter cells that are all over the place – that are STILL throwing water at 10 pm at night. I’ve been hit on the highway on the motorbike – going 90 km per hour (57 mph) and had a bucket of water thrown at me and hoses squirted at me.

Boys are especially rough with young girls, not so much with the water in the face, but with the powder that they are supposed to place gently on the face – it becomes a slap in the face or a rough rub of the hand across the forehead and cheek, the powder going in the girls’ eyes, nose and mouth.
Sometimes the guys – when drunk will try to grab a girls breasts or put powder on her chest and squeeze her breast at the same time or brush the girls breast with a hand. There are news reports every year of girls being molested by groups of guys that stop them on the motorbike and grope them for a while… I don’t think any have been raped during this time – but I wouldn’t be too surprised to hear that is has happened.

Being a foreigner here and being wide open because I’m fully involved in the game – I also get quite a few guys that aggressively put powder on my face too! Most guys will ask before doing it – because they don’t really know if a farang guy will like it or not – but, I go along with it – and usually it’s funny. The guy putting powder on my face gets some “face” since he has the balls to approach me to do it – and everyone laughs and has a good time. At any time during Songkran a foreigner will have to drink with 5-20 different groups of Thais that are offering drinks. If you get offered a drink – and even if you don’t drink – you’d be wise to take some and make them all happy… they’ll lose face if you refuse -and sometimes they’ll blow it off – but when they’re drunk you never know what will happen.

Even if you really don’t want to drink – take SOME. Even if there is a group of 15 guys drinking from the same coconut and one straw – you SHOULD drink it too! To avoid any problems, do it. It won’t kill you! Keep everyone in a good mood, especially when they’re drunk – that’s my style.

My girlfriend said that I have more girlfriends each Songkran than she can count. And it’s true, sort of. There are girls that I lock eyes with – and it’s like we’re in a dream. We’re looking at each other like – if it wasn’t for this madness we’d be in a hotel room shortly and having the most fun two people could have. And this happens about 40 times during one afternoon. The girl might be bold, or I might be the one that is bold and go and put some powder on her face gently and let her do the same to me if she wants. Usually her friends are all teasing her and she’s blushing… and when the truck she’s in the back of pulls away she can’t stop looking back and smiling…

I’ve had girls say they loved me more times than I could count – screaming from the back of trucks… as they’re pulling away though… My students, strangers, friends, everyone is in such a good mood and their usual inhibitions are put the side a bit.

This is really the greatest party in the world… as far as I can see. To me – a great party is one that doesn’t have the threat of violence to me. Carnival parties all over the world don’t appeal to me at all. There’s little violence at Songkran and I never really felt threatened at all. I did see some young Thai guys fighting that ended up with someone dying from cuts to the stomach from a broken bottle. That too is another story. There are rival gangs in Ubon that enjoy cruising past each other and taunting and they usually fight each Songkran. There are so many ladyboys all over Ubon they seem to come out of the woodwork… During Songkran the Thais’ like to return to their home city to celebrate it. Bangkok is about empty and the northeast is rocking. They say that many bargirls and ladyboys come from the northeast. There are quite a few in Sisaket and Ubon for Songkran.

So – give it a try if this sounds like any fun to you. I’ll post some videos on my www.thaipulse.com site of this year’s Songkran festival in Isaan.

I’m going to go to the home store and see if I can find all the supplies I’ll need for my PVC squirter. They are supposed to be illegal – because they shoot a powerful stream of water that could hurt the eyes, AND piss people off, but if you don’t use it full force on someone standing close by – nobody is upset by it. Police have seen me use it and nobody took it.

You know, I’ve seen some incidents that kind of tarnished the Songkran image for me – and for others that were there – usually it’s farangs that I was with – that didn’t seem to “get it” – and saw Songkran as a way to attack people that were helpless or to get them back if they were doused with cold water or surprised with a bucket over the head. Some farang think Songkran is a free-for-all where anything goes… but it isn’t. If you watch the Thais’ during Songkran- as free for all as it gets – there is never anyone seeking revenge or being mean with throwing water into the eyes very hard or squirting with the PVC tubes very hard at anyone. At least not in Isaan. In Chiang Mai, Kao San road, and Patong I’ve heard differently and it’s a shame that foreigners take it to another level than what it’s intended as.

Nobody enjoys getting water sprayed into their eyes. Nobody enjoys piss in the water poured on them. Nobody enjoys dirty water dumped on them. Nobody enjoys being the subject of revenge because you get angry and want to make sure you show everyone that the person that got the best of you is going to pay for it. Mai Pen Rai. Just let it go and move on. Thai people will have more respect for foreigners and everyone will have more fun.

If you want to make it really fun – you have to let the kids get you good. Especially little kids. I like to go up to the little kids in the trucks and they think i’m going to throw a pail of water on them – but instead I give it TO them and let them pour it on my head. I then take a little powder and put it on their cheeks gently and wai them – they have the best time and don’t forget it for a long time. It’s much more fun than throwing water on the little kids…

We throw water from 8 am until 6 pm everyday for 3 days, rarely taking a break. My arm and shoulder are wrecked by day 3, but I just take some tylenol (paracetamol) and keep throwing it! By 6 pm we go have some warm soup – gwit diao or gwat jeab at a place with outdoor seating because we’re soaking wet and usually cold by this time. We head back to the hotel – getting re-soaked the whole way… and take a warm shower. Later, about 9:30pm we go out to eat again. Usually we can avoid the people throwing water – but sometimes – we get wet again. We eat and then back to hotel. Sleep early and wake up early for breakfast and day 2.

Repeat.
Repeat once more.

3 days is enough for me – perfect really. Chiang Mai seems to go for a WEEK of this craziness!

Ok, so that’s my take on Songkran… if you haven’t experienced it – you MUST do it at least once. Maybe it will be the most fun you have all year… it is for me!

Start buying your squirt guns and getting your PVC tube ready… it’s coming in April.

:)

Author: Vern

I'm an American expat living in Thailand. I like to write informative pieces about life in, living in Thailand, including topics like: Thai People, Thai Culture, Nightlife, Technology, and I have published a lot of photographs, videos, and even books on Thailand that you can find at ThailandeBooks.com. There are many photographs of Thailand here - feel free to share with attribution (a link back to the home page). All written content on this site by Vern Lovic. Contact me at Google+.