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Thai New Year: A Very Wet Welcome

By David Haldane

April 29, 2024



The squirting started early.

I can’t say we hadn’t been warned. “Don’t be surprised if you get squirted on your way in,” our friend and host, Gordon Kay, had told us. “No worries, though, it’s all in good fun.”

The reason for the expected soaking: our arrival in Thailand coincided with the beginning of the country’s annual Songkran Festival, its traditional New Year celebration. That’s when, well, let’s just say water loses its gravity and flies everywhere. Especially into your face.

“No problem,” I’d gamely replied, “it sounds interesting.” Which, of course, turned out to be the understatement of the year.

In fact, the mid-April celebration — also called the Water Festival — is deeply rooted in Thai culture and tradition. Believed to have originated among the ancient Hindus, it marks the end of the dry season and beginning of the rainfall critical to the nation’s agriculture. During Songkran—derived from the Sanskrit word “Sankranti” meaning “transformation”—Thais visit temples, offer food to the monks, and perform traditional rituals designed to bring prosperity for the coming year.

They also ruthlessly attack anyone in sight with squirt guns, buckets, and water hoses. Why? To cleanse them of their sins and misfortunes, naturally, and purify them for what is to come. Which, in our case, included swimming in foam-filled pools, dancing our hearts out in a frenetic frenzy, and watching the beautiful sunset from Patong Beach in Phuket, where we were staying.

Oh yes, and inspecting the luscious-looking display of edible bugs on sale before inching our way home through the drenched crowd of water warriors looking to enhance our karma even further with their squirt guns.

No worries, though, as Gordon had predicted, it was “all in good fun.”

I’ll admit to only one bad moment. It came when, stuck in a molasses of soaked humanity on Patong’s famous walking street, Bangla Road, it occurred to me that this was just like Seoul, South Korea, in 2022. That’s when a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of 100,000 Halloween celebrants stampeded after several young men started pushing, causing people to tumble onto each other like dominoes. The ultimate toll: 159 crushed to death and 196 injured.

The same thing could happen here, I grimly thought as my dripping four-year-old daughter sat wailing on her mother’s shoulders. Ah, but then the crowd magically thinned, and my panic silently abated.

OK, I’ll acknowledge another terrible moment—actually several thousand of them—beginning the very next morning. To properly understand, one must return to “dancing our hearts out in a frenetic frenzy.” Actually, it was only me who did that. Accompanied by a handful of extremely strange strangers whose names I did not know.

Here’s the thing: my current existence stems from a rather sordid past filled with wild whims I’d rather not disclose. But there’s one I’m willing to admit: I was once a crazy hippie dancer. The kind that stood alone at concerts, allowing his body to undulate in weird, never-before-seen ways. A long-haired youth attacked by the mean rolls of rock that would enter his bones—sometimes aided by certain then-illegal substances—to settle deep inside. From where they would control his movements with a will all their own.

It was Phuket that finally reawakened those ancient rhythms in me. To the point where—how can I put this—I felt inspired to dance like it was 1969. The problem, of course, was that it was actually 55 years later. A time when, for this aging boomer anyway, “dancing your heart out” could literally mean having a heart attack.

And so it came as no surprise that, early the next morning, I awoke with the mother of all body aches, leaving me bedridden the entire day.

Was it worth it? You bet. Why? Because, well, braving all those squirt guns really did leave me cleansed. Which is especially helpful when you’re too stiff to take a shower.





David Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.


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