World’s biggest water fights called off as Southeast Asia scales back New Year

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Southeast Asian countries are cancelling or scaling back traditionally boisterous Buddhist New Year celebrations next month, citing the coronavirus pandemic as they call off water-soaked street parties and festivals.

FILE PHOTO: People play with water guns during Songkran Water Festival to celebrate Thai New Year, in Bangkok, Thailand April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The region usually hosts the world’s biggest water fights in mid-April in which revelers splash each other under a scorching sun. Carnivals are held across the region, with pageants and dance parties as well as religious ceremonies.

Myanmar on Friday became the first to ban all mass gatherings to mark the Thingyan holiday – the most important event in the Theravada Buddhist year – over the fast-spreading coronavirus. Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand have also taken steps but have not introduced outright bans yet.

“Since the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) is easily contracted in crowded spots, citizens are not allowed to participate in events, festivals and celebrations for Myanmar’s traditional water festival,” Myanmar’s presidential office said in a statement.

All such events and festivals will be banned until the end of April and possibly longer, it said.

The Thai government has urged the public not to organize big festivals and water fights, but to celebrate more traditionally at home with their families, pouring water on elderly people to ask for blessings and offering alms to monks.

Bangkok, which typically closes off streets in April for water fights, has called off Songkran activities to reduce of risk of an outbreak. The city has also asked businesses and malls to not hold activities including water fights.

Siam Piwat, which operates popular malls like Siam Paragon, said they would have smaller events to celebrate the culture of Songkran and not draw large gatherings.

The beach resort town of Patong in Phuket Island, famous for its nightlife, has also canceled Songkran events, which usually includes musical performances and dances.

Thailand on Friday had a total of 75 coronavirus cases.

Neighboring Cambodia canceled celebrations in Siem Reap, where the first Cambodian was confirmed to have fallen ill with the virus on Saturday, and Laos urged citizens to avoid mass gatherings in a statement on Wednesday.

An official from Luang Prabang told Radio Free Asia all public events to mark the new year in the city had been called off.

“Only necessary traditional rituals will be allowed,” the official said.

Despite close links with China, where the virus originated in Wuhan city, Southeast Asia has had fewer cases than other regions, though some fear they are going under-reported due to weak healthcare systems and lack of testing.

“It is difficult to predict what will happen in Myanmar, but the global situation is not good,” Kaung Sithu, the organizer of one big annual new year party in the commercial capital of Yangon told Reuters by phone.

“Now is the time to be concerned, we do not want to be reckless and gather people.”

Reporting by Shoon Naing, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Chayut Setboonsarng, Additional reporting by Sam Aung Moon, Writing by Poppy McPherson, Editing by Angus MacSwan