Buddhist new year's bad karma leaves 139 dead

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The Independent Online

The Mekong river's worst drought in a quarter-century does not seem to have affected supplies for the deadly, pitched waterfights that marked the Thervada Buddhist New Year yesterday for 120 million people in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and southern China.

The Mekong river's worst drought in a quarter-century does not seem to have affected supplies for the deadly, pitched waterfights that marked the Thervada Buddhist New Year yesterday for 120 million people in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and southern China.

It is hard to escape immersion in this local custom, because the gentle rituals that symbolically washed away the old year's misfortunes on the hottest days have turned the Songkran festival into a wet and wild rite of spring across south-east Asia. Buckets, hoses, assault squirt-guns, and even the trunks of elephants are weapons for the street festivities. But there are real casualties. Thousands of them.

In tourist resorts, such as Pattaya or Khaosan road in Bangkok, teenage gangs target foreigners, smear their bodies and cars with talcum or white rice powder, and heave overpowered opponents into unsalubrious moats,and canals, or douse them in the polluted Chao Phraya river or the Andaman sea.

Because the soggy participants tend to get sloshed with alcohol, too, the road accident rate surges up. In Thailand, where unofficial festivities started last weekend, yesterday morning the traffic death toll was already 139, with nearly 10,000 injuries. Highways are jammed as families travel to reunions in outer villages or use the holiday to escape the city for a spring break. Sodden road surfaces, often slicked with traditional rice powder, become treacherous for motorcyclists, especially those not wearing helmets. Trains with open passenger windows are a favourite target.

Thai authorities, which have cracked down on youthful excess, have threatened three-month jail terms for parents of adolescents who damage property or sexually harass anyone. Water-throwing is banned after sunset. Young women have been instructed to avoid "provocative" clothing such as strapless boob-tubes or tiny skirts which allow easy groping. The atmosphere becomes like a three-day wet T-shirt contest. Shrieks and whoops echo in alleys.

"In the big cities, Songkran unleashes an ugly sexual vibe, and isn't that fun after awhile," said Cameron Cooper, editor-in-chief of Farang magazine (a Thai slang word for foreigner), with offices near the Bangkok back-packer quarter of Khaosan Road. "Bangkok is the worst."

In a poll in The Nation, a leading Thai newspaper, 85 per cent of respondents said they would cut down on Songkran splashing because of the country's severe water shortages. The government has had to seed clouds to water parched rice crops, and levels on the Mekong are at record lows.

Cambodia and Laos started year 2548 of the Buddhist era yesterday, although Thailand will not do so until 1 January, because it partially adopted the Gregorian calendar. Burma began its year 1366.

"I love it," 10-year-old Issara Paoluengtong said. "Drenching yourself in water kills the heat. I run around with my water pistol the whole day. I can't wait for Songkran."

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