Most people are now relatively familiar with the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated not only in China, Korea and Vietnam but elsewhere in countries with significant ethnic Chinese populations such as Singapore and Malaysia. However, there is an equally significant New Year holiday in Asia-Pacific which is not as well known to outsiders: the Water Festival which takes place every year from 13th – 16th April and is celebrated primarily in Thailand (where it is known as Songkran), Myanmar (Thingyan), Cambodia (Chaul Chnam Thmey) and Laos (Pii Mai). It is also a significant holiday throughout South Asia and coincides with the Sinhalese (Sri Lanka), Tamil (Southern India) and Bengali (Bangladesh) New Year holidays.
However, the most significant impact is seen in the Asean countries mentioned above, where all public and most private business shuts down almost totally. Whilst the official holiday is 13-16 April, if any of the dates falls on a weekend, there is an extension so in reality it can be an entire week. As a rule, you should always check before arranging meetings of any kind for the week before or after the holiday and be sensitive about deadlines falling within that period.
Don’t forget that there are significant Lao and Khmer communities in the US, quite apart from the large numbers of Thais and Bengalis who work globally, so even outside Asia this can be a significant event – even if they don’t take any holiday, not planning conference calls late in the day or wishing your colleagues a Happy New Year is bound to be appreciated.
As the name implies, in Asia the holiday is marked by the use of water; this extends from the decorous process of washing images of Buddha in the temples to crowded water fights, where people throw water and talcum powder at each other. When I lived in Bangkok, this sometimes included people hijacking fire engines and driving the streets hosing people down! It’s all meant in a spirit of fun but can sometimes get out of hand, particularly in Thailand where it is now a major tourist attraction and involves the usual mixture of alcohol and high spirits. So if you take to the streets, wear old clothes and be prepared to get very wet; it is not a spectator sport – unless you are obviously elderly, you will be expected to participate and never on any account lose your temper.
If you’re not sure, stay away from the main public areas in the big cities (Yangon, Bangkok and Phnom Penh) or significant tourist areas like Phuket or Pattya. If you’re in the right mood, it’s a lot of fun but motor cyclists throwing water at people can sometimes be a little unsettling. If you want to have a more decorous cultural experience, the ceremonies in Chiang Mai and at the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon are worth seeing but hotels fill up early and the events themselves are very busy. In addition, show respect by wearing the right clothes if you want to view a temple ceremony ie no shorts or t-shirts. If you’re lucky enough to be there, enjoy a unique cultural experience.