Thailand’s annual holiday of death and delight, otherwise known as the Songkran water festival, starts today. Songkran is officially a three-day holiday, but invariably stretches out to last nearly a full week when you factor in weekends and bank holidays. Songkran can be an especially fun and festive time with people — both locals and foreigners, many of them tourists — playfully squirting, throwing, and dumping water on one another out in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the “playful” antics can sometime escalate into mischievous or even cruel forms of water warfare. And then there is the powder that celebrants enjoy smearing and wiping over the body parts of anyone that orbits into their range. So no, it’s not always good-intentioned fun.
I have very fond memories of Songkran, my first exposure to Thailand having occurred during a water festival 22 years ago. What an amazing sight: thousands of people riding around town in trucks and motorcycles all day throwing water and laughing and singing. But there is/was a downside to the happy vibe; some of those celebrants also consumed large quantities of alcohol, became shit-faced drunk, yet reasoned that they could still operate a motor vehicle and of course had an accident, maiming or killing themselves or some innocent bystander. Another happy holiday ending in tragedy.
Death and destruction have become synonymous with Songkran in Thailand. The headline of an article in yesterday’s Bangkok Post blared: Nine Killed in Fiery ‘Danger Day’ Smash. The only reason that this article didn’t make the front page was because the casualties (9 dead and 12 more injured, 4 of those in critical condition) were “only” Cambodians, and probably not deemed important enough for the editors to devote major page space. The Cambodians were travelling in a van that was taking them from Rayong to a border checkpoint in Chanthaburi when the van hit a tree and burst into flames. Most likely these Cambodians were migrant workers heading home to celebrate the holiday in their native country. Like Thailand, Cambodia (and also Myanmar and Laos) have similar water festivals in mid April. In fact, this is THE major holiday in every one of these countries.
I have a Cambodian friend who is working a construction job in Samut Prakarn, a province bordering Bangkok, so whenever I hear about accidents like this (not only vehicle crashes, but also when buildings collapse at construction sites, another sad but common occurrence), I worry about his safety. I always breathe a sigh of relief when he calls and checks in, his laughter assuring me that he’s fine. But with so much constant chaos and a lack of attention paid to safety over here, I’ll always remain worried. Hell, while I was in Myanmar last week, my Thai friend Thanayut was in a fairly major road accident. His car was pretty much totaled but thankfully all that he suffered were some bruises and cuts. It could have been much, much worse.
Like most foreigners who have lived in Thailand for many years, Songkran has lost most of its charm and appeal for me. And yet, I still enjoy the happy vibe that pervades during this time, not to mention the fact that traffic jams in Bangkok are almost non-existent for a full week. So, during this extended holiday, I’ll stay inside my bookshop and work as usual every day, open till close, thus avoiding most of the water craziness, taking taxis to and from work instead of walking or using motorcycle taxis.
Today’s update in the Bangkok Post: 102 Killed and 893 injured. How scary is that? And so, each day when I read the newspaper or check online, I’ll be horrified at the spiraling tally of road accidents and casualties. Have fun folks, but be very, very careful out there.