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Water fight! Soaked at Thailand's Songkran festival

By Nick Thompson, for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Songkran festival marks the traditional beginning of the new year in Thailand
  • The celebration has evolved to include massive city-wide water fights in recent years
  • Songkran water fights are rooted in Hindu and Buddhist water rituals going back thousands of years

(CNN) -- The traditional Thai new year kicked off in Bangkok on April 13 with the world's largest water fight.

Thousands of revelers of all ages took to the streets to soak each other with buckets, balloons and water guns to celebrate Songkran, which marks the beginning of the lunar year in Thailand.

The ancient religious festival is an opportunity for Thais to relax with family, pay respect to monks and elders, and receive blessings of prosperity for the new year.

It's also a chance for people of all ages to get involved in Songkran's epic, world-renowned water fights during the hottest month of the year in Thailand.

From morning until night, water gun-toting families in the backs of pick-up trucks engage in pitched water battles with pedestrians as they drive through the streets of towns and cities across Thailand.

It's chaotic but beautiful in its own way because of how much fun everyone's having.
--Mike Rios, U.S. citizen living in Thailand

Mike Rios, a 28-year-old American who has lived in Thailand and Southeast Asia since 2006, says his first Songkran was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

"It's chaotic but beautiful in its own way because of how much fun everyone's having," he said. "I felt like a little kid again, and I did for the whole week."

The water fights of modern Songkran, a word derived from Sanskrit signifying the movement of the sun from the Pisces to the Aries zodiac orbit, have their roots in Hindu and Buddhist water rituals going back over 7,000 years.

"The water throwing we see now comes from how water used to cleanse spirits," says Dr. Thak Chaloemtiarana, a professor of Southeast Asian and Thai Studies at Cornell University in New York.

"Originally one would go to temples and pour fragranced water on Buddha images to cleanse them, or you would go to visit your elder relatives and pour water on their hands to ask for their blessings, and it was quite an elegant religious ceremony."

While Songkran has evolved into more of a "young person's holiday" in recent years, many modern Thais still practice the Songkran rituals of their ancestors today, according to Chaloemtiarana.

Like every Buddhist holiday, Songkran often begins with the practice of feeding and "making merit" to local monks.

In addition to washing Buddha images during visits to local temples, many Thais build small sand replicas of "chedis," structures originally erected to house relics of the Buddha.

In many towns, the main street is lined with families wearing traditional Thai attire watching Songkran parades featuring elaborate floral floats or "Miss Songkran" beauty pageants -- or, as in parts of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai provinces, elephants painted vibrant colors will spray passers by with water.

It was quite an elegant religious ceremony, now it's more of a young person's holiday.
--Dr. Thak Chaloemtiarana
RELATED TOPICS
  • Bangkok
  • Buddhism
  • Chiang Mai
  • Holidays
  • Religion
  • Thailand

In addition to washing Buddha images during visits to local temples, many Thais build small sand replicas of "chedis," structures originally erected to house relics of the Buddha.

Another celebration ritual is the annual unveiling of the "Songkran Lady," says Rutchabhoom Boonrawd, the press secretary for the Royal Thai Embassy in London.

According to traditional beliefs, the symbolic Songkran Lady predicts the fortunes of the country for the upcoming year. Unfortunately, this year's Songkran Lady is "riding an elephant and is angry" -- a sign that Thailand's year will be filled with natural disasters, according to Boonrawd.

Negative premonitions about the future aside, Songkran is like Christmas in the sense that Thais -- especially city-dwellers -- look forward to the holiday all year as an opportunity to spend quality time with their families, according to Rios.

"For a lot of people in the city, it's the only time they'll go back home all year," he says.

"Whoever can (afford to) leave town does," says Tom Stone, a 63-year-old retired engineer who has been photographing and writing about the festival in Thailand's Isaan region for over a decade. "My favorite thing about Songkran is seeing families reunited and having a good time."

While many Thais return home to the relative calm of their rural hometowns and villages during the holiday, thousands of backpacking tourists mix with locals at massive Songkran street parties in cities like the capital Bangkok or the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Songkran, like holiday periods around the world, often involves a great deal of drinking, something Rios attributes to the more negative aspects of the festival.

"People drink a lot, and every year drunk-driving accidents are a really big problem," he says. "And when there is alcohol there are sometime fights and sexual harassment."

More than 3,500 traffic accidents resulted in 361 deaths during Songkran last year, The Bangkok Post reported last week.

Overall, Songkran in most places has a distinctly "community feel" to it, says Rios -- even in the heat of the fiercest water wars.

"You'll get grandma and grandpa in the same truck with the little kids who might be having their first Songkran," he says. "You have the whole family together and it's all smiles, and that's really cool."

 
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