anthropology 100: Bangkok’s Songkran festival

This year we hit the streets to see what the Songkran festival is all about. We called up some friends to hang out and teach us how to celebrate properly. Actually, our introduction came hours before we dared to venture outdoors when a techno version of Flo Rida’s song “Whistle” started blaring through our house and down the alleys at 8am.

The first day of Songkran we weren’t planning to go into the chaos except we realized that we didn’t have any food. We walked to end of the block, rounded the corner, and took only a couple steps before our faces were smeared with white clay and our bodies drenched with super soakers!

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As we quickly found out, Thais take having fun on Songkran seriously! If you are anywhere near a main street in the three days of water wars, you are guaranteed to be a continually dripping wet mess for the duration of your stay.

People are set up on the sidewalks with large trash cans full of water every ten feet, which are continually filled by hoses running from every tap within the vicinity. They fill and empty their water buckets and water guns as fast as they can and come back for more. If you’re roving the sidewalks, like we were, you can refill your weapon of choice at anyone’s cistern, and after an initial water fight you end up on the same “team” until you leave to seek out another spot.

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Large mobs troll the streets in the beds of trucks, looking for a group of people they can pull alongside and douse before making a quick getaway.

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In retaliation against the street-goers, the sidewalk warmongers grab buckets of water and fling their contents into the faces of oncoming motorbike drivers and into the back carriages of songthaews.

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Vendors all along the street sell plastic bags full of white clay pellets. You take a pellet in your hand, mix in some water and voila!, you have a fistful of dirty sticky muck that you can slab onto your adversaries’ faces. At first I was giving people innocent streaks on their cheeks, like the eye black that baseball and football players wear. But after having clay shoved deeply into my ear and mouth several times, I fought back by smearing globs of the stuff right up people’s noses!

Nothing escapes the white clay – nothing!

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There’s lots of dancing, singing, and cheering.

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The water war doesn’t let up. From 10am ’til 9pm there’s a constant spray of water in the air and the roads and walkways resemble what they’ll look like several months later in the height of monsoon season.

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Now, it’s very hot in Bangkok at this time of year – most days approach or are over 100°F (38°C) – and cool off to a sweaty 80°F (27°C) overnight. So, you’d imagine that playing with water all day would be a great way to cool off and that you’d actually want to be splashed all day long. And this is true, until you get the surprise bucket.

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The Thais have an ingenious answer to making sure you don’t just stand there and sigh with relief every time you’re splashed, but that you run away screaming bloody murder to the delight of the assailant – putting giant slabs of ice into their water buckets. Even when its so hot outside that you feel like your skin is literally melting off, getting hit by a wall of icy cold water induces a bodily reaction similar to brain freeze. Your back and fingers involuntarily stiffen and your shoulders hunch up around your ears.

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It goes on and on and on for three days straight. They never seem to get tired of it. I enjoyed being in the midst of it and experiencing it, but after a few hours of celebration I was pooped.

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I’ve heard many other foreigners say that they refuse to leave their apartments during this time. And while I had a lot of fun at water play, I can see how it could get old quickly when every time you step outside for a minute means that you’ll have to track mucky water back through your house.

How do the Thais keep it up this long?

It’s evident that they really love this holiday. There are continual smiles on their faces, shouts of joy and shrieks of excitement, loud music and laughter. Both young and old look like they’re up to the highest form of mischief at all times. In the end, I think the reason why they stretch this holiday out as long as possible is because they have permission to abandon social norms.

In the three months I’ve lived in Bangkok, I’ve noticed that Thais go out of their way in order to not violate another person’s personal space. Sit down next to someone on a bench and they’ll scoot equidistant from you and the person on their other side. Rather than scrunch together to make room for one more, most times someone will jump up and offer their seat. It’s not much of a touchy-feely culture; sometimes you get a handshake with a greeting, but hugs are completely out of the question. I don’t blame them… it’s so hot all the time! I sleep in my boxers with a fan pointed directly on me all night long, and still, if Jessie rolls over and her leg inadvertantly touches mine I recoil away from it as if it were a branding iron!

Thais also tend to be very passive and understanding of other’s mistakes. The phrase mai bpen rai (nevermind) is constantly used to dismiss all actions that could be deemed offensive. I’m sure that I’ve done many things that are considered to be culturally appalling here (like stepping over a seated person’s legs or stopping a rolling coin I’ve just dropped by stepping on it), but it’s always forgiven by a sincere mai bpen rai. So when a whole nation whose normal focus is on personal space and non-retaliation is sanctioned to fudge these rules for a couple days, they take it and run with it.

In America we don’t really have any holidays that give us license to break social norms in this way. Halloween and April Fool’s Day are the closest because they encourage trick playing and sneakiness. But I wonder how Americans would react if we were given a government-approved Songkran? Would we have the energy to spend long days playing war with our neighbors? Would we relish torturing innocent by-standers with ice-cold water down their backs and mud facials? Could we pull it off without destroying the fabric of our society?

Songkran was fun and it gave me deeper insight into Thai culture. If you’re ever in Thailand in April you should absolutely make a point to “play water.” And if you can think of a good way to get a 5-day weekend holiday in America, let’s get on that. I think as a society we could do with a few days of mandated fun.

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