Celebrating Songkran in Phuket
I spent my first night back in Thailand soaked to the bone from ice-cold water by none other than the Thai locals! It was one hell of a way to kick off Songkran, the Thai New Year. I used to dream about spending New Year's Eve in Times Square, but now I'm convinced the best way to celebrate any new year is with a massive water fight.
Songkran is celebrated by Buddhists and is celebrated throughout Southeast Asia, including Laos and Myanmar. Different regions in Thailand celebrate Songkran for different amounts of days. In Chiang Mai, the celebration lasts four days and is considered the most "culturally authentic" version of Songkran. In Phuket, which is filled with tourists, the celebration lasts one night only, the first night of Songkran. But regardless of the number of days, Songkran is always celebrated with water.
In Thailand, major streets are closed to traffic so that everyone -- young and old, local and foreigner -- can partake in the massive water festivities that Songkran is so well known for. Locals splash (or spray) water on each other, which signifies blessings for the new year. Songkran is also an important time of the year for Thais to reunite with their families, visit temples, and prepare for a fresh start.
Songkran seemed like the perfect time for me to return to Thailand.
Darcy, Jeff, Gabby and I arrived in Phuket the first night that Songkran began. I had met Darcy at a hostel in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, then he introduced me to Gabby and Jeff when we met up again in Langkawi. After being persuaded to join them in crossing the border from Malaysia to Thailand, we endured 14 hours of travel that included a ferry, bus, and taxi. With just a taxi ride standing between us and our final destination in Phuket, we clamored into an open truck after relenting to the taxi driver's demands for an exuberant taxi fee between the four of us.
As we made our way into town in the open truck, we quickly realized how vulnerable we were: local Thais stood ready on the streets, armed with massive water guns filled with ice-cold water. With huge smiles and excited yelling, they didn't hold back as they sprayed us with water as we sat in the back of the truck! There was nothing to do but smile and laugh the whole way into town, but not before throwing our backpacks in the very back and making sure our cell phones were out of reach. Some Thais stood ready with water hoses - any water was game!
With bumper-to-bumper traffic from the festivities, we were in that truck for nearly an hour. When we finally arrived at the hostel, I was completely soaked because I had been closest to the street while sitting in the truck. We quickly changed, found food, and made the game time decision to celebrate that night despite being so tired.
After comparing prices and quality on the street for water guns (quality is important!), we each bought water guns for $6 and quickly found water stations on the street to fill them up. And by water station, I mean buckets and bins full of water, with crowds of locals and tourists lining up to fill up their weapons of choice. You do not want to be without water when it comes to Songkran!
Then we hit the streets. And we loved it.
I have never seen people so happy and so ready to play, and the Thai people's smiles were infectious. The crazy part? Everyone was totally sober! There was no reason to drink when you had to have sharp eyes and quick reflexes to gang up on anyone who was spraying you with water! Bangla Road, the main party street running through Phuket, was full of raucos laughter and cheerfulness.
As we moved through the crowds, Thai people smeared chalk on our faces as a blessing. Our clothes were soaked within minutes, and we went through the water in our water guns quickly.
At one point, Darcy and I thought we were being really brilliant and smart by putting on our snorkel masks to protect our eyes from the constant water and chalk. The problem? We forgot we couldn't breathe because our noses were covered! The masks quickly fogged up and instead we found ourselves squinting through our masks and laughing at our stupidity. The snorkel masks didn't last long!
The worst surprise was being hit with ice-cold, bone-chilling water. Turns out you could fill up with ice water for 10 baht! The Thais loved using cold water and some would slip ice cubes down your back! You always had to be on guard, water gun at the ready for any potential attackers.
Songkran was one big, glorious Thai party and it was blast to celebrate it with locals. At around 1am, we all ran out of water at about the same time. Darcy's water gun broke (so much for quality) and exhaustion was finally starting to get the best of us. Instead of spending time looking for another water station, we turned back towards the hostel. A hot shower was much needed and we were all asleep within minutes.
Turns out it was a good thing we went out that night -- that was the only night the locals celebrated Songkran in Phuket! On Friday and Saturday night, there were the usual drunken shenanigans on Bangla Road, but no water guns or bins of water in sight. We were disappointed we only got one night to celebrate the Thai new year, but we were grateful we managed to make it out that night!
Have you ever celebrated an annual festival in another country? What did you think?