Wet, wet, wet
Seeing in the new year in Thailand involves making a splash with the locals, as Ron Emmons discovers when he takes to the streets of Chiang Mai armed with a bucket and a water pistol.
Like every Thai city during mid-April, Chiang Mai hosts two types of the water-splashing festival - the traditional and the modern.
Songkran, the 'water-throwing festival', is Thailand's most important celebration and takes place from April 13 to 15 each year. It marks the traditional Thai New Year and is at a time when temperatures hover around 40 degrees Celsius. The practice of splashing water helps to beat the heat but, as first-time participants quickly find out, there is splashing and then there is splashing.
The traditional way of celebrating New Year embodies everything that is endearing about Thai culture - respect and consideration for others, a flair for decoration and sanuk (a love of fun). The more modern method is a full-on, free-for-all water war, fought with buckets and toy weapons. Foreign visitors are much more likely to witness the latter.
Songkran is thought to have originated among the ethnic Tai people who migrated south from China into Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and was originally a fertility rite to ensure adequate rain for a good harvest.
Each of the three days of the festival is associated with a different activity. The first, Wan Songkran Long, is the last day of the old year and begins with the letting off of firecrackers to chase away evil spirits. Houses are cleaned and scrubbed and Buddha images are symbolically bathed. In Chiang Mai, Buddha statues from the major temples are lined up for the Songkran Parade, which takes place in the afternoon and goes along Tha Pae and Ratchadamnoen roads to Wat Phra Singh. The parade is headed by the Phra Sihing, the city's most highly revered image, and the road is lined with people ready to bathe the statues with lustral water.
Wan Nao, the second day, is traditionally spent preparing food to offer to monks the next day, as well as taking sand to the temples to replace the grains that were carried out on the soles of shoes after visits during the previous year. The sand is piled into makeshift stupas (moulded structures) and decorated with colourful pennants, some depicting the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Another ritual is the placing of support sticks around the Bo tree. These forked branches are stripped of bark and brightly painted then adorned with a spray of flowers before being propped against the trees.
On Wan Phaya Wan, the third day, the morning is spent offering food and new robes to the monks in return for their spiritual guidance. Some Thais also buy and symbolically release birds, turtles and fish. Later in the day, people visit older relatives, who bless the youngsters by sprinkling water over their left shoulders, a practice known as rot nam dam hua.
While visitors may be keen to witness some of these genteel traditional celebrations, they will certainly encounter the other face of Songkran. As soon as you step outside, you are likely to be given a soaking, so consider what to wear and carry with you. Light, quick-drying clothes are ideal, along with a minimum of accessories - leave your passport, wallet and mobile phone locked in your room and take a little money for emergencies. The Chiang Mai police cover their (real) pistols with plastic bags.
Many of Chiang Mai's most interesting sights are located inside the old city, an area of about 4 sq km surrounded by a moat. Little remains of the old city wall, apart from five gates and four bastions. On the grounds of Wat Phra Singh, the scripture repository, just to the right inside the entrance, is considered to be the pinnacle of Northern Thai architecture, with its beautiful glass mosaic and lacquer decorations, set into an elegant wooden structure on a stucco base surrounded by angels. At nearby Wat Chedi Luang stands Chiang Mai's biggest stupa, as well as the City Pillar, believed to house the guardian spirits.
The Three Kings Monument depicts King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai, discussing the layout of the city with King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao. Behind the structure, the Arts and Cultural Centre is housed in an attractive, colonial-style building and offers a wealth of information on the city's past, which stretches back more than 700 years. In fact, according to the Chiang Mai Chronicle, the city was founded at 4am on April 14, 1296, so Songkran is also a chance to celebrate its birthday.
In the old days, people used a palm-sized, embossed silver bowl to impart their New Year wishes in the form of scented water sprinkled over the shoulder. However, times have changed and now plastic buckets, a hose and 'turbo-charged' pistols are all part of the armoury of the water thrower. These weapons are so effective that in recent years some of them, including high-pressure water guns made from PVC piping, have been banned.
Most visitors take the attitude of 'if you can't beat them, join them' and enter the fray - buying a water pistol and spraying everyone in sight. But obtaining ammunition can be a problem.
In Chiang Mai, there are three solutions. The easiest is to base yourself in front of your guest house and use a hose to fill up a plastic barrel on the street, thereby securing a constant supply of water with which to terrorise passers-by. The second option is to head for the city moat with a bucket and a long piece of rope, to enable re-loading from the seemingly limitless water supply (though the moat has been known to run dry in over-exuberant years). Bear in mind that this is the epicentre of Songkran activity and the moat water is not hygienic.
The third choice is to get a group of friends together, load a pick-up truck with a couple of barrels of water, throw in a few blocks of ice for good measure and drive around the city shooting freezing jets of water at everyone in sight. The driver should lock the doors and windows to avoid the deluge, but just witnessing the mayhem is exciting enough.
Like moths to a flame, pick-up trucks in Chiang Mai are invariably attracted to the roads around the moat, where they form a traffic jam, run out of water then become sitting ducks for the thousands of bucket-wielders lining the moat.
While the chaos seems to have little in common with the more demure aspects of the festival found in local temples, there is still a traditional element of the event at play - the fertility rite, for people in this case, not crops. Songkran celebrations provide a unique opportunity to meet people and many Thai couples confess to having met during New Year festivities. So, if you happen to spot someone you fancy while the water is flying everywhere, attract their attention by dousing them with a bucket of freezing cold water, smile and shout, 'Sawasdee phi mai!' (Happy New Year!).
Getting there: Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com) operates several flights daily from Hong Kong to Bangkok, and onwards to Chiang Mai. Travellers using this option need not pass through immigration until they reach Chiang Mai.