The dancers and musicians in the procession’s first ranks are a graceful riot of tortured woodwind, garish silk and delicate, synchronised movement. Lined up behind them, half-hidden by rolling arcs of spray, stretches an endless cavalcade of flower-smothered carnival floats, each bearing a Buddha on temporary leave from one of the city’s showpiece temples. In the clamorous, sodden hours ahead, every statue and spectator will enjoy a comprehensive ceremonial cleanse. Yet as a Songkran. water fight, this is no more than a dry run.
Come early evening, and Chiang Mai is awash. A tide seeps over the threshold of every commercial establishment and well-oiled, well-watered drinkers drench each other from the forecourt of every bar. In the three days that follow, taking a tuk-tuk through the downtown crossfire feels like an. unhinged theme-park ride. You slide helplessly about on sodden vinyl, strafed by jets of chilled water, manic shrieks and waves of cheesy Thai techno. After a while, you realise the driver isn’t frantically hooting his horn to deter the hose-wielders and bucket-hurlers, but to get their attention. He’s laughing now, but might stop when he finds himself being paid with a wodge of sodden pulp. Double-wrapped waterproof pouches for phones and cash are a Songkran essential. So too, if you run the watery gauntlet along that microbially rich moat, are swimming goggles. Wet, wet, wet. You feel it in your fingers, you feel it in your toes. Thailand’s government, reacting to traditionalist concerns, has issued an edict for decorous restraint, though you’d never guess it.
A dry shirt is a red rag: unassuming, overdressed visitors are given a full-body tsunami the second they leave their hotels. The street is a logjam of pick-ups, each home to a water butt and a sodden, gleeful family. One group totes giant syringes, piped into backpack reservoirs. High-velocity, pump-action super-soakers are the preferred youth choice, but the more experienced have come to learn that for instant, shock-and-awe impact, nothing beats a bucket. The Songkran aqua-battle is by no means just a young man’s game: put a brimming pail in a grandfather’s hands and he’s seven again, tapping into that ageless, universal thrill of the spill. As an outsider, it’s difficult to subdue the hardwired reflex to take the assailant to angry task. Even more so when it transpires that you’re expected to thank them for the blessed sluicing away of grubby old misfortunes. Every visitor to Thailand will be told about sanuk, the national credo of taking pleasure from every life experience, both rough and smooth. The sight of very drunk people peaceably hurling water into each other’s faces for four days straight must rank as sanuk’s ultimate expression.
“For 360 days, Thai people are super-polite and respectful,” says a very wet Athirath Arunyaka, up from Bangkok to soak up Songkran with his Chiang Mai-resident family. “This is like a purge of all our bad behaviour.” It’s the final night of the fight, the storm before the calm. In the morning the silent streets are lined with a colourful detritus of cracked buckets, broken water pistols and soggy garlands, the air heavy with old beer and incense. Tentatively, the pavements fill with the extremely old and the very young, kept inside for their own safety. Previously unviable cycle rickshaws return to the road, personal space is once more painstakingly respected. But the heat is already bullying and today there will be no baptismal relief.