Think of wildest weekend you’ve ever had in Vegas. Now, combine that with Mardi Gras, Halloween, and sprinkle in some Carnival in Rio for good measure. Stretch it out over 7 days instead of just 2 and host it in Thailand, the most exotic and wild country you could imagine, in Pattaya, their hedonistic seaside playground with the best nightlife in southeast Asia. Mix in eager foreigners from every corner of the globe with a suggested dress code ranging from half naked to wearing Hawaiian shirts. Top it off with the world’s biggest public water fight and now you’re ready to wrap your head around Songkran.
But the real fun is in the streets, where this bacchanalian madhouse unfolds. The week of Sangkran turns the streets of Chang Mai or Bangkok or Pattaya, where I witnessed it, into the world’s biggest water fight. Every man, woman, and child is armed with the weapons for mass wetting. The streets are lined with partiers all day and all night, splashing water all over everyone passing. Tourists buy Super Soakers but are outdone by the local Thais, who fill big trashcans and tubs with water and throw it around with buckets. To add to the cruelty of getting blindsided by a bucket full of water upside the head, they put big blocks of ice in there so the water is freezing cold by the time it hits you. It’s absolutely impossible to walk by or even drive by on a motorcycle or in the back of a tuk tuk taxi without getting soaked to the bone, and in fact the mob will target anyone who is even close to dry.
Just so no one has to leave their posts for more ammo, filling trucks drive around to replenish your water tank for 20 Baht (about 65 cents.) Once everyone is doused, the powder comes out – brightly colored talcum or just baby powder in a pinch – that you water into a paste and then throw or smear all over your neighbor’s face. Of course it’s near 100 degrees so everyone is down to their swimsuits and gaudy Hawaiian shirts, or sometimes less when the party gets out of control! Vendors go around selling necklaces made of sweet smelling white flowers, beer and booze so you don’t even have to go indoors to get a cold one, and plenty of soggy street side barbecue. The main streets are packed and the bar streets (and there are a lot of them in Pattaya,) with rows of 50 or more bars, turn into a logjam of fun. Music is blasting, people are dancing, drinks are flowing – it’s incredible!
I’m a little too old for spring break and a good dinner and a quiet night at home hold more appeal than all the craziness for me at this point, but I did notice a few really cool things. First, everyone participates. The streets are just as packed with little kids throwing water and causing mischief as adults. The children absolutely love Songkran – it’s their yearly permission to cause mass destruction. There were also plenty of Thai grandmothers and grandfathers out there on the street laughing and watching the chaos! How many parties do you know where the whole family celebrates together? That’s the way it should be!
I was pretty mellow my time in Thailand (comparatively) but on my last day I just had to get out and observe the insanity of the festival. So I left my hotel in the heat of the afternoon with the intention of getting one beer while shooting photos from a safe distance. Yeah, that didn’t work out so well. Within five minutes of being on the street, a pickup truck full of smiling Thai people waved me over. They barely spoke English but lifted me aboard and handed me a bucket and a water gun and I was part of their crew for the next 4 hours. We cruised all over the city celebrating, dancing, getting everyone soaked, and taking shots of Hong Thong. (Note: NEVER take shots of Hong Thong. I’m serious.)
They were the nicest people ever and it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. This morning I boarded a flight in Bangkok headed for Cambodia and the airport was filled with red-eyed tourists with ghastly hickeys and soggy clothing, reeking of Hong Thong and still trying to shake the water out of their ears.
I think we could all use the fresh start of a new year after surviving Songkran!