Thai New Year in Isaan Year Two: The Triumphant Return

Festivals and Events, Tales from the Road, Thailand

“JIM! HEY, JIM!” Someone called from the darkness under a stilt house. I assumed the person was calling for me, since no one in Thailand can say my name correctly, and since I’d just met a bunch of new people the day before at a drunken Thai New Year’s parade. I stepped under the awning, and when my eyes adjusted, I saw a family assembled around several plates of food. I recognized Payu and Bee, a young couple I’d met the night before. 

They quickly made room and offered me food and beer. I declined the food since I’d just eaten, but I had to accept the beer because to turn that down would be rude. 

I sat with my new friends doing my best to speak Thai as the curious family pelted me with questions. Meanwhile, several kids started a spirited water fight in the street. I was sweating to death in the searing heat, so I grabbed a bucket, filled it with water, and joined the water fight to cool off.

I started to feel drunk and realized I should check on my wife. I thought maybe she needed breakfast or wondered where I was since I only planned to go on a short walk. I returned to the house, gathered my wife and several large bottles of beer, and returned to hang out with our new friends for the day. 

That experience – new friends, food, water fights, parades, and lots of drinking – is a microcosm of our four days in Baan Du Laat, a small village in remote Thailand where we recently went for Thai New Year.

Songkran in Rural Thailand

This was the 2nd year in a row we went to remote Thailand for Songkran with Pat and Krong, a couple we know from our neighborhood in Bangkok. Our first experience in 2018 was mind-blowing. We didn’t realize that we were headed to a remote village (we thought we were going to Yasothon City), our language skills were limited, and we had no idea just how hard everyone partied. 

We triumphantly returned to the village this year, armed with improved language skills and wisdom gained from the previous visit, for four more days of sanuk. 

Upon arrival, I asked Pat’s teenage niece to help me make a family tree. The prior year we met so many people all at once that we failed to learn names. To my surprise, I learned that the niece is named Premier and Pat’s daughter is named Pizza. We spent a lot of time with Pizza and Premier the year before, and the fact that I didn’t know those two fantastic names shows that we were truly overwhelmed.

Yasothon City Park.jpeg

Kristi with Premier and Pizza.

Songkran is like New Year’s Day, Easter, high school homecoming, and spring break, all rolled into one. It is three days of religious ceremonies, water fights, feasts, and street parties. People all across the country travel home and celebrate, but I suspect our friends in tiny Baan Du Laat do it better than most.

Our first evening in the village, a marching band consisting of eight drummers and two electric guitars playing psychedelic rock music, started jamming by the temple. The festive music attracted a crowd of townspeople well-provisioned with alcohol and dressed in brightly colored shirts. Soon, the band and villagers flowed down the street in a lively procession of drinking, dancing, and water fights. The parade lasted for several hours and eventually circumnavigated the town.

I saw something out of place at the parade – another farang! We met an affable American named David, who was not only making his first trip to the village but his first trip to Asia. Like us, he was visiting with a local friend and seemed shocked by the experience.

The next day, we went to Yasothon City with Premier and Pizza and joined the wild street party on the town’s main drag. Thousands of people fought with water and danced at the numerous concerts and parties lining the road. It was a wild and sexy party, as wet people danced and drank with reckless abandon. Kristi and I were way too old and not nearly cool enough for the party – I would not participate in anything like this in Las Vegas or Daytona Beach. Since this was a cultural experience, we walked up and down the street with Pizza and Premier experiencing the fun.

Being some of the only farang at the street party, we were prime targets. People not only splashed us with water but also smeared powder on our faces as a blessing. I had over 300 people, most of them underage girls, smear powder on my face. The last time I had so many young girls touch my face, I had to pay exorbitant sums on Soi Cowboy. By the time we left, I was covered in globs of coagulated powder and soaked so thoroughly my fingers pruned.

April 15 was a subdued and spiritual experience by Songkran standards. Although everyone drank and fought with water during the day, in the evening, the townspeople gathered at the temple to pour water on the Buddha statues, monks, and elders as part of a beautiful ritual to symbolically wash away the sins of the prior year.

After dark, we returned to the temple with the family for a quiet ceremony to honor their ancestors. They placed garments and food under a tree, prayed, set off fireworks, then retreated to the dark and watched as a monk blessed the offering and took it away. It was a solemn and beautiful experience. 

Day 4, we had a communication breakdown. We thought there was going to be an evening concert, but in fact, the show started mid-morning and lasted through the heat of the day. The concert was a fundraiser for the school, and there were free beer and food. I didn’t want to drink beer in the morning – again! But that was not an option as our friends ensured our beer mugs were never empty. Luckily, Thai people put ice in their beer to keep it cold, and since it melted almost immediately in the searing heat, I stayed hydrated and sober.

Just before sunset, we got a surprise: there was yet another parade through town with a marching band playing funkadelic beats and more refreshing water fights. Although the locals had been drinking in the hot sun all day, they still had the energy to keep on partying. I was duly impressed.

The next day our hosts took us to the airport and asked, “Next year?” Against the protestations of our livers, we replied, “Every year!!!”

Have you ever celebrated a holiday with locals? 

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

35 thoughts on “Thai New Year in Isaan Year Two: The Triumphant Return”

  1. Jeff, that is one amazing party. In many ways it reminds of Brazilian carnival, minus the water fights. I think going to a small village for this kind of cultural experience is essential, you get to truly immerse yourselves. So nice that you can now speak more of the local language. ..kudos to you for that. Fantastic photos, made me feel like I was there experiencing all.

    • I could see it being like Carnival, though I’ve never been. Being in a small village is so fun because everyone gets involved. It is the highlight of the year for many of them. Thai is so hard! I have been studying but I still struggle. When I went to Guatemala to learn Spanish I could speak more after 3 months than I can speak Thai after 3 years here.

    • We were definatly more mentally prepared and it helped. We are a little more family than farang for sure, but have a ways to go. I need to work on my Isaan dialect so I can talk to everyone even better 🙂

  2. Yikes, I think I’d never make it to day 2. We were in Bangkok for Chinese New Year – man do those people know how to party!!!!

    • I am not sure how I made it past day one either.
      Chinese New Year is crazy! We have been a couple of times but will likely skip it in the future becuase the crowds are intense down there.

      • Wow what a party! You guys are pros now.. I think I’d last an hour or two max so kudos to you both – impressive !! Love the collection of photos and story of it all!


      • Thanks Peta. It is a really fun experience. Going there has helped me understand the country so much better.

  3. I have a hangover just reading this, Jeff. 🤣 Always fun and interesting to read about your Thai celebrations. I was with Tina in Bangkok which was such fun but your party far surpasses anything we saw. Great photos and storytelling, as always.

    • Some of the photos from the downtown parties in Bangkok look crazy, with thousands of people all carrying super-soakers. I bet that was interesting. I think I still have a hangover from the party six weeks ago.

    • Thanks for the link – that festival looks colorful and wild. Coming across festivals by chance is always exciting. About two weeks after Songkran, there is another festival in the region that I hear is just as wild. I don’t know how they do it.

    • We went to the beach for 4 days to recover after. I think I am still hungover, and that was 6 weeks ago.

      • If I ever find myself in Thailand over their New Year, I’ll be sure to remind myself of your (cautionary) tale. 🙂

  4. You are brave and game souls! Glad you went back for Part II and had even more fun than the first time. Now that I’ve met you both, I can more readily picture the party scene! 🙂

    • Meeting us you got to see that we are pretty chill people, so this takes a lot out of us. I am still tired.

  5. Sounds like a massive party and a lot of fun, but I don’t know if I could keep up. With all that water flying around, do you have a waterproof camera?

    • I wrapped plastic around it and used my catlike reflexes to avoid the water. I do want to get a waterproof housing because I think I could make some really interesting shots if I really got close to the action.

  6. Sounds like an amazing party and experience. I have never been to Asia but now I see that visiting during Thai New Year would be great :).

    • It is a good time to visit because it is tourist shoulder season, but it is the hottest month of the year 😦

  7. OMG OMG OMG! I can’t even imagine! I would love it, it looks like so much fun, but know I’d never have the stamina to keep up, though I could pace myself and join in as and when I felt the calling. But I hate beer, any kind of beer. Not drinking any beer no no no. I’d carry a glass filled with water and wave it in the face of anyone trying to force beer onto me. Apart from the beer and the stamina required it sounds amazing! And your photos really bring it to life. Boy, those people sure know how to party!

    • You’d enjoy it for sure. Aside from drinking, there is constant eating and camaraderie. Many people in the region live and work in Bangkok and they return home for the holiday. We don’t drink whisky, and people constantly offering it to us there but we just say no. I think your strategy of having a cup of water would work well!

  8. Holy-Party-Animals! These people really know how to let go! 🙂 Four days! I think I would be toasted after a couple of hours!

    There is so much to like in here, Jeff. The intricate guitars caught my eye, the bright clothing, and happy faces … but my favourite is the photo of the drive-by ‘shooting’ with the family on the scooter and the little one sporting a water gun. hahahahaha!! What fun! 🙂 Great shots of the water battles!

    • The drive-by shootings and water fights never ceased to amuse me. Often, adults would drive by holding up their cell phone high with one hand as if to say soak me if you want but just shoot my body and don’t ruin my phone. You have to really be careful where you go in town because you may get attacked at any time.

  9. It is great that you are making this an annual event and I am so impressed that you are conversing in Thai. Your photo series are fun. I particularly like the bottom one in the 2nd set with Kristi and the guy with the blue pail on his head.

    • After they drink the booze out of the buckets they usually turn them into hats. I like that photo a lot too. I am trying to learn Thai and I have been studying with a private teacher for a year and a half, but I struggle so much with it. There are no common words and of course, the script is different. I need to go live with a Thai family for 2 months and get immersed but I think my wife and cats would miss me.

      • Makes me think that I have no excuse not to get French and/or Spanish down. Piece of cake compared to Thai.

      • We were waiting to check in at a guest house recently and I picked up a Lonely Planet Thailand in French. I’ve never studied French at all, but I could look through it and understand a lot. Of course, it was a familiar format with photos, but still. I’ve been studying Thai for 3 years and I have such a hard time with it.

  10. OMG Jeff, this post was so much fun! Excellent writing, taking in the spirit and joy and festivities with due respect. Great fun that you shared the customs, gave explanations, provided excellent photos, and a nice sway of funny comedy, like the names Premier and Pizza. The powder on the face and that story with the underage girls had me laughing along with you. Loved seeing the photos with the actual water airborne. Also loved the wet youth with the pink bucket on his head giving the peace symbol. Thanks for taking us along, much enjoyed.

    • Jet, Thanks for the kind words. It is so much fun going there with the family. It is such a joyous and wild party and everyone is so welcoming, but it is hard to keep up!

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