Songkran is a Buddhist holiday celebrated in April, which is the hottest time of the year in Southeast Asia. It has some deeper religious meanings, but like our own holidays in the West, it has pretty much become just a big party and an excuse to get drunk.
And throw water on people.
Yes, the way you celebrate Songkran is to stand by the road with a large trash can full of water and a bucket so you can splash people as they go by on motorcycles or in trucks. Folks in the back of trucks will likely be toting around their own water supply and douse you right back. Or else be armed with water guns.
The buckets are a lot worse to get hit with.
This goes on for three days. That’s right. THREE DAYS! Sometimes longer in small towns, as the kids will stand outside their houses with buckets and hoses and spray people for a week. April and May are their summer break from school, so what else do they have to do?
My first Songkran was rather unforgettable. I was in the back of a truck, going on a trip with some of my English students, who DID NOT TELL ME IT WAS SONGKRAN. I was wondering why everyone was ducking all of a sudden.
This caused a lot of problems later, as my passport got wet and I had trouble renewing my visa the following July.
Another Songkran, I was actually living in Chiang Mai, right next to the moat. Yes, Chiang Mai has a moat, which marks the boundary of the old city. And yes, it has water in it. And yes, they use the moat water to throw on people during Songkran. And yes, this causes a lot of health problems.
I had planned to just stay in my room for three days. I even checked out a stack of books from the library and purchased several more from a used bookstore. But I had no air conditioning, it was the hottest season of the year, and I ran out of drinking water.
So I had to venture out and walk down to the corner to buy drinking water, trying very hard not to cuss out the tourists throwing water on me. Oh yeah, most of the people in Chiang Mai throwing water are not the local Thais, but the tourists. For Thai people, the novelty wore off at around age 10.
Now Songkran is approaching again. I plan on staying indoors, or even going to visit the village for three days. They don’t celebrate Songkran in the Lisu villages, as the Lisu are not Buddhists.
The Lisu, in fact, find Songkran just as annoying as I do, as illustrated by the following story from my husband.
An elderly Lisu woman was returning to her village by bus. She climbed on the bus in Chiang Mai, sat by the window, and calmly chewed her betel nut.
Betel nut is a mild narcotic that is commonly chewed by the older generation of villagers in Thailand. It turns their teeth red, and later black, but they actually think black teeth are “healthy.” Chewing betel nut requires periodic spitting, much like chewing tobacco does.
Now the windows of the bus were wide open, as the public buses only have fans and no air conditioning. Public buses are also popular targets for the people celebrating Songkran, as the passengers are mostly “unarmed.”
Naturally, someone on the street threw a bucket of water at the bus, dousing the poor Lisu woman, who just wanted to get home.
So the Lisu woman takes a long swig of water, swishes it around in her mouth, which you may remember is full of betel nut, and spews it right back at out the window and all over the people on the street.
By the way, Lisu people are very good at spitting.
Apparently, they are also good at revenge.