Splash and grab


Sally Piper joins in the world’s biggest water fight to celebrate Thai New Year


Fed up with short, water-saving showers and cobwebs gathering at the end of your garden hose? Some days I want to rebel, fill the bath to the brim, blast the bugs from the defunct watering system and let the kids run amok under a sprinkler. But I don’t because I’m programmed not to waste a drop. So when my family and I find ourselves caught in the world’s biggest water fight in Thailand, we feel blessed by Poseidon.

Songkran Day, or Thai New Year, is celebrated on April 13. On the eve of the festival, the turn-down service at our Koh Samui resort includes a water pistol on our pillows instead of the usual dainty orchid. I sleep well, drunk on dreams of water.

Songkran involves many religious customs and much respect for elders. Our day starts dry and pious at 6.30am. Monks from the nearby Kiriwon Temple arrive to receive gifts of food, candles, matches and soap from resort staff and guests.

When they’re gone, we follow the locals’ lead by trickling water over the shoulders of the hotel’s golden Buddhas, making a wish for the new year.

Our faces are painted with a paste made from talcum powder, water and fragrant oils accompanied by wishes of a happy Songkran Day. The manager of the resort, as the elder, receives his staff one by one as they bathe his hands with water as a mark of respect.

Water plays a leading role in these ceremonies of respect, cleansing and renewal, but once the religious aspects of the day have been observed, it seems there is no better cleansing agent than a swimming pool. As the manager’s shoes disappear under the surface of the infinity pool (courtesy of his giggling staff), the water war begins.

In the resort’s open-air reception there is a mutual soaking of us and other guests with whom we’ve previously exchanged only polite nods over breakfast. The fun police are absent, nobody waves a public liability insurance policy, and there is no drama about the furniture getting wet or water pistols being refilled from the fish pond.

Later, we feel like vigilantes as we head into the nearby village of Nathon in the back of a gardening truck; 20 of us are armed with water pistols but our weapons are small fry.

Away from the resort, water pistols are for water babies. We come up against heavy artillery: hoses, buckets and water-filled pots and pans. The effects of large blocks of melted ice produce the first breathtakingly cold moments we’ve experienced in Thailand.

There is no age barrier to the fun. Small children stand alongside their parents, taking turn to aim hoses. Utilities and trucks are packed so full with people and water that back axles look at risk. Motorcyclists are as abundant on the roads, as is usual in Thailand; except that when it’s Songkran, the child wedged between rider and back pillion holds a water pistol.

To break the rules on water use seems naughty at best, taboo at worst. But if getting wet isn’t your thing and you happen to be in Thailand on April 13, I suggest you turn up your airconditioning and take your Singha beers indoors. You’ll be drier.


First published in The Weekend Australian, February 21-22 2009