The Festival of Songkran takes place on the 13th April. It celebrates the coming in of the New Year for countries that have a year counting system linked to the arrival of spring, and the ascension of Aries into the night sky in Buddhist countries and was first marked by monks in India 2560 years ago.
This year is 2559 in the Buddhist calendar, and anyone travelling to Thailand, Laos or Cambodia will see this date being used instead of, or as well as, the Gregorian Calendar used by most of the rest of the world.
Songkran is a water festival.
In homes all over South East Asia at this time, kids and adults alike will be seen priming the biggest and best water pistols available. Flowers adorn not only homes, cars, pets and businesses, but shirts, shorts and dresses worn by everyone in the street. This is a time to celebrate colour and beauty, but unfortunately Songkran is also known as the festival most widely associated with an appalling rise in the number of traffic accidents and deaths in the region.
Most of these fatalities are directly linked to drink driving.
Unlike the modest lives lived by monks, non-monkish Buddhists see Songkran as a time to let rip. Just like the Western New Year’s Eve, where kissing total strangers after downing a bottle of champagne is all the go, Buddhist New Year brings out the boozy crazies in the local population. The situation has become so dire in the past few years that Government officials in these countries have begged, pleaded and even threatened the general public to take it easy.
It hasn’t helped.
This year in Thailand alone 338 people were killed in 5 days on the roads, with thousands injured, many seriously. Local papers call it carnage, blaming drunken behaviour and the seemingly determined disregard of Thais to the danger of not wearing a motorbike helmet. 80% of all deaths were from motorbike accidents.
In spite of warnings of a crackdown by police this year, the figures are 35% up from last year. This is a tragic result for a festival that otherwise should be a lot of fun.
Water fights and flowers seem fairly innocuous, after all, and Buddhists have a reputation for being peaceful and kind. In other cultures, celebrations such as New Year or Christmas have a commercial aspect- gift giving or merchandise, but Songkran doesn’t suffer from any of that. Instead, as long as you have a bit of water and a flower on your person, you are good to go. The most you would need to purchase in order to play is a Hawaiian style shirt, so quite why Songkran has become a double edged sword is a matter of some concern.
Of course, throwing buckets of cold water at hammered young helmetless kids as the wizz through town on a borrowed bike is asking for trouble. That Thailand has the second highest road toll in the World anyway is a sign that things are not going to go well.
However it’s not all doom and gloom.
If you can keep away from the roads and find a good people watching spot it is terrific fun. Expect to get wet, keep only plastic money with you or invest in a plastic sleeve to cover your phone and valuables. Do not get on the back of a motorbike taxi. This is a good time to walk in Thailand. Buy a colourful shirt, you may only wear it once, but they are cheap and they look terrific. In fact, seeing people dressed up in flowers will make you wish that secretly you could dress like that all the time. It’s pretty, even for men. Black may be slimming, but it’s dull day after day.
Songkran is a great festival to observe and get involved in. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a kid again, and shoot other random grown-ups and kids with a water pistol and get away with it, this is definitely one to put on your bucket list.