Songkran off the tourist track
Here are some tips on where to enjoy Songkran and chill out at the same time.
Songkran, 13 to 15 April, is a national festival best known for the copious quantities of water thrown from buckets on unsuspecting passers-by, who quickly appreciate how cooling this fun-filled festival really is especially during the peak of the summer heat wave.
There are serious elements, too, such as the annual bathing of Buddha images carried out at temples and homes across the country. Children sprinkle water on the heads of elders to pay respect. In this gentle incarnation, the festival reflects the time-honoured traditions of a nation that respects age and the role of seniors in a family environment.
While the religious and cultural aspects are not forgotten, this three-day festival certainly majors on the fun of splashing friends, and even strangers, with a bucket of water, or any other container that comes in handy.
Everyone takes it in good spirits, laughing and returning the pleasure in good measure. It also helps that this is the hottest month of the year and a bucket of icy cold water might not be exactly what the doctors ordered, but it relieves the stress and discomfort as the mercury rises.
As this is a nation-wide celebration, visitors can participate in the fun just about anywhere with perhaps the exception of the courts, police stations and hospital wards.
But if you have a choice, there are destinations that have a special appeal, not because of the intensity of water play, but more for their traditional environment that adds colour to the week-long festivities. Here are a few examples.
The site of an ancient city at the small rural town of Si Satchanalai, in central Thailand, about 40 km north of Sukhothai’s airport, provides such a backdrop for the mid- April festival.
Located on the banks of the river, there are fine boutique resorts offering rustic accommodation just a short drive from Si Satchanalai’s historical park. Noted for its pottery, dating back to the Sukhothai period, a lively cottage industry still survives in riverside communities.
Festivities start with elephant parades, songs and dances and culminate in the fun of water splashing in the grounds of the Si Satchanalai Historical Park. Whenever you need a respite, the riverside resorts are just the ticket to chill out with your favourite book.
Bangkok Airways has daily flights to Sukhothai Airport, located at the small town of Suwwanakhalok, where you can hire a car for the short 32 km drive north to Si Satchanalai.
In the far north region, Chiang Saen, too, has historical links with ancient kingdoms, but it stands on the banks of the mighty Mekong River where a busy river-port market has been set up exchanging goods between Thailand, Laos and China.
Chiang Saen is much smaller than Chiang Rai, the provincial capital, approximately 65 km to the south. However, it is home to a few two to three-star hotels, one of which stands facing the river and close to the town’s historical ruins.
In modern history, the town gained a reputation as the capital of the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos converge, but its main commercial value, today, is a bustling river trade with China and the daily visits of large river barges that this trade brings.
Chiang Saen’s town centre temple is the venue for Buddhists to pay homage to the community’s revered Buddha image. Residents bring their Buddha images from home to bathe them in water blessed by the temple.
In the evening, the town’s main street closes for a bazaar and food festival where visitors can enjoy a Lanna style dinner, known as Khan Tok, and watch folk dances street entertainment.
Also on the banks of the Mekong River, the northeast town of Nakhon Phanom fits the bill to turn a Songkran festival into a memorable holiday.
A little off-the-beaten-track, as far as mass tourism goes, Nakhon Phanom is essentially a riverside border town facing the much smaller village of Thakhek in central Laos.
This broad, slow flowing river, with prominent sand banks during the dry season, is the backdrop for a chill-out holiday where one of the highlights is dining on sticky rice and barbecued chicken at sunset viewing an interesting river scene.
During the Songkran festival, the main activities are focused on Sinthorn Vichit Road that runs next to the river esplanade.
Here, travellers find small stalls selling a variety of rice noodles and snacks, amongst rows of vendors selling wares from Vietnam, China and Laos.
About 30 km south of town, Raynoo Nakhon is the venue for the Phu Thai version of Songkran – dances, song and handicrafts made by the Phu Thai ethnic community. It is also home of a famed rice whisky locally distilled and sold in decorative clay pots that disguise the hefty kick the contents deliver.
When not engaged in water splashing, Nakhon Phanom has some fine historical temples to explore all facing the river. There is also a Catholic church built by a Vietnamese community, who fled from French forces during the first Indochina war.
Hidden on the outskirts of town, a simple teak house shines as a historical gem where Ho Chi Minh, the founder of modern Vietnam, sought refuge. Owned by descendents of one of Ho Chi Minh’s comrades, the museum provides insights into the life of man who played a vital role in Asia’s recent, but turbulent, history.
Nakhon Panom has it own small airport served by PB Air from Bangkok. There are also air services to Sakon Nakhon, 84 km southwest of the town and 230 km northwest, on highway 2, Udon Thani is served by bus, train and daily Thai Airways International flights from Bangkok. A car can be hired at the airport to tour this fascinating area of the Northeast plateau.
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