In the midst of parades and street parties, people customarily douse each other with buckets of water and handfuls of baby powder. In Thailand, this is the festival that people spends months looking forward to, and it's a celebration that visitors are lucky to witness. Social decorum is thrown to the wayside, public revelry/drunkenness becomes a norm, and those conspicuous sweat stains on your T-shirts will no longer be a cause for embarrassment once the water start flying.
Celebrants take no exception, whether you're a businessman or backpacker, every person on the street is a target for buckets of water or high-tech waterguns wielded by children. In most of Thailand, this holiday lasts for three or four days, but Chiang Mai becomes the Bourbon Street of the country, with festivities lasting up to nine days.
The custom of throwing water originated as a sign of respect. Traditionally, communities would pay respect to elders and children to parents by sprinkling water on their hands as a cleansing of bad fortune and gesture of good luck. However, people may sometimes bypass the traditions of the ritual as they get caught up in the fun. After all, Songkran takes place during the peak of Thailand's dry season; the hottest time of the year. Though Songkran has fast become a nonstop party of Animal House proportion, the origins of the festival are rooted in the home. Traditionally, the holiday was about honouring parents and elders, with children coming home to see their families and offer gifts to them.
People also go to temples on this holiday, often bringing handfuls of sand to compensate for the dirt they carried away on their feet throughout the year. Visitors pray, offer food to monks, and help clean Buddha images in the wats. If you're in a city like Chiang Mai for Songktran, don't be surprised to see Buddha statues paraded through the streets. This allows people to throw water on the statues as they pass by, cleaning them in the middle of the festivities.
Despite the debaucherous atmosphere, one should bear in mind that as a visitor to Thailand, enthusiasm for local festivals is widely appreciated. Friendly, festive Thai people will encourage you to take part in the revelry, but remember that despite the free-flowing water (and whiskey), Songkran is still a family event, and the street parties should remain PG, at least during the daytime. Among Thai people, it goes without saying that daily drenchings are to be expected.
Tourists, however, may need reminding, and should take care to protect cameras, ipods, important tickets, and other non-soakables.
While the whole country participates in Songkran, you might find that the most active celebrations take place inland, where Thai people endure the most heat. Cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Bangkok will all offer good parties day and night. Tourists should be extra-cautious on the roads at this time, as many whiskey-loving celebrants might be driving trucks or motorbikes.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.