Philadelphia has the Mummers Parade, Rio de Janiero has Carnevale, Hong Kong has Chinese New Year. A select handful of cities in the world have celebrations unique to them, ones that they have either invented or have made their own to such a degree no one else can compete. The most recent addition to this rarified list is Bangkok. The celebration is Songkran, and think of it as an eight-million-way waterfight.
TECHNICALLY, Songkran is actually a very solemn holiday marking the rise of the constellation Aries, which heralds spring and the Buddhist and Hindu new year. Traditionally, this passage of the worlds was marked by priests sprinkling devotees with water to wash away the old year and all its tribulations.
But even solemn traditions aren’t immune to evolution. In Bangkok, priests have been replaced with Super-Soakers and streets have been turned into arenas where anyone and everyone is fair game. Thailand’s warm weather already encourages light dress, but on Songkran, it’s wise to haul out the beach duds, flip-flops, and for God’s sake, put your smartphone in a Ziploc. Maybe two, just to be safe. The locals aren’t above dousing clueless foreigners, but will get the shock of their lives if you come out with the big guns first. Attack from above; it’s the better strategy.
Songkran moves with the solar-lunar cycle, usually falling somewhere in April (the 13-15 this year), and if you want to experience the older, more stately version of the occasion, simply hit any of the temples in Bangkok like Wat Pho or Wat Arun. Here, Buddhist monks dutifully dip their fingers into little bowls to spritz lines of pilgrims; the Thai are actually a very devoted people. At least when they are on holy ground; once outside, all rules are off.
Well, not exactly “all.” After a few bad crashes, it’s an unspoken rule that people on a bike, moped, or motorcycle are absolutely off limits. Older folks who may not be down with this newfangled take on Songkran are also off-limits. Additionally, you may find a few holy processions going on, and while the surrounding crowd is a target, and are targeting, beaning the priests, or even worse, the idol of the Buddha that is the whole point of the parade and holiday, is a REALLY, REALLY BAD IDEA. You are free, however, to respectfully pour some water over the Buddha if you get the chance. Even he needs to wash away the old from time to time, and it is totally good for the karma. However, if a priest nails you first — and it’s been known to happen — they get as good as they give.