Thailand's Songkran water festival will leave you wet-through but grinning from ear to ear, writes Brett Atkinson.
On my first morning in Bangkok I'm forced to buy a gun. I've been shot in the back by a tuk-tuk driver, snipers have commandeered key buildings in the city's CBD and running battles between locals and travellers have engulfed the backpacker district of Khao San Rd. When I find myself staring down the barrel of a Hello Kitty Super Soaker helmed by a 6-year-old boy, I know it's time to fight back.
It's not just children packing liquid heat in the tropical swelter of Thailand's Songkran water festival. Entire families armed with water-powered weaponry roam central Bangkok to celebrate the Thai New Year. Tweety Bird-branded backpack reservoirs combine with more discreet Mickey Mouse handguns for well-armed families, and posses of teens randomly toss water bombs into the wildly enjoyable mayhem.
Variations on Songkran are also celebrated slightly more conservatively in nearby Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, but in Thailand the event has developed into the planet's craziest water fight.
The festival's roots include the subtle sprinkling of water on a friend for New Year blessings - the traditional pouring of water is symbolic of washing away their sins - but now Songkran is a hypercharged three-day celebration soundtracked by tuk-tuks, taxis and earsplitting Thai techno.
No one is safe - foreigners are favourite targets and bucketloads of icy water are routinely thrown through the open windows of buses - and until the early hours, street food sellers in Bangkok's Chinatown shoot salvos at each other across bustling Yaowarat Rd. Motorbike police aren't exempt, drawing a liquid barrage when they're stopped in the city's inevitable gridlock.
Street vendors shill the benefits of waterproof sleeves for ubiquitous smartphones, and protective - and very necessary - safety glasses.
A few savvy entrepreneurs offer liquid reloads for 10 baht (around 40c), and main intersections are packed with wannabe fighters filling up at water tanks provided by the city. The puny gun I'd considered buying at The Warehouse would have been no match for the multifeatured rifles here.
From toddlers to Thai seniors, almost everyone is armed, except for a local hipster wearing a retro Chuck Norris T-shirt. "I don't need a weapon. I am one."
I spy him later, soaked, but still happy in his sartorial and defensive choices.
By about noon, Bangkok's heat and humidity are peaking, and a few localised skirmishes foreshadow the inevitable afternoon descent into sheer, unbridled fun. Watery blasts begin to hit me from nowhere and everywhere, and Silom's urban landscape provides plenty of cover and camouflage.
Sharpshooters crouch under escalators leading to the Skytrain station, a young girl hides behind a decorative elephant to furtively tag me in the head, and soon a tropical mist is rising from the makeshift tarmac battlefield. Less hectic side streets provide the opportunity to retreat from the watery fun to fill up on bargain street food, and after spicy Thai sausages and tiny fried quail eggs, I re-enter the fray now empowered with a compact Angry Birds pistol.
It's not the best decision. I'm quickly reminded to "Never bring a knife to a gunfight" and my puny attempt at self-defence is thoroughly blown away by the serious firepower harnessed by other Songkran revellers. I'm soon irredeemably drenched, but wearing a huge smile as wide as the thousands of others celebrating around me.
Getting there: Thai Airways flies direct from Auckland to Bangkok.
Details: Songkran is held from April 13-15 each year.
For more information: Visit tourismthailand.org