By Thammika Songkaeo
In an attempt to make Songkran, Thailand’s New Year, safer this year, 90,000 police officers are being deployed around the country from 11 to 17 April.
Historically, the week of Songkran has been among the most dangerous of the year for drivers, with many drunk drivers, rowdy drivers, and slippery roads leading to some of the highest death tolls in Thailand. Last year, 306 deaths and 3,070 injuries were reported during the six-day Songkran festivities. Most of those accidents stemmed from drunk driving (47.2%) and speeding (22.4%).
The high death rates have led the government to introduce policies to tame party-goers every year. This year, although Songkran itself spans 13 to 16 April, the government is putting in place policies from 11 to 17 April, since Thais prefer to create a long holiday out of the New Year.
In addition to the usual no-drunk-driving messages, more measures are being rolled out this year. An opinion piece in the Bangkok Post describes some of the policies as “weirdness,” remarking, “Water throwing in the City of Angels Great City ‘will be allowed’ for just three days. People ‘must stop by 9pm’ each of the three days. What a great rule. Question: Who is around to oversee those phrases in quotes? Also, what is the penalty for, say, upturning a small pail of water over a Bangkok city official at 10pm?”
The timeframe for water-splashing in Bangkok is not the only new measure introduced this year. Elsewhere, such as in the northern province of Chiang Mai, young women have been instructed to not wear see-through shorts – a form of clothing that has gained popularity simply by being silly. Further, in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, or “Korat”, the Royal Irrigation Department has altogether banned water splashing, citing the current drought as reason. All over the country, dancers showing their breasts will be arrested.
These measures are part of the government’s vision that the Songkran festival will be celebrated more traditionally, with greater emphasis on paying respect to the elderly and asking for their blessings, rather than on going wild.
To those planning to splash water and party, these messages from the government contradict their familiarity with Songkran, which has become synonymous with rowdiness, a once-in-a-year collective national opportunity to let one’s hair down. The party planners around the country insist on continuing in that vein.
The government’s efforts at taming party-goers are not slowing down many party planners. Numerous websites are still aggregating the festivities and parties that will be around during the week, and party-planners are excitedly inviting people to splash water and have fun. One of the biggest music festivals to happen during Songkran, S₂O, is returning full-swing for its second year, with tickets already rapidly sold out for the most part.
“The government doesn’t really want us to party this year, but, I mean, it’s not really going to stop the partying. People will find their ways to have fun during Songkran, in their own way, however they want to,” a party organiser, who wishes to remain anonymous, confidently says.
Not to mention, some big shopping is also expected, as if Songkran were becoming Thailand’s Black Friday. On April 13-15, Seenspace, a new mall containing big local and designer names, such as Stretsis and Marc by Marc Jacobs, is launching its soft opening in Hua Hin. Across the country, department store giants, including Central Department Store, Paragon Department Store, and The Mall, just to name a few, have geared up for Songkran sales. Piyawan Leelasompop, vice president for marketing at Central Department Store describes Songkran as a period with increased consumption, as consumers prepare for long trips and visits to family and friends.
“Businesses need to focus on a Songkran campaign not only to boost sales, but also to create a good experience and impression for individual consumers at any touch-point. The move will help promote loyal customers for the brand and the company itself,” Buppa Lapawattanaphun, a strategic communications lecturer at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, explained in an interview with The Nation.
It seems nothing will slow down the Thai public. Parties are planned, malls are active, and the public – particularly the young crowd – still looks forward to being on the streets.
According to the president of Thailand’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda, “Preserving cultural identity is tantamount to protecting the nation. What the prime minister is doing is protecting the country. He has been doing his job as a Thai and deserves to be a role model”.
Thammika Songkaeo is Research Analyst at The HEAD Foundation in Singapore, where her research focuses on Asian higher education. She also serves as Scholarships and Financial Aid Lead for Thammasat University’s Global Studies and Social Entrepreneurship program in Thailand. A recipient of Mitsubishi and Smithsonian research fellowships, she has an M.S.Ed. in Higher Education from The University of Pennsylvania and a multidisciplinary background in Asian Studies and French Literature from Williams College, Massachusetts.