Songkran Festival Part 1: Water Fights and Queer Dance Parties

During the Thai New Year celebration known as Songkran, I’ve learned there’s no better way to show love to your family and friends than by dousing them in water.

Songkran is a Buddhist festival of unity, cleansing, and rebirth. It begins April 13, and officially lasts five days. As the longest holiday of the year when most businesses, schools, and government offices close, it’s a time for families to come together, and for Thais to let loose and have fun!

Water fights and dancing at Thai E-San restaurant

I celebrated Songkran with a transgender woman named Plamy and her friends and family. Plamy, as I wrote about in my last post, owns a restaurant named Thai E-san on the Thai island of Koh Panghan. Plamy has become a close friend, and while I had previously shared a dinner with her mother and father, I was a bit nervous about taking part in a multi-day family holiday with them. As a transgender woman in the USA, I often dreaded family holiday gatherings as stressful affairs where I’d have to censor myself in the name of family unity. Family-friendly in the USA too often meant “straight and cisgender.” If you’re LGBTQ, don’t talk about it, and certainly don’t flaunt it. But here in Thailand, I learned I had nothing to fear. By the end of Songkran I’d learned to “let go” the Thai way, which included dancing on chairs with other transgender and queer people, drinking homemade sticky rice wine, enjoying slow-cooked Thai BBQ, and taking part in a giant water fight.

Songkran commemorates the traditional Thai New Year, and it typically begins with practicing Buddhists (over 90% of Thailand’s population) giving food and other donations to the monks at their local temples. One tradition is bringing sand to the temples; the sand is formed into ceremonial mounds (chedis) decorated with colorful flags. Often Thais will also clean their houses and businesses. Traditionally, the use of water on Songkran was limited to washing the hands of monks, the elderly, and children, as well as pouring water on Buddha statues. Today, the festival has expanded into soaking friends, neighbors and strangers with water for the sheer fun of it.

For me, Songkran began with an invitation to a party after the first day of temple visits had concluded. I met Plamy at her restaurant Thai E-San, where dozens of her relatives and family friends from across the country were wrapping up a shared feast. After a short wait, we departed on her motorbike for what I thought would be a typical Koh Panghan party. Koh Panghan is infamous for parties like Full Moon Festival and Half Moon Party, where hundreds of inebriated farangs (white foreigners/tourists) bob back and forth to loud, monotonous techno, constantly cruising for the next hookup. But instead, I was brought to a field full of hundreds of tables, at each of which were seated five to ten Thai people, with not a single other farang in sight. On the right side of the field was a Buddhist temple decorated in fluorescent lights and colorful flags, and at the front of the field, where a rock band was playing, was an outdoor concert stage.

The table Plamy brought me to was in the front row of the stage, and about half of the people seated there were transgender and/or queer. There was a small dance pit in front of us, but only two people were dancing; I recognized one of them from Thai E-San restaurant. Most Thais though were just engaged in small talk over beer and snacks like khaep mu (fried pork skin). With my limited Thai, and the music blasting my eardrums, I couldn’t really engage in the conversation, so I adopted the standard polite Thai smile and bounced along in my chair to the music just enough to reassure people I was enjoying myself. I was beginning to wonder if the rather tame band on stage was about the best I could expect for live entertainment at a temple, some Buddhist equivalent of family-friendly Christian rock.

But soon, I was proven entirely wrong. As soon as the next rock band took the stage, cheers went up and a stampede of excited Thais rushed to the dance pit. This was clearly the main act. Their sound reminded me of 1970s classic rock, but their aesthetic reminded me of 1990s boy bands; you could see both Thai girls and women – including Plamy – swooning over them. Plamy told me the band members were childhood friends from her hometown of Phattalung on Thailand’s Southern mainland, and in fact, their name (วงพัทลุง) translates to “Phattalung Band.” 

Soon, most people in the crowd were dancing, and my table quickly became one of the rowdiest. Chairs turned into dance platforms, and Plamy’s friends started putting on a rather flirtatious show for the audience, attracting several men to come up and dance with us. Plamy bounced back and forth between dancing at the front of the stage and at our table. While it was hard to keep up with her energy, I was glad to see her let loose, as far too often I’d seen her in “business mode” being the responsible restaurant owner amidst her more laid-back friends. At one point, Plamy, drenched in sweat and dancing on top of two teetering chairs, poured a glass of cold beer over her head to cheering onlookers. Another friend dumped their drink on her head as well, and I followed suit emptying my bottle of cold water on her. Both actions were met with cheers, encouraging several more people to join in the water-and-beer dumping fun.

A soaked Plamy with the lead singer of Phattalung Band

I was told to show up again at noon the next day for more Songkran festivities. In the heat of the day, the country-wide water fight was in full force. Children, adults, Thais, farangs, transgender people, and cisgender people were all preoccupied with throwing as much water on each other as possible. Dry clothes makes you an instant target, and the second I stepped out of my hostel, I was sprayed down by a kid with a Super Soaker as his mom laughed; I laughed along too.

Plamy’s restaurant was open early to serve food, play music, and provide buckets of water and Super Soakers for anyone who wanted to join in on the water fight festivities. Plamy’s parents and our transgender and queer dance crew from the night before were all present, in addition to several new faces. Once again, chairs had been turned into dance platforms, and I was encouraged to climb up on one and dance too by our friend Dao. Of course, dancing on that chair made me an instant target for water guns, but it was worth it. 

Another popular way of spending Songkran is to ride up and down the street in the back of an open-air taxi armed with Super Soakers, and our job at the restaurant, between dancing, was to defend ourselves from these marauding taxi passengers with even more firepower. Even more rewarding though was when folks hopped off the taxis to join us. It really did seem our LGBTQ dance crew was a popular draw for farangs and Thais of all identities and backgrounds.

Kayley in front of Thai E-San restaurant

The day seemed to end far too fast; at 6pm police drove up the street gesturing for us and neighboring restaurants to turn off our music and water. We were all exhausted, soaked, and had huge grins on our faces. I had survived the first two days of Thailand’s biggest family gathering, and I was having a blast.

I’d never seen so many cisgender and straight people letting loose and partying alongside LGBTQ people other than at a Pride festival in the United States. In that moment, Thailand really did feel like a place where LGBTQ people could be their full selves. Songkran was not over yet for me: next would come a festival by the beach, and a family barbecue with some of the best food and drink I’d experienced yet. But those will have to wait for the next post, so stay tuned for Songkran Part 2!

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