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Thailand's Songkran Water Festival Tempered By Drought


This week Thais are celebrating their new year called Songkran with music, drinking and a giant water fight. It is traditionally a time of purification, a chance to wash away sins and bad luck and start anew. Michael Sullivan has our Songkran postcard from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: OK. It's a party, but it's also a lot more to many Thais, something to be taken seriously. Thirty-seven-year-old Sirinadda Amkha and her young son gently pour water over their collection of tiny statues of the Buddha from the family altar, carefully patting them dry before offering prayers and hopes for the year ahead.

SIRINADDA AMKHA: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: Songkran comes from a Sanskrit word meaning transformation or change. And making merit at home or at the temple still matters to many. But like other traditions in other societies, it's losing ground. This is the Songkran you may have seen in travel blogs - Thai country music blaring as Thais and foreigners clog the streets fighting pitched battles waged with water pistols, rifles, even fire hoses if they have them. Shoot, dance, reload, repeat, and passing motorists in cars or on motorcycles - fair game.

Purists have long argued that too much alcohol and too much exposed flesh and all the rest are diminishing the meaning of Songkran. And this year with the crippling drought added to the mix, calls for restraint grew louder, starting at the top with general turned prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.


PRAYUTH CHAN-OCHA: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: In his weekly television address, Prayuth asked Thais to behave this Songkran. He urged women to cover up and told everyone to drink responsibly and to be polite. Let's impress our visitors, he said, with the uniqueness of our country.

There's a whole lot of uniqueness going on in the center of Bangkok as Songkran enters its second day, but not a lot of restraint, just a whole lot of fun. This longtime resident Michael, who would only give me one name since he doesn't want to be seen criticizing the military-installed government, says, no surprise there.

MICHAEL: I've been here for 16 years. It's always the same thing.

SULLIVAN: You think there's going to be no change?



MICHAEL: Thai culture. So long as people enjoy this holiday, there will be no change.

SULLIVAN: And they do enjoy it, this year maybe even a little more than usual. Two years of military dictatorship with no end in sight, an economy that's tanking and then there's the drought - I mean, who wouldn't want a break especially when it's so hot out? Songkran continues officially for one more day, but unofficially, it will go on all weekend, too. So if you get on a plane tonight - for NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE SONG, "SKIPPING ROCKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.