Just a couple of days ago, I experienced my first–and maybe my last– Songkran festival. I lived a non-stop medley of activities. My emotions ran away from me . . . and sometimes I wanted to run away as well.
I always try to experience as much as a foreign culture has to offer, from culinary explorations to art and festivals. That’s why I enthusiastically extended my trip in Thailand to take in my first ever Songkran New Year celebration. I had seen some images of water fights and drunken party goers, but I was still naive in my assessment, thinking that traditional celebrations were of great significance, and that revelry would not cast a dark shadow on Songkran.
The festival, however, left me with a strange mix of feelings ranging from optimism to confusion to worry.
Songkran has beautiful origins. Thais generally return home to meet with their elders. Water is gently poured on others as a ritual blessing for the new year. It’s a reminder of communal and familial bonds in an age when these are quickly decreasing in importance. I saw plenty of heartwarming examples of this. Young people would stop an elder on the street, bow down, and then sprinkle water over the hands or at the feet of a person they revered.
I was also able to participate in a couple of activities like song nam, the act of paying homage to sacred objects, stupas, or people. At Wat Lok Molee in Chiang Mai, I slowly filled a bucket of water, carefully pulled it all the way to the top of a stupa using a pulley system, and then let the water spill gently over the Buddha’s feet. It was a beautiful moment. These quieter celebrations resonated deeply within me and joined me to those who had been participating for years.
But contrast these rituals with the shock of buckets of (often freezing) water being dumped on both willing and unwilling passersby in the street; water fights; and amped-up music thundering for hours on end. There’s no escape. Thai city centers turn into an absolute madhouse. In Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in the north, the cacaphony lasts for an incredible four and a half days, from sunup to dusk and onward into the night, as drunken party-goers carry on with dancing, music, and soaking ambushes.
The venerable traditions of Songkran, as those of festivals elsewhere, filled me with great joy. But my elation was tempered by the obvious waste of water, alcohol binging, and stories of accidents and deaths on the road.
When does a festival shift into overdrive? Is it naive to expect limits to the timeframe and area of celebrations? And as an outsider, do I have a right to comment as well as observe?
On the one hand, I left the celebrations feeling honored to have participated. But I also felt helpless and dismayed at what seemed to be a celebration that had warped into a loud and sometimes ugly caricature of itself.
How does one reconcile these feelings? I didn’t know how to, and after just a day, I escaped the festivities and did my best to avoid the Songkran madness altogether, and concentrate on the best that Thailand has to offer, in other places, at other times.
Zach is the son of a travel-writing father and a wanderlust mother who met on a bus in Guatemala. He grew up following his father through Central America. Most recently, he spent three years based in both Beijing and Hong Kong, which allowed him to explore the lands of Australasia.
A polyglot, Zach considers language to be travel’s greatest sidekick and is always eager to use language as a means to immerse himself in a new culture. As a photographer, he has worked with both professionals and amateurs in many corners of the globe.