Sabadee Pee Mai! Splash…the water – as if in slow motion – drains down my shirt. Before I know it, my face is smeared in talcum powder. Not that I expected to be spared. In fact, I had hoped I wouldn’t be. It’s just that first trickle of water was a bit jarring, that’s all.
Songkran celebrations in Savannakhet, Laos.
When we were preparing for our trip across Asia, there was only one holiday, one festival that I knew for certain I would not miss – Songkran, the Buddhist New Year celebrated across Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and nearby parts of China – annually on 13-15 April. The idea of the planet’s largest water fight just sounded too good of fun to miss out on. And, I was totally correct in my assessment – it’s pretty much an epic good time. You just have to embrace your inner child and not mind getting wet and powdered. As long as you get those two points covered, you’ll have a blast.
Songkran started out as Buddhist ritual to welcome the new year with purification, and that is still the meaning of the holiday today. Monks and believers attend to the temples, sprinkling Buddha statues and altars with scented water, in a symbolic gesture of washing away the bad luck from the previous year and welcoming in good fortune, health, and happiness for the new year. The water was saved and sprinkled on loved ones as well. This is still done today.
In recent times, the holiday took on another layer: that of a giant, good-natured, and incredibly fun three-day water fight. I was certainly not going to miss out on this celebration, so throughout our travels I questioned locals and travelers alike on where Songrakan is at its best. From what we’ve heard in Cambodia – government officials have been instructed to crack down on water fights due to safety concerns, so the celebrations in that country are much more subdued.
In Laos, there is nothing subdued about Songrkan, known as Pi Mai (pronounced pee mai). On April 13 we boarded the bus in Hue, Vietnam, to make our way across the border to Savannakhet, Laos where we planned to join the celebration of Songkran. Almost as soon as we crossed the border, Pi Mai celebrations began. By the time our bus rolled into Savannakhet five hours later, it had been coated in colorful powder and washed with a hose, buckets, and squirt guns several times over. Looking back, I have absolutely no idea how we made it to our guesthouse completely unscathed and dry – maybe it was sheer luck, or maybe the back streets knowledge of the owner who came to get us by motorbike. No matter, because the minute we ventured outside to seek dinner we were drenched.
In the following two days we ran around Savannakhet in our best matching outfits being doused with water, smeared with talcum powder, and offered glasses of beer Lao. We were heartily welcomed, but by no means treated any differently from anyone else who happened to be on the street. We stumbled into what was likely the official celebration – Beer Lao tents, musical acts performing on stage, and a giant parking lot area converted into a dance floor with sprinklers set up overhead. Every few minutes or so water would burst out from overhead, pulsating to the beats of music. Groups of friends – wearing matching t-shirts and costumes – were dancing and playing versions of bottoms up with Beer Lao. The best bit was trying to keep warm on this somewhat chilly day: the method – grab one of the nearby hoses and spray yourself and your friends with lukewarm water. We could have been at a music festival anywhere in the world – except we were in Savannakhet, Laos, and we were soaked through our clothes, embraced by strangers, and participating in a spiritual celebration.
The main street was reserved for an alternating parade of motorbikes piled several people deep, trucks loaded up with buckets of water, throbbing stereo systems and dancing crews, and bands of teenagers dressed in matching costumes. On either side of the road shopkeepers, families, and groups of friends gathered, danced, and of course unleashed their water guns, hoses, and buckets on those parading down the main street. Excitement and sheer good fun hits its fever pitch here.
Side streets were filled with children who were no less enthusiastic participants in the celebration. With a splash from the bucket, squirt from a hose or a water gun, they would proceed to smear talcum powder on our foreheads, shouting Sabadee Pee Mai and waving us off as rode our bikes down the street.
Nothing we’ve experience in the US – nor anywhere else on our travels, really – rivals the mayhem, wackiness and exuberance of Songkran. I am going to go ahead and call this my favorite festival ever!
If you plan to participate
Get yourself to Laos, Thailand, or Myanmar for 13-15 April. Find people. Get soaked. Laugh, pick up a water gun, and fight back! Repeat. Now, speaking from personal experience, here are things to watch out for:
Not the most safe road conditions – and in fact I had a bit of a scary run in with a motorbike while I was on a bicycle. Nothing serious thankfully, just a fender bender, I escaped with a few scratches and bruises, but please be very careful. The concept of ‘say no to drunk driving’ doesn’t really exist during Pi Mai in Laos, and I am pretty certain the same goes for other countries where the holiday is celebrated (hence the restrictions in Cambodia).
Cameras and phones
The pictures and videos of Songkran are pretty sweet. You will want to have some. So get a waterproof case. In Savannakhet local vendors sold waterproof pouches for the phones that you could hang around your neck – buy one. I was pretty silly, electing to put my brand new iphone into a waterproof case that we picked up in Japan – it was great because the screen still responded to touch through the plastic, but my pouch had no lanyard. I put the phone in my pocket, and at some point it must have slipped out. Sad. And totally my fault.
And remember – there is no safe zone, and everything and everyone is fair game during Songkran. you.will.be.soaked. Sabadee Pee Mai!