By: Our Correspondent

On the first day of Songkran this year, Thailand’s three-day lunar new year celebration and festival, 52 people died in car crashes and another 421 were hurt in nearly 400 road accidents as a combination of speeding and drunk driving took its toll.

Even without Songkran, Thailand has the world’s second-highest death toll per million miles traveled. Road deaths roughly double per day during the festival, which this year takes place April 13-15.

The mayhem prompted the ruling junta to take steps to check drunk driving — and also to warn women to cover up as a way to avoid being groped by rowdy young men during waterfights. Neither step is likely to have much impact. 

Songkran, the country’s most important holiday, occurs in the fifth month of the Thai lunar New Year, partly because of the culture of rice farming and partly because of a complicated calendar system derived from Hindu culture. Songkran used to mean visiting family or local temples to offer food to Buddhist monks, pour water on Buddhist statues to wash away sins and bad luck. These days, however, it is pandemonium far beyond just car accidents.

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The center of Bangkok becomes a kind of water war zone, with free water distribution centers set up around the city and businesses making water available to those who are looking for targets, although this year, with the country facing severe drought, the government has asked that the practice be discontinued. Some people simply leave the country during the holiday period to duck the spray. One Thai acquaintance left with his wife and family for Australia.

Women targeted

“I always flee Thailand during Songkran,” said an American banker. “A once-lovely festival has degenerated badly. One of the few things the junta does that most Thais agree with is cracking down on this sort of mayhem.”

The ritual pouring of water on elders’ hands as a way to show respect during Songkran, has turned into a free-for-all in which too-often drunken revelers blast young women with water. They also dust passersby with talcum, or chalk, a practice that apparently originated with Buddhist monks marking blessings. Bedraggled stragglers of both sexes can be seen walking the streets soaked in water and covered with talcum. Occasionally fights break out, often instigated by those who object to being dusted and soaked.

But it is women who bear the brunt. According to a Bangkok Post survey earlier in April, half of the women and young girls surveyed reported being sexually harassed or groped during earlier water festivals. Young men armed with super-soaking water contraptions that are more water cannons than water pistols assault any woman who makes the mistake of appearing unprotected on the street. Many travel the streets in the back of pickup trucks carrying water barrels to dump water on any hapless woman who happens by. The governor of Bangkok recommended that instead of throwing around buckets of water, people use fogging spray bottles instead.