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Songkran

Some thoughts

April 17, 2005

So we've just concluded another installment of the annual Senseless and Stupidity week. In Thailand it's called Songkran, it's Chaul Chnam in Cambodia, Bun Pi Mai in Laos, Thingyan in Myanmar, and I don't know what they call it in southern Yunnan, China, but whatever the name, it's all pretty much the same holiday; a festival once steeped in tradition but now nothing short of a sadistic water ritual that at times is accompanied with deadly consequences.

Traditionally, this festival was a time for cleaning one's home, visiting the local pagoda, spending time with one's family, and playing games specific to the holiday. Where such games are still played, as for example in Cambodia, one will notice a certain amount of liberties taken between the boys and girls and historically these games are in a sense, a type of courting ritual, allowing a little familiarity between the sexes that is otherwise prohibited for the other 362 days of the year. The one remaining tradition, and the one least true to its origin, is the water splashing. By custom, one would splash a small amount of water on others as a sign of good luck and hopes for good things to come in the upcoming year. That was the idea, anyway.

Over time the water splashing evolved into, depending on your perspective, either three (or more) fun-filled days of throwing water on everything and anything that moves, or three (or more) days in hibernation so as not to be included in the rather broad category of anything that moves. Most people are solidly in one camp or the other and as should be patently clear by now, I'm well entrenched in the latter. Most years I escape to a non-water throwing country (China in 2000 and 2002, and Malaysia in 2003 and 2004), but this year I found myself having to bear this one out in Bangkok. No drama really, I simply holed myself up in the apartment and except for a run to one of the local malls on the 13th, I did not venture outdoors until the afternoon of the 16th.

One of my complaints (I have several), with the way this festival is celebrated is that if you don't want to get involved, your only option is either to leave the country or stay indoors, because anyone and everyone is a water and talcum powder target.

And that brings up some interesting cultural comparisons. Such a festival would never make it in the west. In the west, where we place more emphasis on individual liberties, the idea of soaking a complete stranger with a bucket of ice-cold canal water, regardless of their wishes, is completely antithetical to every concept we are taught in respect to concern for the rights of others. And as an aside, in gun-happy America, if Songkran-type festivities were to appear overnight, no doubt quite a few over-zealous water celebrants would find themselves on the receiving end of a 9mm slug. Seriously.

But in Asia, where the individual carries much less importance in society, the idea of tossing water on someone as part of the collective fun takes precedence over any notions the recipient may have about staying dry. Hey, our group fun is more important than your individual desires.

This also brings up a curious spin on confrontation. In the west we are a much more confrontational society and that confrontational element is one reason we don’t throw water on complete strangers for we risk any combination of being shot, slugged, or sued. Asia is of course a much less confrontational place and for 362 days a year people are not supposed to make waves, cause trouble, or take overt offense to the actions of others (in theory, anyway). It should come as no surprise then, that when the rules of confrontation are off for a few days, so many people basically "lose it" as 362 days of grinning it and bearing it are released in a barrage of water and powder.

Now combine three days of uninhibited stress release with copious amounts of alcohol and you can see where problems really develop. In the run-up to Songkran there is no shortage of televised and radio broadcasted public service messages from police officers and government officials warning the populace that drinking and driving is a no-no, be responsible, don't throw water on people who don't want it, stick to the designated water-throwing zones, etc. This year they went so far as to suggest that people who become the unwanted victims of overly aggressive revelers should report the incidents to the police. And then the Bangkok Post reported that many women who had been groped in the festivities (a very common occurrence) found more often than not that the response of the police was along the lines of, "well, what did you expect, it's Songkran".

Beyond dumping water on your fellow human, the one aspect of the holiday I find particularly troublesome is the act of throwing water at (or from) moving vehicles. This is especially dangerous for motorbikes and every year many innocent motorbike riders are injured and a handful are needlessly killed for what, the collective fun of society?

Cambodia is exceptionally bad as in certain areas, primarily the towns of Poipet, Sisophon, Battambang, and Pailin (and though I haven't been there during the holiday, I wouldn't be surprised if they lose their brains in Pursat as well), the tradition is not just to squirt water at passers-by, but also to hurl with full force, plastic bags of water, which while fairly harmless to someone on a motorbike traveling at 10 to 20 kph, to be hit by one of these bags moving in excess of 50 kph is akin to taking a punch from Mike Tyson. And while I've never been punched by Mike Tyson, I have been hit at high speed by one of these bags of water and this was one occasion I can say with a fair degree of certainty that a helmet saved my life. In most of the developed world, throwing a bag of water at a motorbike with a fatal result would bring a charge at the very least of involuntary manslaughter. Yes I know, this is not the west, but I would like to think that behavior that leads to the deaths of innocent people would be treated with equal disdain everywhere.

Even for cars, hurling water can have dangerous consequences. Imagine driving a car and having a quantity of water mixed with talcum powder flung across your windshield. A brief whiteout and temporary blindness is the result and accidents do occur because of this.

From a legal perspective, consider that throwing anything at or from a moving vehicle is illegal in just about every western developed nation. No word on when Asia might adopt the same, though in the Asian tradition even if such a law were on the books, and maybe in some regional countries such a law already is, I can imagine the police turning a blind eye for three days. After all, during the holiday the cops on duty end up as wet and white as everyone else.

In recent years Songkran has become little more than an opportunity for people to take leave of their senses for three days and throw water upon anyone and anything, grope any female that takes their fancy (and if they can tear off a shirt, all the more better), engage in brawling, crash a motorbike, and basically be responsible to no one and no law.

The Thai authorities have made noise about trying to reign in the revelry a bit and bring the holiday back to its traditional roots. And while there are no shortages of festivities of a cultural nature, many sponsored or at least supported in words, by the government, efforts to take Songkran back to its origins have so far been nothing more than lip service.

Water fights can be a lot of fun when everyone is a willing participant and there is no reason why any action should be taken to curtail such behavior. But when non-willing participants have no way out and worse, run the risk of death in the form of vehicular accidents caused by water "fun", then clearly you have a festival that has gone too far.

There are times I look at the Asian approach to life and I see elements which are quite attractive (or I wouldn’t live here, duh!). And like many long-term expatriate residents I have adopted and adapted many of these to my own life. Indeed, Songkran is a manifestation of Asian culture and thought, but as it is played out today, it is one neither to stand as a source of pride nor as an exemplary expression of the positive aspects of Asian culture. On a good day it's a nuisance to be dealt with, on a bad day it's a family's worst nightmare come true.

Regional Songkran-free areas:
Vietnam
Malaysia
Singapore
China (except southern Yunnan)

Discuss this story here:
http://www.talesofasia.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2582

THAILAND

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.