How to Survive Songkran in Thailand

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Back in November, I was doing some research for work and came across an article on the world’s best cultural festivals.  It was there that I learned about Songkran in Thailand and I knew I had to see this fabulous and exciting event in action.  The next day I was on the phone with American booking a ticket to Thailand.  In case you aren’t familiar, Songkran is Thailand’s new year celebration and for three days, the entire country partakes in a giant water fight that lasts morning until evening.  And in no city is it more boisterous and wild than in Chiang Mai.

Having recently returned from Thailand, I thought I’d share some of my tips on surviving Songkran in Chiang Mai….

The blogs aren’t kidding when they tell you NO ONE is safe in Thailand during Songkran.  Be prepared to be drenched within 30 seconds of leaving your hotel.  Doesn’t matter if you are a foreigner or a local, old or young.  Everyone is a moving target and a possible recipient for dousing.  You’ll see shopkeepers lined up along the streets with trashcans full of water, waiting with buckets to dump on your head.  People on motorbikes carrying water guns to shoot people as they pass.  Trucks with kids hanging out the back armed with every water throwing method imaginable.  If you’re driving in a car, don’t be alarmed by the loud thumps you’ll frequently hear on the side of the car–it’s just local children throwing buckets of water at the car as it passes.  This is all normal 🙂

1. Waterproof everything.  Before leaving for Thailand, I went to a sporting goods store and bought a bunch of waterproof scuba dive bags in various sizes.  I also purchased a waterproof bag for my iPhone attached to lanyard so I could put it around my neck…I recommend one that allows you to use it within the bag so that you aren’t tempted to remove your phone if you need to use it.  Don’t be cheap and try to get away with only using plastic bags.  While this is obviously better than nothing, it still doesn’t have heavy duty protection.  I think a good rule of thumb is, if you don’t think you’re protection method would hold up when jumping into a pool, then it probably isn’t enough!

2. Even after waterproofing everything, STILL don’t take anything outside that you can’t bear to ruin.  I’ve heard too many stories of broken iPhones and cameras when venturing out during Songkran.  Consider carefully what you choose to bring out on these days.  If a picture is worth risking your camera’s life, then go for it.  But if you’ll be devastated if it breaks, maybe forego it for the days.  I am somewhat stupid, but I decided it was worth the risk to get good pictures and took mine out (who knows when I’ll experience this cultural phenomenon again!)  However I had my camera in a scuba dive bag, within a waterproof backpack, covered by a trash bag, worn on my front so I could use my arms and body as an additional shield of protection.  A disposable waterproof camera is a great investment for Songkran.

3. Don a stylish pair of goggles, poncho, & carefully consider wardrobe choices.  You’ll notice a lot of dirty moat water in people’s buckets that looks far from sanitary throughout the course of Sonkran.  If you are a bit of a germaphobe, tired of spending your entire day wet, or attempting to protect your eye makeup/clothes/etc, you may want to invest in a pair of goggles and/or poncho.  I may have looked silly walking around wearing goggles but after a few incidents with my contacts rolling around from getting water in them, I decided it was worth the somewhat silly grins from people as I passed.  You’ll also see a lot of people wearing ponchos, which is a good idea if you are going sight-seeing and don’t want to sit in wet clothes all day.  Also be aware when picking out clothes for the day, that you aren’t selecting anything that is going to be completely see through if it gets wet…beware the white t-shirts ha.

4. If you don’t want to get wet, avoid eye contact.  I found that once you made eye contact with a water thrower, they took that as a sign of game on.  Whether you welcome the water or express distress at the fact, it only seems to get them more excited to dunk you.  Keep in mind that a lot of the people squirting and throwing water are drunk…and if you ignore them, it’s far less exciting to pay attention to you.

5. Leave early, come home late.  Partaking in Songkran festivities is rather exhausting, so you’ll find that mornings are often a safe time to venture out of your hotel and avoid maximum water damage.  The revelers are often still sleeping at 8, 9, 10am and you can often make a run for your tour van and make it to safety.  The tourists sites and pretty safe in general — since the water isn’t coming inside for the most part.  Technically the water throwing is supposed to stop once the sun goes down (at 6PM), you’ll often find people disregarding this rule and continuing play til about 8PM.  But usually after that you are also safe to walk around the city streets and may be able to come home dry (although no guarantees ha).

6. Beware taxis and other vehicles.  A prime target, in particular, seems to be taxis and vehicles.  Dry victims are definitely the favorite and those in vehicles are considered due for a dunking.  If you are smart, you’ll avoid exiting a taxi on the major city streets.  And if you really don’t want to get wet, DO NOT TAKE A TUK TUK.  You’ll be sopping in a matter of moments, driving through the streets in these open air taxis.  Traffic is bad, so vehicles are forced to make many long stops, during which revelers will cross into traffic to throw water on you.

7. Run.  You may not be able to hide, but you can certainly run!  If you’re fast, you might just be able to avoid a bathing or two.  Of course, there is likely another squirt gun right around the corner waiting to get you.  I remember movie-like moments of my friends and I running desperately as fast as we could through the streets…getting split up as one man would go down to a squirt gun, while the rest continued onward.  Eventually everyone would get to the destination, but we lost a lot of good men temporarily to the water fight!

8. When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.  I got lost one day and was getting continually dunked as I wandered the streets alone.  The sun was going down and I wasn’t getting reception to find my way home.  Eventually I came across a restaurant that had a handful of people waiting to douse passerby’s, two of the partiers got me really good…and then started up a conversation with me and ended up inviting me to join them.  I was lost, wet, and had no other plans so I said yes, naturally.  I ordered a bucket (literally a bucket of alcohol that are very prevalent in Southeast Asia and make you feel like a bona-fide spring breaker), picked up a squirt gun and started drenching the people who walked by.  I quickly realized that it is quite fun when you’re participating vs. just falling victim to the games.  I didn’t mind as much when people squired me, knowing that I could squirt them back.  And planning attacks on on comers quickly became a source of immense excitement and frivolity.  I highly recommend picking up a bucket and joining in the fun, if you’re ever in Thailand during this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of an occasion.

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