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Every year between April 13th and 16th, Thailand celebrates Songkran or Thai New Year. It is also referred to as the 'Water Festival", due to the huge part water plays in the festivities. Thailand now uses a Western calendar and marks the New Year on December 31st, but the old Thai calendar was based on lunar cycles and the first day of the New Year was the 13th of April. Although celebrated throughout the country, the northern city of Chiang Mai sees particularly enthusiastic participation.

Many rituals and celebrations take place during the festival. These may be as simple as visiting the local temple to make offerings of food and clothing to the monks. Sometimes friends will exchange string to tie around one another's wrists. This must be left to fall off and signifies wishes for good fortune in the New Year.

Often elders will be found roaming with a bowl of white powder or paste. This will be applied to the face and neck to ward off evil spirits, but the most recognizable ritual of Songkran is the sprinkling, splashing and spraying of water.

There are 3 different aspects to the use of water in the festival. Firstly, a gentle sprinkle of water over the head may be used as a blessing. A more liberal dousing can signify a wish for rain during the next year and a successful rice crop. Full scale drenching is generally reserved to wash away bad luck. But seriously, it is not that regimented. People roam the street having much fun spraying all in their path. Farang (foreign people), get a good splashing as well. The local fire truck sometimes gets an outing to help along the festivities.

Unfortunately, as celebrations have become more voracious around the turn of the Twentieth Century, accidents such as drowning and electrocution have been on the increase. Sadly 375 deaths and tens of thousands of injuries were reported during the 2001 festival.

Imagine looking out into the street and seeing total mayhem. A civil war being raged in the streets where it is brother against brother and nobody is safe. Drive-by shootings from the back of motorcycles and pick-up trucks. Huge canons being fired into crowds from the side of the road.

Now replace the bullets and blood with water; the screams of pain with howls of joy and you have Songkran (pronounced Songkan) in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.

For five days you cannot go outside during the day in Chiang Mai without being totally drenched. There are no taxis in Chiang Mai either, only tuk tuks and the crowds are always waiting to douse anybody they can. Everybody is fair game and people use all types of water conveying tools from simple buckets to water pistols to large canons to huge ice filled drums in the back of pick-up trucks.

The annual death toll from Songkran is also enough to fill such a short war. The official 2003 figures were 547 killed and 35891 injured, mostly from motorbike accidents and more often than not involving alcohol.

The origins of the water throwing derive from the age old custom of pouring water onto friends and relatives in order to bring good luck. Even today this custom is observed- not in the streets- but at home and is more widespread in the provinces. People will kneel before and pour scented water over the cupped hands of older relatives. The person receiving the water will sometimes recite a Buddhist incantation. After the water has been poured over the hands, the relative may then sprinkle some of the water onto the younger person’s head to cool them. A white powder is also sometimes smeared onto the cheeks. A small amount of water can also be poured over the shoulders as a sign of respect.

During the holiday period people visit shrines and pour water over an array of buddist statues to bring good fortune.

There is a legend behind the Songkran festival. King Kabilprom was threatened by the charm and popularity of a man named Thammabal Kuman, whom it was reported could communicate with animals. The King summoned Kuman and posed three questions to him, announcing that if he could not answer them he would be be-headed. However if Kumom was able to answer the questions, the King would have himself be-headed. He had seven days to come up with the answers.
Kuman easily answered the first two questions but was pondering the third under a tree when a bird whispered the answer to him. Thus the king lived up to his word to have himself be-headed. Before he did so, he asked his seven daughters to take turns in carrying his head around the world once a year so that his subjects could gaze upon it. Each daughter has her own weapon and individual power and the day that the Lunar New Year falls on determines which daughter will carry the head each year. One daughter for each day of the week.

source for legend: Bangkok Times 13/4/03

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