Experiencing Songkran in Chiang Mai and Bangkok

When I decided to come back to South East Asia I knew I wanted to time it around Songkran. It was an event I didn’t get to experience last time I travelled here and after a bit of reading up on the festival I regretted that I didn’t get the chance. All I really knew is that it was one big water fight – what’s not to love?

Aswell as being one big water fight it’s actually a celebration of the Thai New Year. It falls at the end of the dry season in Thailand which is their hottest time of year. The water represents washing away the old and making way for the new – a symbol of renewal. Chiang Mai is the place to be for the celebrations, where although officially it’s meant to last from 13th April – 15th April, it continues for six days or even longer. Since Jess’ flight home was booked for the 16th in Bangkok we decided we would experience half of it in Chiang Mai before travelling back to Khao San road towards the end.

Jess and I didn’t realise how early things would begin but quickly learnt from our mistake after venturing out on the 11th without our waterproof gear and getting absolutely drenched from the moment we stepped outside our hotel. We soon armed ourselves with our own water guns and joined a group at the side of the road (but not before they had attacked us several times with buckets of ice water – call it an initiation). Our first night of Songkran was spent filling our guns and attacking any passers by, moped drivers, tuk tuks or vans that drove in our path. It was like playing a computer game! I absolutely loved seeing adults band together and act like naughty little school children to attack the opposition. Every time someone would blast another it would be followed with a whole load of laughter, and it wasn’t just westerners that were involved but locals and people from all over the world – what a way to bring everyone together.

locals and westerners sharing a bucket of water and fighting for the same team

locals and westerners sharing a bucket of water and fighting for the same team

We went to bed, drenched but excited to experience a few days of Songkran madness. The next day we had our day with the elephants. We were naive enough to think we could escape a drenching but soon realised our mistake when our tuk tuk driver started purposely slowing down to stop for people at the side of the roads armed with buckets of ice water. One hour into the day and we were dripping wet! The fun continued when we stopped in the river and after bathing our elephants continued to use the buckets to have water fights with every white water raft that dared to cross our path.

White water rafters water fight

White water rafters water fight

That evening it was time to experience our first real evening of Songkran. The day before had just been a small introduction in comparison. We left our hotel room, armed with two guns and waterproof bags for our things (including my camera – hence the blurry photos), and prepared ourselves for a water fight war. You can fill your water guns up from the side of the road where there are several bins full of water – some free and some costing a small fee. Now the worst part of Songkran is that moment where you’re completely dry and someone pours an entire bucket of ice water on your head – it hurts, but it’s hilarious! When you walk out dry you might aswell have a bullseye on you as it’s common knowledge that no one should stay dry for long! So once you step onto the main street you’ll literally be so drenched with water you can barely breathe for a while. As someone who finds it quite difficult to deal with the heat, it was nice to feel cold in Thailand for once. Although, going into a 7/11 was a whole new experience – the air con hit you like needles! It was so cold everyone was in and out as fast as possible – it’s the first time I haven’t appreciated the escape from the sun.

Freezing in a 7/11

Freezing in a 7/11

For that reason, celebrations usually end in the evening when being constantly wet becomes a bit of a problem and you start to shiver. We spent two evenings in Chiang Mai and both times celebrations where at their peak in the day and coming to an end by about 8pm, leaving people retreating to their hotels or to the nearest club to carry on the party. On our second evening we joined another group having a battle with the other side of the road – again, a lot of fun.

water fight war!

water fight war!

They even bought out a foam machine at one point (I didn’t go under it after a bad experience feeling like I was going to drown last time I did that, but Jess was loving it). After a few days of Jess panicking about leaving her home of 7 months to go back to the UK, Songkran was just what she needed and she was in her element.

foam machine

foam machine

We retired at about midnight, drenched and ready to experience our first full day of Songkran the next day. It was no different except now they had stages up with water guns and music blasting out, and crowds and crowds of people dancing and spraying you with water thrown into the mix. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from Songkran and I guess part of me thought it’d just be a few kids with measly water guns – I was so wrong.

It is absolute chaos. Sometimes you’re being pelted from every side, ice water is being thrown on your head and you can barely see. Within about 5 minutes you won’t just be a bit wet – you’ll be soaked through. The only time I would find this particularly hard to deal with was when I was getting blasted in the eyes. I quickly learnt that wearing contact lenses puts you at a massive disadvantage during songkran! every time I was hit in the eye I had to pause and wipe them to be able to see again. I told a man this, whilst taking off my sunglasses that I was using for protection, and he thought it’d be a good idea to blast me in the eye from less than a metre away with a power water gun. It hurt like hell and for one moment I feared I might actually go blind!

It felt like I had a dagger in my eye and they were streaming. It took me a while to find my contact lens which had practically been welded to my eye with the force. Despite his apologies I couldn’t quite understand why he had felt the need to do it. He said to my friend – ‘why would you wear contact lenses to songkran?’ which really angered me. People need to spare a bit of sympathy for those amongst us who are practically blind when not wearing contacts or glasses, and something tells me glasses would not have been a safer option! That night I retreated back to the hotel with a hand over my eye and a contact lense lost (Jess had to lead me back as I could barely see). That is definitely one down side of Songkran and from then on I was extra protective of my eyes, refusing to take my sunglasses off even when the sun went down.

catching passengers unsuspecting passengers in a tuk tuk

catching passengers unsuspecting passengers in a tuk tuk

I only managed about 4 hours of Songkran in the day before I was ready to escape the chaos. So leaving Jess to it for a while I headed back to laze at the hotel pool for a while before our flight. I knew it was time for me to leave when I sat down out of the way and desperately tried to re-apply suncream. Now I wouldn’t mind if I was being blasted with water by accident, but the guy next to us was continually shooting me with water while I tried to do it, despite me asking him not to. Some people just had to ruin it! I was glad I chose to walk back at that moment as I passed a massive Songkran parade full of floats and buddha statues. The locals were walking up to them and pouring scented holy water on them. That’s where the tradition began. It’s believed that by doing that it will bring them luck and prosperity for the new year.

Parade

Parade

One of many buddha statues in the parade

One of many buddha statues in the parade

After a couple of hours it was time for us to begin a difficult task – transporting our bags from the hotel to the airport without getting everything drenched inside them. It bought up a whole load of new packing problems while I tried to squeeze everything valuable into my two small dry bags. After some careful packing and literally just as we were stepping outside the hotel lobby, the heavens opened. Yes – because we weren’t wet enough, we were now experiencing a tropical storm which weirdly only lasted from us leaving the hotel to entering the airport. And of course, we got absolutely pelted with water on our tuk tuk ride by teams at the side of the road and in trucks. We were slightly worried about our things but finding it funny more than anything. It was especially sweet to see little children loving getting in on the action – I would always squirt them back gently to make them laugh and then leave it at that, but some of them were evil little things – pooring ice water down your neck or the back of your shorts!

truck shootings

truck shootings

We turned up at the airport looking a right state. I’m not sure how but we seemed to be the only ones that had been effected by Songkran and everyone else was dry, leading to lots of strares and laughing at us before we managed to dry off and change into something more comfortable. To our amazement, Jess’ beast of a backpack was under the weight restrictions and after a Burger King feast we boarded our 1 hour flight to Bangkok (absolute luxury after so many painfully long bus journeys!).

We jumped in a taxi and reached Khao San road at around midnight, not looking forward to being drenched again and clutching our bags protectively. Luckily, Khao San seemed to be similar to Chiang Mai in that by midnight it had calmed down a bit and we miraculously made it through some back streets and to our hotel without a drop of water on us. We had a lie in the next morning and then armed ourselves for our second leg of Songkran on Khao San road.

It was much the same as Chiang Mai except in Bangkok there are a lot more locals carrying around flour and water, which they smear across your faces. I loved this tradition as they would come up to you, laughing, and touch your face so gently uttering either ‘happy new year’ or ‘sorry!’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people smiling and laughing in one place.

cornflour and water

cornflour and water

We met up with a new group of people (who were with my old Stray Asia tour guide who was staying at the same place as us) and made our way down Khao San after a few beers. Now the problem with Khao San that you don’t get in Chiang Mai is that it’s extremely narrow and so as a result takes a long time to get down it and can get a little claustraphobic.

An almost unrecognisable Khao San road

An almost unrecognisable Khao San road

Laughter

Laughter

It was fun nonetheless but there were moments (especially when it got dark and I was drunk and too scared to take my sunglasses off so could barely see) where I felt quite panicked trying to make my way through the crowds. We powered through until about midnight until we were exhausted and ready to pass out.

A birdesye view of Khao san by 10pm

A birdesye view of Khao san by 10pm

The next day I woke up feeling like my head was going to explode and I knew I was done with Songkran. The last thing I felt like doing with a hangover was walking down a cramped road whilst getting flour and ice water thrown in my face! I felt like the novelty had well and truly worn off. Unfortunately I didn’t have a choice and again found myself completely drenched for the entire day. Songkran is fun, but on your fifth day of it I have to admit, it starts to get a little annoying. Especially when you’re at the hotel and all you want is some chocolate from the nearby 7/11 but you know it will mean a drenching to walk there and just isn’t worth it – it’s just not practical!

As a result, I was extremely happy to get up the next day and see that the festivities had completely ended. I thought it might take a few days but I didn’t get one drop of water thrown on me. Stalls were back out on Khao San and it was starting to look like the familiar road I know it to be. It was also the quietest I have ever seen it – almost eerily so. Obviously by that point a lot of people had either left or were too hungover to come out, plus a lot of the locals still had the day as a bank holiday. I was happy to have experienced Songkran but almost as happy to see it end.

All in all I would urge anyone to try and go to Thailand (or Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos, where it’s also celebrated) for Songkran. I think of the two places I preferred Chiang Mai just because you have a bit more space and it’s not so claustrophobic, but apart from that they’re pretty similar. It is a hell of a lot of fun and the atmosphere is brilliant. Everyone is happy and in high spirits and it really brings everyone together. But maybe do one or two days and then leave before it starts to drive you crazy!

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