At Songkran, Every Splash a Blessing
Getting soaked by surprise elicits the most visceral (and therefore honest) of all reactions. Any pretense of race, class, gender and politics are washed away in that moment. And when everyone is doing it for the sheer fun of it, there’s only one response – to laugh and join in.
Despite the potential to bring people closer, mass-scale water splashing takes place in precious few locations around the world. Besides the Armenians and their from-the-rooftops downpours; the Dai and their colourful, splashy, religious observance; the Myanmars and the Cambodians’ soaking wet New Years; you’ll be hard pressed to find forgiveness for throwing water in a situation not involving a fire.
But of all the water festivals, the biggest and most famous is also the one we absolutely love – Songkran in Thailand. It is probably the last remaining excuse for grown-ups to run around flopping wet like mad chickens, screeching and laughing like they’ve gone bonkers. And best of all, foreigners are welcome.
But I reckoned their downtrodden state was a result of a water fight they chose to participate in. I, however, would choose the path of diplomacy, and if necessary, bribes, to keep myself dry, I haughtily thought.
Three minutes later, when the first gout of water – expertly aimed from a garden hose – sailed into the flimsy confines of the hotel’s tuk tuk shuttle and got me right in the crotch, I mournfully realised participation was compulsory and no mercy would be shown.
Between begging and dodging I managed to make it to the restaurant – a homely-looking hut hiding a mindblowing iteration of stir-fried squash blossoms. I was trying valiantly to wipe my spectacles off using a patch of shirt that somehow remained dry, when my Thai friend showed up. In pristine condition and trying too hard not to giggle.
And he was right – I was being a baby.
Deciding to take a different route back to my hotel, I turned into the main street of Silom Road. I knew I was walking into the most popular street in Bangkok for water fights, and braced myself for the mayhem.
But what greeted me first was the sight of construction crews putting the finishing touches on tentage frames overhead, escorted by stern looking firemen astride their vehicles. They must be setting up for a night market or bazaar, I thought to myself.
The sprinklers switched off after a minute, and out came the water guns and hoses and buckets. Which all paled in comparison to the water cannon the firemen were gleefully spraying over everyone and everything.
Reaching the relative sanctity of a shopfront, I took one last look back at the unforgettable scene, filled with its mad, wet celebrants.
Then, the sprinklers came back on.
The sheer popularity of the festival, plus its religious and cultural origins has prompted the government to institute special rules during Songkran. In recent years, designated splash zones were instilled in a bid to avoid traffic and safety issues, while reminders over proper attire and behaviour continue to be broadcast.
(Turns out visitors were upsetting the locals with overly-carefree attire and behaviour – such as white clothing that became transparent when wet, or going topless to show off all those hours spent at the gym.)
An integral part of the festival consisted of pouring scented water over monks. The water, suitably blessed this way, would be collected by devotees and used to anoint or wash family and friends.
And since you can’t stay mad during a water fight, it’s no wonder the practice caught on. Songkran is today a world renowned cultural event that sees more and more foreigners visiting just to get a slice of the action.
The international appeal of a festival like Songkran cuts across all borders; it’s a simple proposition that needs no lengthy explanation.
For one glorious weekend in a sun-scorched, overcrowded metropolis, every moment carries the seed of an epic water fight; every street corner or market square could turn into a giant waterpark; every tap, hose and bucket could become a rallying point. You’ll make so many new friends.
Then, in Bangkok’s famous 42 degree heat, when the shockingly cold water hits you (the veterans spike their ammo with ice) just let go and let the simple joy of simpler times wash over you. And then fire back, reload, and brace yourself for the next salvo.
Rinse and repeat until the whole world washes away, leaving behind nothing but laughter and friends in the reddening sunset.
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