Coronavirus: Songkran cancelled, Thais mark traditional new year with virtual water-splashing

Buddhist monks during the Songkran celebrations at Wat Samian Nari in Bangkok on April 14, 2020.
Buddhist monks during the Songkran celebrations at Wat Samian Nari in Bangkok on April 14, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - This week would normally be that time of the year when busy Bangkok streets are practically deserted as those working in the capital return to their home towns to visit their families, while others travel elsewhere in the country or abroad.

There have been fewer cars and pedestrians on the street this year too, but for an entirely different reason.

For the first time, Thailand's traditional new year, dubbed Songkran, which is celebrated from April 13 to 15 with the trademark water-splashing amid the scorching summer heat and festivities such as beauty pageants and foam parties, has been cancelled amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that has seen 2,613 people infected and 41 dying as of Tuesday (April 14).

With the hashtag #DivineSongkran2020 trending on Thailand's Twitter on Monday with over 200,000 tweets, Thais have turned to virtual water-splashing.

They are filming themselves sprinkling water from a bowl with Songkran music in the background and are posting old photos and videos of themselves and their pop idols getting splashed in past Songkrans.

This is their answer to being unable to go out on the streets with their water guns, hoses and buckets. The "divine" part of the hashtag refers to how virtual celebrations resemble the virtual or symbolic consumption of offerings left in front of statues and figurines of deities.

Part of the reason the hashtag was trending involved fans of Thai singer Palitchoke "Peck" Ayanaputra, who reposted footage of their idol's virtual Songkran celebrations from three years ago.

Considered by his fans to be the pioneer of this trend, Palitchoke is seen having fun with different colourful virtual water guns, with new year songs playing in the background. In another video clip, the 35-year-old celebrity is simply soaking himself with water from the kitchen tap.

Paying respects to Buddhist monks and older relatives by pouring scented water into their hands is another big part of the celebrations. This year, the culture ministry has urged people to bathe Buddha statues at home instead and conform with social distancing measures when paying respects to their elders.

Buddhist monks receiving devotees' offerings behind plastic sheets at Wat Samian Nari in Bangkok, on April 14, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Without abandoning tradition, Wat Suan Kaew Temple in Nonthaburi province came up with an innovative way for revellers to bathe the monks, by having them pour water into a bamboo pipe many metres long with a monk's hands ready at the other end.

Thais also took to social media and mobile chat apps to wish each other a happy new year despite the holidays being cancelled to prevent a mass exodus from the capital and movements across the country.

Songkran is a three-day public holiday. And even though it has been cancelled, the government has promised to declare substitute public holidays some time later this year. This means most people will have to work during Songkran, either at home or at their workplaces, depending on workplace policies.

Tuesday (April 14) seemed like just any other weekday, with office workers boarding sky trains and underground trains, and unlike in previous years, Songkran music was not played at the stations. Hardly anyone was spotted in colourful flowery shirts that usually mark the occasion.


"Although I don't normally join the Songkran festivities, it's such a downer to have to work instead," tweeted Ms Sirikan Jitnarong.

The 24-year-old quality control officer works in the eastern province of Chonburi. She has visited her family, who lives 110 km away in Samut Sakhon province every Songkran holiday. But she will not this year.

For Ms Suparada Chatngoen, a sales and marketing officer in the northern city of Chiang Mai, working through the holidays is one thing, but having to adapt to no alcohol sales and to bars closing across the country is quite another.

"I understand that the ban is necessary but it's a bit of a problem for me. I haven't hoarded a lot of alcohol at home," she said.