The Ides of April

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By Al Lim, Yale-NUS ’19 – See bio

I cannot express the overwhelming elation that the words “POP LO” are associated with. Every recruit’s journey through Basic Military Training is ridiculously tough not due to the daily physical exertion as much as the transition from civilian to soldier. Throwing that jockey cap at the Marina Bay Platform is a rite of passage that marks the end of a “meaningful and memorable” chapter. The really awesome part, though, was my week-long block leave trip to Bangkok!

My stomach clenched the moment I stepped off the train at Sala Daeng. The sticky air heralded a long day ahead. I walked to the railing and stared over the edge… it was a dizzying kaleidoscope interspersed with arcs of water.

Happy Thai New Year! Welcome to the Songkran Festival.

I was at Silom Road, one of the designated areas cordoned off for the festivities. The huge road was literally a two-way mosh pit, and as mosh pits go, this one went. This would not be ideal for anyone uncomfortable with crowds. Armed with my Doraemon water gun and a small bucket of beige-colored talc, I was revved and ready to go.

I was in for a giddying experience. I definitely violated every single rule of weapon discipline and more in those few hours. I sprayed the next person, or two, or ten with my water gun. I got that little thrill on the inside aiming for those dry newcomers who jumped at the torrent of ice cold water.

The roadside stalls selling cans of Leo Beer and whatever Songkran paraphernalia had some stellar advertising. These “ads” consisted of scantily-clad persons dancing promiscuously on tabletops to the beat and rhythm of the crowd’s cheers. As the night went on, there was not an inch of my body that was spared from the constant dousings of water as I was funneled through the channel of people.

I distinctly lost my sense of sight for long bouts of time, thanks to some extra friendly passers-by who decided to plaster wet talc all over my glasses. There was no need for sight, though, for there was that primal feel to the celebration. The tides of the conga lines swirled around on concrete and gravel, while the muddy waters enveloped my feet, covering even my neon blue Uniqlo slippers.

Do heed the advice and watch for the rip tides. In Warped Tour terms, this would be similar to a “Wall of Death” where two giant groups of people collide. Fainting is no joke… but if you make it out of there, party on!

So where did this all originate? The word itself is derived from the Sanskrit word “Sankranti”, which refers to movement or change. Traditionally, the festival is held on the day that the sun’s position moved to the Zodiac of Aries the Ram. Today, Songkran starts on the Ides of April, the 13th, and lasts until the 16th. Songkran is celebrated not just in Thailand but also in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and elsewhere.

The legend of the Songkran festival comes from Theravada Buddhism. According to the myth, the god Brahma engaged the young man Dhammapala in a debate. A wise old man would judge this debate, with the loser’s head at stake. Short of any Shylock[1] dramatics, Brahma lost his head. However, there was an issue here. If Brahma’s head were to touch the earth, the earth itself would catch on fire. If Brahma’s head were to be thrown in the ocean, there would be an outcry from environmental groups the world over… for there would be no ocean and global warming would just get worse. Dhammapala’s solution was to ask Brahma’s daughters to carry Brahma’s head. Each of the daughters would carry it for a year and pass it on. Each time this would occur, the head would need to be cleansed; as a result, the Songkran festival was born and evolved into what it is today.

The Songkran festival culminates in the world’s largest water fight. Going to pay respects to one’s elders and cleaning all the bad things away is reminiscent of Chinese New Year. Ushering in the New Year involves a lot of work, especially for the more conservative. There is a tradition of washing Buddha images with scented water (rod nahm dum hua) and washing the elders’ hands. Some bring sand into the wats (temples) to create replica stupas, after which they are colorfully decorated with flags, incense and flowers.

Let me just end this off with a couple rules of engagement for future reference:

Dress properly. White may just put you in the running for a wet t-shirt contest. And wearing baggy clothes is not advisable because they do get really uncomfortable.

You will get wet, so unless you plan on holing yourself up in your hotel, don’t plan to be dry.

Have a waterproof pouch for anything electronic.

Arm yourself with a bucket, gun or anything to join in.

Use clean water.

Avoid people’s eyes, especially those driving motorbikes.

The children and elderly are a big part of Songkran but don’t be mean.

Don’t soak someone’s food.

Relax, keep a good attitude, and have fun!


[1] Shylock is the antagonist featured in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

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