Drink driving and smog put a damper on Thailand's Songkran festival

This year's Songkran festival will highlight two of Thailand's top challenges, writes Rebecca Townsend. 

Thailand is famous around the world for its Songkran festival, held annually to celebrate the new year. But this year, some of Thailand’s most critical challenges will be on show, with high traffic fatalities expected and choking air pollution in the north.

Songkran, held from April 12 to 17, is famous for drawing large crowds for water fights and parties. Traditionally, the Buddhist festival was a time to visit home and go to the temple. In recent decades, it has become a major international and domestic tourist attraction.

This year, revellers interested in having a drink may have to stock up on alcohol early or go without. A ministerial panel is currently considering whether alcohol should be banned throughout the holiday weekend, after submissions from the Public Health Ministry and Department of Disease Control. Officials said they wanted to ban alcohol in order to reduce the risk of deaths caused by drink driving.

Thailand ranks as the second-most dangerous country in the world for road accidents behind only Libya. World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates say there are over 24,000 deaths every year from traffic fatalities, or 66 deaths every day. Another WHO study found the main cause of fatalities was exceeding the speed limit (12.61 per cent of fatalities). Drink driving was the fourth-most significant cause, accounting for 6.9 per cent of fatalities. The report blamed a weak road safety management system and ineffective and poorly enforced road safety laws for Thailand’s high fatality rate.


Songkran has become a major tourist attraction.

Two periods of the year, during the Songkran festival in April and the late December holiday time, see particularly high rates of death and injury. Both times are referred to as “seven dangerous days.” 418 people died during the Songkran period last year, more than the number of people who died from road crashes in New Zealand during the whole of 2018. Drink driving rose to be the major cause, accounting for 40 per cent of crashes in 2018.

The second danger Songkran revellers may notice is the choking smog plaguing northern Thailand, including top tourist destination Chiang Mai. On March 30, the city ranked worst in the world for air quality index readings.

Air pollution is a major issue in the city due to agricultural and forest fires, road traffic, and the area’s mountainous surroundings. Residents are pressuring the government to declare an emergency after PM2.5 levels reached some of the highest levels ever recorded in Thailand. PM2.5 is fine particulate matter small enough to enter your lungs and bloodstream. It is now the world's fifth-leading cause of death.

Air pollution is a growing problem in Thailand. In January, Bangkok schools closed temporarily due to dangerous PM2.5 levels in the city. A University of Chicago study found on average people in Chiang Mai and fellow northern city Chiang Rai would live 3.6 and 3.9 years less, respectively, than people living in places that meet WHO air quality standards. Bangkok residents will live 2.4 years less on average.

Already, air pollution issues are turning visitors away from a country heavily reliant on its tourism industry. Songkran is a major tourist draw, with around 150,000 visitors choosing to visit the city during this time in 2018. This year, tourists may already be thinking twice about heading to Chiang Mai festivities.

The issue has grown to the point that Prime Minister Prayuth Cha-o-cha visited Chiang Mai, where he promised that the government would work to address the problem. The official response will test residents who believe the government has for years ignored Chiang Mai’s problem.

 - Asia Media Centre