Every year on April 13th, people throughout Thailand celebrate Songkran, a Buddhist festival marking Thailand’s lunar new year. Traditionally, it’s a mellow, pious affair that involves visits to wats (Buddhist monasteries) where food is given to monks and scented water is applied to the young and the old. Innocent by nature, the day has been a national holiday and widely celebrated for centuries by the majority of the Thai population. Unfortunately, like most traditions Westerners get their grubby little mitts on, the modern day Songkran festival reads more like Cancun Spring Break than it does a religious festivity. The emphasis on H2O remains, but the liquid is instead distributed via force. In what is now one of the world’s largest water fights, people literally rinse the town dry throwing as much wetness at one another as humanly possible. With super soakers their artillery and alcohol their fuel, it’s no surprise Songkran is now bigger than ever and has all its drenched participants coming back each year for more.
Survivors of Songkran have an absolute ball. Held in the peak of the hot season, locals and tourists alike arm themselves with every kind of water weapon imaginable, declaring battle with every individual, motor-vehicle and animal in sight. From there on out, it’s a free-for-all, with no rules, plenty of depravity and little chance of escape. Most popular in Chiang Mai, the festival has become synonymous with alcohol and celebration, which to some may seem contradictory to the root of the holidays intention. Alas, there’s no arguing with a drunk Thai bloke wielding a full bucket of water and a three-foot-long Super-Soaker-3000.
Despite a lack in mainstream media coverage, Songkran has become a desired destination for tourists. Anyone who knows what they’re talking about packs their bags and diverges on regions throughout Thailand with the image of blissful days in the sun soaking one and other in a haze of hilarity. In reality however, the festival’s image is becoming increasingly tainted thanks to ridiculous amounts of deaths each and every year as more and more people drink unimaginable amounts of cheap liquor, jump on even cheaper motorbikes and kill themselves on the already dangerous roads that plague Thailand. It’s slowly becoming an epidemic.
Last year 320 people died in 3 129 road accidents, a marked increase from the year before, which saw 271 dead. The majority of these deaths were attributed to motorcycle riders who were not wearing helmets, driving erratically while dangerously intoxicated. This year, before the festival had even officially commenced, 39 people across the country were pronounced dead in similar situations. In response to the growing number of fatalities, the Thai government has officially sanctioned alcohol-free zones in 88 locations across 66 provinces. Unfortunately, nothing more can be done. A proposal to ban alcohol during the long weekend proved too detrimental to tourism and was therefore rejected.
Carrying a euphoric air of post-revolutionary celebration, the festival is not something that should ever go away, and thanks to the less-than-stringent policies throughout Thailand, it definitely won’t. Regardless, the development of more controlled measures – the simplest things like the use of breathalysers – could see a marked decrease in the death of tourists and locals alike. If Pampolona’s Running of the Bulls can manage just 15 deaths since 1910, surely a water fight in Songkran can knock a few hundred off its yearly total?