Thai New Year or Songkran has the distinction (like Christmas for some) of being a beloved and yet dreaded holiday. My first year in Thailand, I was beyond excited to see Bangkok’s city water-fight while my roommate was battering down the hatches and stocking up on food so she wouldn’t have to leave the house, for no one is safe from getting wet. Two years later and I was also of the mindset that it was best to avoid it but curiosity pulled me out of the house to see Songkran in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai has a moat and makes use of that feature heavily during the Songkran festivities. This was part of my curious and dread because all traffic around the moat stops and the streets overflow with locals and tourists alike armed to the teeth with implements of soaking. That James had also been sending me horror stories of parasites within the moat water and the skin infections people suffer each year from bring sprayed with said water, didn’t help my trepidation.
Even with these fears though, my curiosity of the Procession of the Buddha Images won. I headed off alone and was blessed with a savior in the form of a Songthaew driver. Songthaews are red trucks that shuttle people around town, similar to a pick-up truck but with benches in the back. While there is a roof over the benches, the back is open and I knew I’d be a sitting duck in the traffic. But as he was my savior, he allowed me to sit up-front in the cab with him and the windows rolled up so I could photograph the festivities and avoid the moat water.
At the moat, all traffic stopped and we inched along with the actual pickup trucks overflowing with groups armed with their water guns, cups, or buckets full of ice water; people on scooters; and then the crowd along the moat drenching others as they passed. I was particularly amused to see the vendors selling HUGE blocks of ice and/or garbage cans full of moat water used to refill the cans on trucks, for it is not enough to soak someone, it must be freezing water. It was all wonderful to witness, from within the locked cab [as I was not taking any chances].
Eventually our inching around the moat was done and we reached Wat Phra Singh, with no sign of the procession. I overtipped my savior and headed inside the temple to see the crowd gathered for New Year. Families made various offerings to the monks and received blessings and I watched in wonderment at the temple intricacies.
Outside, straw awnings had been constructed to shelter the food stalls and handicraft booths that stood to either side of the small road. I wandered the grounds discovering that it was much larger than I’d previously realized. As I peered in a small temple, a group of boys shot me in the back with their water guns, giving me good-natured smiles as I frowned, clearly not in the spirit yet.
The procession finally reached the Wat and dancers heralded the return of the temple’s Buddha image. It arrived on a large float with a drenched attendants and a continual stream of water being thrown at it. In Bangkok, we’d poured little cups of water on the Buddha images. I had no idea that here the images were treated like other Songkran partiers and cups of water were thrown at them!
The attendees on the float started to ready the Buddha images for the transfer back to its home by clearing off all of the flowers and tossing them into the crowd which they readily received. Other men climbed on the float and a group of about eight eventually navigated the image back in place. A truce had been made with the viewers to not throw water while they worked but once back in place the Buddha image was being washed again.
Outside the temple, I watched as other Buddha images passed. I was surprised to see that the float attendees threw water back at the crowd and also accepted cups of water to be poured on the Buddha image. The dancers and other participants in the procession were soaked but all appeared in good spirits, allowing the attendees to throw water at them or gently pour it on their shoulder, maintaining their smiles and continuing to perform.
As I was unarmed and still did not wish to get drenched, I thought I at least needed to take part in the ritual of bathing the Buddha image. I bought a cup of scented water for 5 Baht and waited my turn before the Image at the Wat. Here I did receive a face full of water as the person before we threw cups of water at the Buddha that ricocheted off, hitting those around, which made me laugh. I tossed my cup of water, washing the base only and with the last few drops splashed the shoulder and called it a day.
I eventually found another songthaew to take me home although I had to bribe him and he was a lot grumpier than my savior.
While I can proudly say I have no skin conditions to report after Songkran, I do feel a bit sad to see my water gun still in its plastic bag. I’ll have to try Songkran some other time in a non-moat city.
More images from the day –
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