Does this sound familiar to you: a festival with religious origins occasionally remembered by the pious but, for the majority of the population, an opportunity to take a couple of days off work and an excuse to indulge in raucous behaviour, often fuelled by alcohol? Yes?
Well, Songkhran is quite similar.
We don’t have tinsel, trees or snow. There are no Santa Clauses, cards, gifts or special food that no-one really likes, but what we do have is chucking water at people.
The origins of Songkhran can be traced back to a purification ceremony in which the statuary of the temples was hosed down. By extension, it was a time to give your home a jolly good spring clean. The festival also marks the start of the Thai New Year which, over the centuries, has migrated alarmingly around the calendar. At first, the year started when the sun moved into the Aries zodiac. This is why the inhabitants of Funtown currently celebrate Songkhran from 13th April, which is more or less when the sun is among the sheep. The New Year was later standardised to 1 April and later to 1 January. This last move was crafty because it doubled the number of new years that can now be celebrated—April for the Thai New Year and January for the other New Year, wherever that came from. Who cares so long as there’s a party involved?
Meteorologically, Songkhran falls in Thailand’s hottest month and marks the end of the dry season. Despite the name of the season, it has been raining heavily on Khao Talo Towers, our humble residence, for at least the last month. Unless the weather god is having a senior moment (and he must surely be pretty old), I put this down to climate change and vow to use less petrol in future.
The idea of purifying the temples led to the charming practice of sprinkling a little water on the shoulders of your loved ones, to bathe them symbolically in the stream of renewal that flowed from our planet’s passage around the sun. I like that. I’d like a light drizzle of symbolically-charged water to be applied to my shoulder.
These days, that’s not going to happen. These days, I have to run the gauntlet of fearsome super-soaker water howitzers wielded by bands of kids on school holiday or boozed-up farangs in vests in front of music-blaring bars.
That’s the water-chucking I mentioned earlier. The well-intentioned dribbles of olden times have transformed into bucketfuls of water, the colder the better. These days, Songkhran divides the population in two. There are the ones who laugh (they’re the people chucking the water); and the ones who aren’t amused (they’re the people getting wet).
The primary killing zone for Songkhran revellers is the highway. For a traveller on the road, the ambush is unavoidable. A group of zealous celebrants with a tank of water, a hose, a bucket and auxiliary water pistols can easily pick off each item of traffic as it crawls by on Pattaya’s crowded road network.
The least prized prey is the car. A car is effectively waterproof and so hurling a couple of litres of water at its windscreen can be only a mild irritant to the driver. To overcome this problem, Songkhran professionals mix up a slurry of flour and water which, when thrown with accuracy, can make your prized saloon look as if it’s been picked on by a flock of incontinent seagulls.
Then there are the pedestrians. Walking the streets of Pattaya at this time of year, it is essential to keep a look-out for water-bombers. Sometimes you can cross the street to avoid the hazard, but if there are nests of revellers on both sides, you have to brace yourself for a drenching. The only defence you can really put up is to wear around your neck a plastic pouch, commonly on sale at this time of year, which is designed to keep your wallet and mobile phone dry.
The buses in Pattaya are converted pick-ups with two rows of seats and, at busy times, lots of passengers hanging off the rear. These vehicles have roofs but no side protection. The concentration of vulnerable people trapped in a small space makes them ideal targets for Songkhran celebrants. A couple of buckets of cold water, hurled through the side of a baht bus, can saturate a dozen people, soak their shopping and, Mrs Pobaan hastens to remind me after suffering this fate, ruining a hairdo that might have been created at a beauty salon at some expense only minutes before.
The most numerous form of transport in this part of Thailand is the motorbike. Motorbikes scoot around Pattaya like bees around a hive. If you have a bucket of water in your hands and you’ve drunk quite a few Chang beers, it’s only going to be a matter of seconds before a motorbike approaches your ambush and tempts you to strike.
It can be a huge laugh to get a motorcyclist straight in the face with a big slug of water. He’s sure to get wet and he will also receive the shock of his life, no matter how anticipated the attack might be. Unfortunately, this airborne water assault is sometimes enough to cause the poor driver to lose control. Motorbike crashes are common at any time in Thailand. During Songkhran they become commonplace.
None of this is to detract from the wholesome and larkish enjoyment of throwing water around and seeing people get upset. Supposedly, we have suffered six months of water shortage, so now is a time to wallow in the abundance of life’s most essential liquid (excluding beer) and ensure that the fun never leaves Funtown.