Songkran on Samui

It’s billed as the world’s greatest water fight, but some people don’t believe it – until they’ve actually seen it and got soaked umpteen times. When it comes to hyperbole, Songkran takes home all the prizes. In fact when people tell you about it, they’re probably not exaggerating, but playing it down!

However genteel your holiday is (or isn’t), when it comes to Songkran, it’s party time. And you won’t actually need to seek it out: it’s so big, so all-encompassing that it’ll come to you. If you really want to avoid it, you definitely can, but it’ll mean taking fairly drastic measures such as staying holed up in your hotel room, or leaving for a deserted island the day before. Songkran recluses are few and far between, however, as this is one party where the fun is guaranteed and literally on tap.

Thursday 13th April marks the start of this three day festival, with the Thursday being the big water fight day. The following two days are remarkably quiet on Samui, and if you want to continue the festivities then travel to Bangkok; here the aquatically-minded citizenry will be drenching each other for the entire period of Songkran. Speaking of travel, the days leading up to Songkran and the days after it are peak times for all kinds of journeys, and you may need to book tickets extra early to avoid disappointment. For many Thais it’s a time to return home and spend time with family and friends.
Unfortunately, it’s also peak time for road accidents, as there are so many people on the roads, and there’s also, as with western New Year, plenty of drunk driving.

As you no doubt know, Thailand is a country that excels in having fun. And Songkran is the time when that fun reaches its monumental peak. Water is the biggest component of the fun at Thai New Year, and symbolizes purity and bad luck being washed away. In days of yore, families would pour a little water over each other, as a kind of token. That was then, but somewhere along the line, things got out of hand. Then it became an aquatic roller-coaster ride of chaos and mayhem. To say that everyone’s invited to the party is to put it very conservatively. Appear in public and someone will pour a bucket of
water over you. Not just once, but again and again.

songkranThe great water fight kicks off in Chaweng not on the day, but the late afternoon the day before, and you risk a total soaking even then. Take a stroll through the streets at this time and you may think it’s not really much to get excited about – just some people with buckets, right? But these folk are just practicing. This is just a warm-up for the coming marathon.

The following morning may also not look like it’s going to be a very different sort of day. If you’re up early, you can still go to the market, but by 7:00 am, you’ll see people wheeling enormous bins and containers out onto the street in front of their houses and shops, and filling them up. Not so much going on, eh? In fact they’re just getting ready.

Slowly, people come out of their houses and continue what seems like sleepy preparation (they have a very long day ahead of them!). Not just children but adults too are armed with muscled-up super-soakers, often wearing water reserves on their backs. They mean business. The watery blessings of yesteryear are replaced by squirting, hosing and pouring water over as many people as possible. It’s everyone versus everyone. In order to have even more fun, lots more people will pile into flat-bed trucks, first loading them up with the biggest plastic barrels they can find, and then setting off for some drive-by soaking. Truck riders sling out the water at house dwellers as they slowly go past – only to get soaked in return by those standing outside shops, offices and houses. There are so many vehicles on the road that it’s more like a parade than anything else. By mid-morning the ring-road is awash with water. Pedestrians get soaked as they walk along the road, but no matter, as they’re also armed with super-soakers and give as good as they get.

Some of the water has been chilled, and then there’s the talcum powder which gets patted onto people’s faces. Talc is also often mixed in with the water that’s thrown so that people don’t just get soaked, they’ll turn white as paper as well. Tiger balm may also be mixed in with the talc to give that extra ‘cooling’ effect.

songkranUnless you’re actually driving a truck filled with Songkran enthusiasts, it’s pointless setting off on any journey unless it’s just down the road. It’ll take you a long time to get anywhere. Taking the scooter is a fairly scary option; you’ll be amiably stopped at makeshift roadblocks every few metres, and a fresh bucket of water will be poured over you. Your face will be white from all that talcum powder, and your knuckles will be white from driving in such weird conditions.

Chaweng Beach Road is the most crowded and hedonistic place to experience Songkran. The very same people who started throwing water the afternoon before, will now be in true party spirit. There’ll also be foam parties, lots of music and impromptu social gatherings. There’ll be plenty of drinking as well, with foreigners often tending to lead the way on that front.

Lamai, Chaweng’s little sister, is fairly raucous and provides much the same scenes. Nathon is more traditional, and since its shops are largely open to the main road, there’s less water-throwing here. (Incidentally, don’t even think about taking that super-soaker into a shop, anywhere on the island.) In the south of the island, where the population’s not so dense, there’ll be correspondingly fewer people taking part. Maenam also seems a quieter option – though not on the ring-road.

Probably though, you’re just better off staying where you are. It’s not like the western New Year’s Eve where you have to weigh up options for finding a wonderful party and hope you’ve made the right pick. Here, unless you’ve specifically planned for it, Songkran is going to pick you.

If you’re on Samui with small children, then you’ll need to think about them. Many take to Songkran like ducks to water, but not all – what’s endless fun for some, may just be overkill for others. For the small and eager, water pistols through to military-style supersoakers are available just about everywhere. Most children will be eerily adept at picking out the weapon of their choice. Best indulge them; keep in mind there’s nothing sadder than the sight of a child without fire-power on the day.

Is Songkran enjoyable? It’s one of the best times to be on Samui, without a doubt, and it’ll be a time to remember. Perhaps though, it’s one of the few times when the camera’s best forgotten, unless it’s of the type that you can go swimming with.

Dimitri Waring