Confused on where we are? I’m taking this moment while my travels are grounded to care for my mom to catch up on my black hole of un-blogged content. Here, I’m covering my time in Thailand from March through May of 2017. My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.
In the ten years since I first started traveling Thailand, I’ve seen a question start to bubble up through the collective consciousness of the people who live and love there: are traditional Thai festivals sustainable?
I’ve seen this debate rage over the floating kratongs sent into the ocean during Loy Kratong, over the floating lanterns released into the sky during Yi Peng, and of the water resources used during Songkran.
Now, I don’t believe that this is unique to Thailand. I attend a lot of festivals around the world — art festivals, music festivals, traditional regional festivals — and the question of the impact they leave is one that I’m hearing asked more loudly all the time. Most of the art and music festivals that I attend now, from Burning Man to Bonnaroo to Thailand’s own Wonderfruit and Tao Festival, have had some tenant of “leave no trace” at their core principles. I would raise my eyebrow at any that didn’t.
But when it comes to traditional festivals that are deeply rooted in another culture, even ones that are adapted for modern times like Songkran, I find myself raising my eyebrows instead at outsiders who come in declaring, “you’re doing it wrong!,” and demand unilateral change.
Songkran takes place every April 13-15 and is the Thai celebration of Buddhist New Year; similar aquatic festivities take place with slight variations and under different names across the region. What began as a solemn event that involved sprinkling water on the hands of elders has exploded into a nation-wide, super-soaker fueled water fight. Today, Bangkok and Chiang Mai are considered the go-to destinations for tourists who arrive in droves to celebrate, but locals and expats celebrate in every single corner of the country.
Read more about the history of Songkran, as well as my tips for celebrating it on Koh Tao, here.
This was my third Songkran and I hope I’ll be lucky enough to celebrate many more — though I do believe I’ll continue to do so more consciously. Following a nation-wide drought in 2016, the Thai government started brainstorming how Thailand could find a balance between honoring a beloved tradition and respecting the limitations of the country’s resources. Among other proposed solutions, the city reduced the celebrations from four to three days, and put a 9PM water curfew into effect.
That said, what could look at first glance like a completely indulgent free-for-all is actually not as dire as one might predict. In fact, in Bangkok, overall water usage drops during the days of Songkran due to factories and businesses closing their doors to celebrate. This reminded me of the outcry over the resources used by those traveling to and from supposedly footprint-free Burning Man — though studies later showed that participants net carbon footprint went down by attending Burning Man, since upon arrival they spend a week off the grid.
Still, there’s no question that on an island like Koh Tao, every drop of water is precious. The key, experts muse, is teaching Songkran revelers about water management all year round — not just a few days. “It does not help saving water that much if you skip splashing water during Songkran but still turn on tap water when you brush your teeth the whole year,” a professor quoted in the Bangkok Post mused.
Remember, every single one of our actions makes a collective difference. So, how can you celebrate Songkran sustainably? Here are a few ideas — and please, feel free to leave more in the comments!
A covered travel cup (also great for festivals and traveling with your coffee and tea!) will protect you from getting your drink contaminated with non-filtered water — it happens every year to people drinking from open cups — and protects the environment from an overload of single use plastic while you’re bar hopping all day. A small carabiner will allow you to clip this to your belt loop, your bag, wherever is convenient.
A cute patterned dry bag (so useful for diving and beyond!) might not seem like it would contribute much to sustainability, but electronic waste is a serious issue, and the number of phones and cameras destroyed every year at Songkran is no joke. Keep your electronics dry at home or protect them while you’re out and about.
I wrote in my previous Songkran guide that “waterguns are fun to have, but not necessary… they often get broken or bored of fairly quickly; if you don’t feel like spending money or contributing to a landfill a second-hand bucket will also do the the trick.” Three songkrans later, I think I’d actually skip the water gun for any future iterations. They are always super cheap plastic and they do break and end up in a landfill. During the 2016 drought, the government encouraged the use of misting bottles instead — I can’t really see that catching on, but seriously, it’s just as fun to run around and party!
If you feel like you’ve just gotta have some kind of water gun, I had a few friends that had water guns of this style, and they were much heartier. Make sure you hold onto yours, and if you’re a tourist, try to donate it later to someone who will use it or save it for next year.
Use sea water
Not an option in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, obviously, but something wise to do if you’re in a beach based environment. Koh Tao is a little tiny island with limited resources. Consider filling up your buckets, water guns and reserve tanks with sea water. The environment will thank you!
Look out for animals
It probably comes as no surprise that most animals hate Songkran. The Banyan dogs were always mega-rattled by the whole situation. I would hope this would go without saying, but please don’t spray animals with water. If you see one that looks stressed and open to cuddles, pause and give them some reassurance it will all be over soon.
Know when to call it quits
While Songkran does align with the hottest day of the year, it still can get a little cold when the sun goes down. If you’re on Koh Tao, know that the water stops splashing around sunset, when everyone retreats home for a shower and comes back with dry clothes on to continue partying the night away. If you’re in Bangkok or another city with an official cease-fire curfew (in Bangkok, last year it was 9PM) respect it.
Consider your sunscreen
A reef safe sunscreen is really ideal to be using at all times, but especially on Songkran. First of all, whatever you apply is apt to wash right off you within seconds; second, you’re probably going to end up in the sea at some point.
I’ve recently become a big fan of Stream2Sea, due to their wide and comprehensive line of products and their true commitment to sustainability. They have tinted reef safe sunscreen to offset the white color that affects mineral sunscreens, body lotion, and lip balm — check out the sampler pack of all their most popular travel products. Use wanderland to get 10% off!
This is the second time this month that I’ve found myself blogging about the importance of being contentious of our water usage as we travel. Perhaps Songkran can become not just a beloved holiday but also a time to raise awareness about this important issue: over the years, perhaps thanks to increased media attention, Songkran has used less water and produced less trash.
Perhaps the Thai New Year can be a time to set resolutions about how to reduce our water usage for the year ahead — chose from any of these, for a start!
Would it be more sustainable to abstain from Songkran entirely? I mean, I guess — but like I always say, sustainability has to be sustainable. Life must have a balance between the rational and the silly. It does feel a bit strange, when you think about it, to participate in a nation-wide water fight when so much of the world is in drought, or to send lanterns up into the sky that we know are going to come back down to pollute the earth. But Songkran is some of the most fun I’ve ever had, and Yi Peng is one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced. And they are just one day. I don’t feel guilty about either of them.
We have to remember how full of joy this planet can be, if we’re going to find the motivation to keep fighting to protect it.
So take the steps in this post. Do your best to lessen your footprint, not just on Songkran but every day. And then go make a splash.
What are your thoughts on balancing tradition with sustainability?
This post is really well-written. I like how you try to balance the traditional with the sustainable, because I think even taking steps to be as eco-friendly as possible during events like these is a step in the right direction. It would be a pity to stop traditions like these altogether!
Agreed! I can’t imagine anyone could *ever* really stop Songkran, though there has been a lot of pressure on Yi Peng in particular in recent years that has threatened the celebrations authenticity somewhat.
‘We have to remember how full of joy this planet can be’
You hit the nail on the head Alex. ????
Thanks, Janice! <3
These photos definitely convey the problem with western tourism. Shocking that all these white people come to Thailand to run amuck and turn a lovely local tradition into some rave party. I used to live in Thailand and worked at a local company with local people, and I didn’t partake in the expat party lifestyle that many western tourists engage in while traveling in SE Asia. So, it is possible to visit/live in another country respectfully while showing appreciation to the culture, rather than appropriating it. So, the problem is NOT with Songkran, or Loy Krathong, or any other local Thai tradition. The problem is with western tourism that capitalizes on local traditions and exploits them for $$.
Hey Kat, I’m not sure when Songkran morphed from its historic roots (which I’ve blogged about in a previous Songkran post) to it’s current iteration, but I am very confident that it happened long before any of the people in this post set their sights on Thailand. I’m not even sure tourists were the cause. The Thai residents in Koh Tao celebrate the modern version VERY enthusiastically, and I’ve heard similar reports from my friends who have spend it in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I have always been curious about more rural areas!
It sounds like you had an incredible, immersive experience in Thailand. I lived on Koh Tao for many years, as did the people in these photos. Koh Tao has a unique history — it was all but uninhabited until the 1980’s when the reefs were discovered and huge populations of foreigners moved there to build the islands dive industry.
The initial five Thai families that lived on the island at that time are still there, own most of the land and are very politically powerful. But there was not a long-standing, deeply rooted community there to disrupt.
And I can’t say that I think anyone on Koh Tao exploits Songkran for money. Sure, bookings go up as it is a very popular time to visit Thailand, but I don’t know if I see any exploitation happening here.
Fascinating about Koh Tao’s history Alex! I’d like a post about THAT.
I read this awhile ago but something you articulated beautifully has stuck with me & I try to invoke it when I’m feeling judge-y about others’ environmentally reckless behaviour or gloomy about the future….”We have to remember how full of joy this planet can be, if we’re going to find the motivation to keep fighting to protect it.”
SO WELL SAID.
Thanks Becky! Yeah I think that if we hit people with like, “CHANGE EVERYTHING ABOUT YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW YOU HAVE TO OR THE PLANET WILLL DIIEEEEEEEE!!!!” they are going to be like, um no thanks I’d rather just live in ignorant bliss!” If you can make it fun and approachable, you have a better chance of *actually* impacting people’s behavior.
On that note, I just finished a design book I think you’d find fascinating. It’s by these 2 eco-design gurus who’ve worked with everyone from Ford to G-Star Denim & one of their core principles that they consider with every project alongside things like toxicity of materials & effect on the surrounding ecosystem is joy & delight! As in, in order for something to be truly sustainable, embraced by the masses, it has to be fun! “Cradle to Cradle” is the book if you’re curious x
Thank you so much! Always looking for recommendations!
Very interesting read!
Thanks Riley! I hope it MAKES A SPLASH. Sorry, can’t help myself, ha.
The people you mentioned who complain about the water waste and then still use copious amounts of water at home remind me of the same ones who try to boycott gas prices by not buying gas on one specific day, but then fill up their tank a day or two early. It essentially defeats the purpose. I think you celebrate it respectfully and I like these tips for it – particularly the one related to our furry friends!
Thanks Marni! Songkran is such a fun experience, I would never want to give it up — especially when a few tweaks really make it a much more sustainable experience for everyone!