Songkran - love it or leave town

John Borthwick

If two new year celebrations aren't enough for you, Thailand has a third coming up soon. Following international new year and then Chinese new year is mid-April's Songkran festival, heralding the Buddhist year 2556.

Most of Thailand splashes its way with reasonable sanity through this traditional water festival that runs from about April 13 to 15. After Wan Lai day - "The Day that Flows" - the nation then towels itself dry and gets back to work, play or whatever.

But what does Pattaya do? In this resort town south-east of Bangkok, resident sceptics and drenched dogs might call it not The Day that Flows, but The Week that Drowns. Living up to its motto of "The Extreme City", Pattaya goes bonkers by hosting a week-long water-fight, which culminates in the sodden mayhem of April 19.

How did it come to this? Songkran - the word derives from a Sanskrit term for the new solar year - probably arrived from India some 2500 years ago. Thais traditionally gave their homes a thorough spring-cleaning before the festival in the belief that things old or useless should be discarded lest they bring bad luck to the owner. Many people still release fish and birds at this time for spiritual merit, while millions of others return to their home towns for feasts and family reunions.

Visiting their local temple, Thais will offer food to the monks and sprinkle scented water on Buddha images. In a ceremony known as Rod Nam Dam Hua, villagers line up to pour water on the hands of their community's oldest members, blessing them for the coming year. No water cannons, ice bins or drunken farang (foreigners) imagining that they have "gone Thai" are involved.

Should you find yourself in Pattaya or near Bangkok's Khao San Road, here's what to expect. It all starts amiably enough. Zap! The first jet of water from a pistol hits your neck. Given that April is the hot season, the chill is not entirely unpleasant. As a farang, you are a "mark", so don't hit the streets wearing or carrying anything that you don't mind having thoroughly soaked. Your wallet, phone, etc should be in a zip-lock plastic pouch. Regardless of your plans, within 15 minutes you're going to look like you took your morning shower fully clothed and then stepped out on to the street.

Many expats opt for extreme avoidance, leaving town, if not the country, by April 12, and not returning until the 20th. Others enjoy a less waterlogged version of Songkran in neighbouring Burma, Laos or Cambodia, where it is celebrated more sanely.

Remaining in Bangkok you might have only a two-day drenching. Your chances of "dryness" will increase in direct ratio to your distance from the farang hot spots of Khao San Road, Patpong and Nana, and to your time spent indoors during the day. (Theoretically, there is a ceasefire of Songkran water-borne hostilities at dusk - but don't you believe it.) Should you see a water pistol, cannon or bucket pointed at you, never draw attention by pleading for mercy "no, not me, please not this time. I'm on my way to a life-changing meeting with my boss/girlfriend/ the President". You've just painted a bulls-eye on your forehead. Prepare to get very, very wet.

The water ritual originally meant a few gentle sprinkles as a sign of respect from young Thais to their elders. These days, Bangkok kids pay "respect" to farang (of any age) by flocking to Khao San Road and circling the area in pick-up trucks loaded with barrels of ice water and the H{-2}O equivalent of grenade launchers. They open gleeful, lethal fire on anything that moves. The only sentient beings I see granted an exemption are a procession of monks who glide serenely through the riot, blessing its madness.

Respect also comes to you in the form of liquid clay that is gently daubed on your cheeks by Thai kids. After 20 or more of these politenesses you look like a recently risen zombie.

The main Songkran event, the "big splash" known as Saad Nam, usually falls on April 13 or 14. As April 14 is a Sunday this year, the Songkran public holiday will be on Tuesday, April 16. Across the kingdom firing squads of teenagers will let loose with arsenals of hoses, buckets and water pistols. Everyone is expected to take their punishment with good humour. After all, it's only one day - or maybe three - of the year. Except in Pattaya where it is at least seven.

The festivities are similarly exuberant up north in Chiang Mai, where revellers wade into the Ping River, scooping up water in buckets. A Queen of the Water Festival is chosen - no, it's not a wet T-shirt contest - and the city turns on a three-day, water-cooled carnival of music and dance. Hotels in Chiang Mai and elsewhere are heavily booked for this period, so get in early if you plan to travel there.

Right across the country millions of Thais are on the move for the Songkran break and, just like Easter in other countries, the road trauma figures can be horrendous.

Some 8000 people die on Thai roads each year, and Songkran delivers one of the worst spikes, with sometimes more than 100 people a day dying in smashes. The roads are awash with water, clay and alcohol. Kids perched atop pick-ups target passing vehicles, especially motorcycles, while other kids, riding shotgun on those motorbikes return fire.

It's all good, clean Thai fun until a speeding passenger van clips a wobbling bike, and Thai new year 2556 racks up yet more ruined lives.

What then to do? Leave town? Leave Thailand? Certainly avoid inter-city vans like the plague, and motorcycles like a hearse.

Head for the hills, literally - is probably the best advice. In quiet rural towns and backwater beaches you'll have the pleasure and honour of a bit of a splash, some clay tenderly daubed on your cheek and a big smile.