For three days this April, Thailand was shut down. Over 100,000 police officers
manned roadblocks, hospitals around the country were on full alert and Prime Minister
Shinawatra warned that the country’s future population levels were in jeopardy.
International terrorism? A new outbreak of SARS? No – a waterfight, but
the biggest one the world had ever seen. For the 72 hours of Songkran (Thai New
Year), the Land of Smiles descended into an anarchy of water pistols, fire hoses
and buckets as 60 million people bunked off work, got smashed on Mekong whiskey
and chucked water at each other.
Songkran falls at the hottest time of year, when soaring temperatures (40C and up) incite even the most sensible Thais to down a few Singha beers, pick up a Supersoaker and hose down their neighbours. I headed to Chiang Mai in the north, where the Songkran party is celebrated harder and longer than anywhere in the country. This was no booze up limited to a rumble zone in the city centre: every street from the shanty-town suburbs to the Governor’s mansion was criss-crossed with garden hoses spraying passers-by and manned by kids toting buckets of ice-cold water.
The rules were simple: everyone was fair game and the wetter you got them,
the holier and luckier your year ahead would be. Motor scooters sneaked up behind
me and aimed laser streams of watery death down my back - but pick-up trucks were
the ones to really avoid. Over-loaded with 55-gallon drums of water and driven
by teenagers who’d spent too much time playing Grand Theft Auto, these battleships
would career wildly across three lanes of traffic just to empty a bucket over
an unsuspecting foreigner.
The only defence was offence. Grab a gun, shoot before you’re shot and keep moving, always keep moving. I ended up at the city’s moats, drawn by the sound of pumping techno, splashing and screaming. The scene was pure chaos: girls in wet t-shirts being hosed down from passing cars, kids in fancy dress dragging up buckets of filthy water from the canals, lady boys with bicycle pumps, and even a platoon of police in life-jackets watching helplessly from the sidelines.
Staying dry simply wasn't an option - and even staying alive amid the speeding motorbikes and ice blocks being thrown around was a challenge. Songkran usually claims about a thousand lives across the country, numbers that forced the Government to issue a warning about future population levels if the chaos continues. But it's no coincidence that there's also a sharp rise in births every January, exactly nine months after the three full-on party days of Songkran. Deaths, births and the biggest waterfight of your life - Songkran is just your average Karma-geddon.
Songkran was traditionally a Buddhist celebration, where you bathed the golden Buddha statues or sprinkled water and scented powder over your elders as a blessing.
A record 821 fewer Thais made it to the New Year this April, with most of the casualties blamed on boozed-up motorbike riders, no crash helmets and slippery roads.