In defense of Thailand's most unruly holiday


AYUTTHAYA, THAILAND: A Thai boy throws water on elephants during Songkran in 2008.


Paula Bronstein

I've just written a highly depressing account of Songkran, Thailand's schizophrenic lunar new year's celebration.

It is a time of reverence, paying homage to elders and cleansing Buddha statues to begin a season anew. It also a time to drink, flirt and forget the past year's troubles. Sadly, all that unruly merrymaking leads to a lot of death and injury. The week-long celebration is halfway over and already 116 people have died, largely from traffic accidents, according to Thai media reports.

But despite my focus on the the holiday's ugly side, I'm actually a huge Songkran apologist. Why? Because it rewards people with a sense of humor and tortures people who take themselves too seriously.

Unless you cower indoors -- as many do -- you will take a bucket of water to the face repeatedly during Songkran. Often, the water will be laced with ice cubes. You might be dressed in jeans, which take hours to dry. Or worse yet, slacks, because you're en route to work.

But Songkran doesn't care that you'll show up to your meeting tracking water into the lobby. Songkran doesn't care if it ruins your iPhone. Or that you're just dashing to the 7-11 because the toilet paper is spent and really don't want to get drenched. Songkran always favors the shirtless dude with the water cannon and never the dope trying to run errands.

Many who've experienced Songkran hit that threshold where you're weary of always walking around wet, toes squishing in your socks, underwear chafing your thighs, your drenched body shuddering from air conditioning inside a train or taxi.

This is where a lot of people tap out on Songkran and go bitter. Some of these people are my friends. The worst are know-it-alls convinced that Songkran revelry is the lot of punk teenagers, tourists and pollyanna-ish foreigners who see all things Thai through a rose-colored lens. Just live here long enough, they say, and you'll grow to hate it too.

But I don't find the same cachet in feeling jaded. I don't want to stop marveling at the sublime weirdness of a holiday that shuts down an entire country and hands it over to marauders with water guns. Thai culture absolutely forbids lashing in anger, especially if your assailants are kids. So why not change into swimming gear and go to war?

Does Songkran sometimes become too unruly? Absolutely. But it also achieves a level of raucous fun that Western litigiousness would never allow. And it explodes like this, in part, because a huge portion of the Thai working class only get one week off each year: Songkran.

Halloween is lightweight in comparison.

Paula Bronstein - Getty Images


Saeed Khan - AFP/Getty Images