Celebrating the festival of Songkran on Phuket

not a new zombie flick...it's Songkran in Phuket

The Thai Songkran Festival is the biggest national celebration on the country’s annual events calendar. The festival was originally unique to the northern regions of Thailand and other specific parts of Southeast Asia. Nowadays, it is celebrated throughout Thailand and Phuket is one of the preferred destinations for domestic travellers to mark this auspicious time of year.

Songkran translates loosely as the sun moving into its next astrological cycle and until the 1880s marked the Thai New Year. The three main days of Songkran between 13 and 16 April are a national holiday. Most Thais stretch the holiday to a week and travel north to Chiang Mai or south to beach locations such as Koh Samui and Phuket.

As a result of this, Phuket hotels are at a premium during the holiday and it definitely pays to book in advance to get the best rates and ensure rooms are available. Roads and public transport before and after the national holiday are busy. People driving to Phuket can expect delays on roads while seats on buses and aeroplanes are also best reserved in advance if possible.  

The principal activity of contemporary Songkran is the water-fights that take place throughout the country. The battles originated from two old traditions of pouring water on elders’ hands and on Buddha statues as symbolic cleansing for the advent of the New Year. Due to the fact Songkran falls right in the middle of the hottest period of the year in Thailand, a good soaking is not all that unpleasant.

In the smaller villages and rural areas of Phuket, youngsters often start their Songkran water ambushes a couple of days before the 13 April. They lie in wait beside roadsides and throw water or hose passers-by and motorcyclists. If riding a motorcycle it is a good idea to slow down because road surfaces are usually slippery and it also hurts being hit by water when travelling at anything above 30kph.  

In Phuket Old Town, Patong, Karon and Kata the festivities commence on the 13. Combatants arm themselves with water-pistols, small water-cannons or plastic cups or buckets and head for the main thoroughfares at around 10:00. When throwing or squirting water anybody is fair game, but it is considered bad manners to throw water in someone’s face or to use water that is not clean.

On roads not closed to vehicles, pick-up trucks drive very slowly through the crowds. People in the back of the pick-ups invariably have multi-gallon plastic barrels of water which is used to reload their weapons of choice for battles with people alongside the roads. Images of these battles are shown on national television and help contribute to the legend of Songkran.

It is all good fun, or sanuk as Thais say, but anybody not wishing to get wet should stay in their hotels as it is nearly impossible to venture out and stay dry. The water-fights go on for each of the festival’s three main days until around sunset. In locations such as Patong’s Bangla Road the party continues late into the evening and patrons heading for bars are legitimate targets.   

Songkran water-fights are not the only festival activity. Islanders go to one of the 30 Buddhist temples on the island to make-merit and join in a number of time-honoured traditions. Wat Chalong near Phuket Town is the most important of the temples and Thais and foreigners alike come here in significant numbers.

On the 14 April, temple compounds are the centre of attention. People bring in buckets of sand to make sand pagodas. The action is said to bring back the sand that worshippers have carried out on their shoes over the previous year.

plenty of foreigners to play with

The next day is New Year’s Day and most Buddhists make an early start and take sweets and other alms to give to monks in the temples. Elders enter the main chapel of the temple (viharn) where they pray and listen to monks’ sermons. Afterwards, people pour fragrant water on the temples’ Buddha effigies to ensure they are also spiritually ready for the coming year.  

Thai people love parades and these are an integral part of the Songkran activities on Phuket. In previous years the tourist resort of Patong has held its parade on what we would call New year’s Eve, the 12 April. Colourfully attired marchers set off from near the Jungceylon Shopping Centre and follow a route down to Beach Road as far as Bangla Park.

Patong used to be the only venue for parades and cultural activities, but in recent years tourism authorities have added Phuket Old Town as an alternative to try and reduce overcrowding. Timetables change every year, but always include the ever-popular beauty pageant and stage performances focussed on the Andaman Sea region’s cultural heritage.

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