First time visitors to Thailand during mid April can be forgiven for being somewhat confused and bewildered by what they have stepped into – the Songkran festival, which, for obvious reasons, has also come to be known as the "water festival". Every year, for several days in April, people – and gangs of people - all over Thailand drop what they are doing and throw, squirt and shoot water on other people – or stay inside their homes or businesses to escape.
The origins of this festival are somewhat confusing. The word "songkran" has origins in the Indian languages of Bali and Sanskrit and describes the movement of the sun from one constellation to another.
In this case when the sun leaves the constellation Pisces and enters Aries. It seems to have been a word used to describe an extremely important astrological event, "mahasongkran", when there are an equal number of hours between the day and the night, and when the "old" cycle ends and the "new" cycle begins.
It is essentially a "New Year" celebration. Various Hindu, Indian, and Thai mythologies did become attached to the event, but the overall religious background of the Thai Songkran festival does not appear to have been strong.
The one major religious element which has been and is an important part of the present Songkran celebration is "making merit", a Buddhist belief that by doing good things, a person can gain good Karma for the future and make up for past mistakes or the "sins" they have done.
While one can't make up for a lifetime of mistakes during a three or four day period, it is hoped that by doing the good work of merit making, a prosperous and lucky new year will come to the doer!
The faithful try to accomplish this be doing charitable acts, cleaning and caring for their temples and Buddha images, building sand stupas in their temples and decorating them, preparing special foods and making generous donations to the monks, and releasing captive birds and fish. In Phuket, hundreds of bay turtles are released along the island coast to do this.
The second type of activity which is done bears at least a resemblance to ancestor worship. The holiday is a time of family reunion and remembrance.
These activities culminate in what might be called the ultimate event of Songkran.
The rod naam daam hua, at which time the young give to family elders certain traditional gifts – mainly items of clothing and textile - and pour a small amount of flower and spice scented water over the hands and head of the family elders.
This is to connect the old to the young, and to the previous generations, and seeking and receiving forgiveness for past transgressions.
Perhaps this event, along with the washing of the Buddha images and the temples, which are done as part of merit making, gave rise to the modern "tradition" of water play, which is what Songkran is now famous for.
What occurs either appears like jolly good fun or an excuse for hooliganism depending upon one's perspective. One thing is for sure, if you go outside for any length of time, someone will find you and dowse you with water. Often accompanying the water is a sticky white powder or paste which is usually applied by hand. This activity is generally called "play".
Large sections of Phuket, Patong and other places on the island come to a complete standstill as people play. Many roads, such as Bangla Road, are blocked off by authorities for this purpose. In other places, it just "happens". This play occurs for at least three days (and nights) but can go on much longer.
The "festivities" - which are accompanied by the drinking of large quantities of alcoholic beverages – have become a source of concern to the government. In large part due a big yearly increase in traffic related deaths during this period.
The police are conducting more and more random checks of motorists at Songkran to catch drunken drivers.
Although this does not appear to be the major reason for the traffic deaths. Most of the deaths and serious accidents happen to motor bikers who lose control of their bikes when they are doused with water.
Driving on Phuket Island is already quite dangerous and this just increases the dangerousness considerably.
For this, and other reasons, national and local governments have tried to control the "play", although it has been simultaneously promoted as a tourist attraction.
One way they have done this is by setting aside special areas or zones (such as Bangla Road in Patong, and Luang Poh Chuan Road in Karon) where people can go to play with other people who are there for that purpose.
A plan whereby players are supposed to ask people if it is okay to dowse them before dowsing them has also been promoted. An effort has also been made to compress the period of playing into one or two days as the period has extended into several days – or weeks - in many parts of the country. And players are strongly encouraged to stop playing after 6:00 PM.
These ideas and strategies have only had had limited success. Unfortunately, there is definitely a sadistic, irresponsible and/or thoughtless streak among some of the festival participants and age, disability, wearing nice clothes because one has to go to work, the time of day, carrying large bags of groceries, operating a motor vehicle, caring for a child or pet and so forth are no protection from them.
Younger women are often special targets because when their clothes get wet it is easy to see their anatomy better. And, of course, it is very easy during this period to simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Songkran can be a lot of fun and people should try to participate in this national custom, but if a person does not want to participate, they really can't escape except by staying inside and they might have to stay inside for at least two or three days.
Certainly avoiding Thais and staying among other foreigners is no escape as foreigners are frequently the most "enthusiastic" players. If one must go outside, one should only wear clothes one cares nothing about and wrap all valuables in plastic or a water proof materials. One should also take off one's clothes immediately upon return home and shower.
Some players have taken to putting irritating chemicals in the water and powder they use to play, or they intentionally use dirty water. During the period, driving or riding in motor vehicles, especially motorcycles, should be avoided as much as possible. The windows of motor vehicles should be rolled up at all times.
Songkran is officially celebrated for a three day holiday period (excluding Saturday and Sunday) usually beginning April 13. Each of these days has a name: Wan Songkran Lhong, Wan Nao and Wan Phya Won.
Certain non-water throwing activities are reserved for each day, the "house cleaning" on the first day, for example. Most activities, however, tend to blend together.
Most Thais try to return to their villages during this time to reunite with their kin. At the beginning and end of Songkran, the highways are gridlocked as people make their journeys. It is said that in this time the Thai population of Phuket Island decreases substantially as most of those who work there are not native to the island.