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Snapshot: Water Splashing Festival in Yunnan

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Every year in April, people of the Dai minority in Yunnan province get wet, really wet. Following two days highlighted by boat races and nighttime scenes punctuated by the lighting of thousands of flying lanterns, people get down to the business of dousing each other with as much water as humanly possible.

This is Water Splashing Festival. Known in China as poshui jie (泼水节), and in Laos and Thailand as Songkran, the holiday marks the traditional beginning of the Dai new year. The celebration typically lasts for three days from April 13 through 15, although in places both inside and outside China where tourists have co-opted the holiday — perhaps most notably in Chiang Mai, Thailand — the festival can go on for a full week. The images below were all taken in Jinghong (景洪), Yunnan in 2013.

Day one

The first day of Water Splashing Festival in southern Yunnan centers largely around boat races. Huge canoes, crewed by dozens of rowers, race up and down the Lancang River — known outside of China as the Mekong.

Before the competition begins, the boats and their teams gather on the river's edge. Captains light incense and then douse the flames with baijiu to bestow good luck on their vessels.

Although pretty much everyone expects to get wet as they launch their respective boats into the river, people nonetheless dress up for the event. Jelly slippers were particularly in fashion for the ladies when we visited.

The slim ships are all tipped with two long prongs at the front. These are decorated with good luck talismans. In this case the totems are a pack of cigarettes, a water bottle filled with alcohol and what appeared to be tamarind shells.

Members of each team dress identically, often with traditional minority hats. These gentlemen stopped to have their picture taken as they made their way down to the river.

Boats are crewed by groups of men or women. The vessels are launched by their respective teams into the river just before the races begin.

Races begin in the morning and go on all day. Once all hands are on deck, everyone takes up short wooden paddles and ready themselves for competition.

Paddling is coordinated from the middle of each boat by a coxswain armed with a gong or drum. Steering is performed by several members of the team at the back of the ship using wooden poles.

Races can sometimes be quite intense. Crews row furiously down the river to see whose boat can sprint the fastest, many times for nearly two kilometers.

In the evening, people crowd the riverside to release flying lanterns. Although this activity has become popular among tourists across Southeast Asia at all times of the year, during Water Splashing Festival it is seen as particularly propitious.

What starts at sunset as just a few lanterns taking flight, quickly becomes a veritable constellation of floating beacons.

Lanterns are simple affairs made of paper and a few thin bamboo supports. They are powered by small paraffin candles that burn themselves out in around five minutes.

Releasing lanterns, either those that fly or float in the river, is a way to bring good luck for the new year. Children are often encouraged to make wishes as they let their lights go.

Photographer Adam Crase was taking a two minute exposure when a woman with a lantern passed in front of him. Although he thought she may have ruined his shot, he was pleasantly surprised to see the accident created a dragon effect out of the blurred light.

Day two

Water Splashing Festival is a celebratory event welcoming the new year, but it does have more solemn aspects. The Dai people in Jinghong practice Theravada Buddhism, and a visit to a temple during new year festivities is seen as auspicious.

Perhaps one of the most important acts to be performed is ceremonially washing the Buddha. Those visiting temples line up to pour water over effigies of the sage.

Bamboo tubes are set behind statues, allowing individuals to perform the bathing ritual. Some temple-goers collect drops that have touched statues as holy water.

Water poured over statues of the Buddha is often scented with flower petals. Performing the cleansing ritual, whether at a temple or in one's home, guarantees good luck and prosperity in the new year.

When visiting temples, many people bring food to offer the monks. Water Splashing Festival is considered an ideal time to pay respect to elder family members, friends and monks.

The festival, at its core, is an extremely social one. People take the day off, visit relatives and the temple and prepare themselves for the craziness of the final day of the holiday.

Curiously, and perhaps only in Jinghong, cockfighting has become a festival tradition. Fights don't usually end in death and the chickens are only allowed a few seconds of actual combat.

Day three

And the madness begins. The third day of Water Splashing Festival is what the tourists come for, as thousands of people descend on city streets and public squares to get as drenched as possible.

Getting armed for Water Splashing Festival is not difficult. Makeshift stores selling buckets, water guns and basically anything that can hold liquid are everywhere.

An assault by water can happen anywhere, but the city's central park and bordering streets are where the most people congregate.

A minor lull in the action as revelers collectively take a bit of a break. Scenes like this go on for the entire day.

Water is collected from several large pools scattered around the park. As if the pools and ponds didn't supply enough water, firetrucks patrol Jinghong's streets, dispensing water wherever they go.

By the end of the day, the park and anyone left standing, are soaked and muddy messes. But the new year has been properly welcomed, and people symbolically made pure during a very public shower.

Editor's note: This article by GoKunming contributor Adam Crase was originally published in 2014. Crase is an American photographer based in Yunnan and Guangdong provinces. He travels extensively in China in search of unseen angles and perfect shots. Crase's first book — a large format collection entitled "Dongguan, China 中国东莞" — was published in 2014. More of his images can be seen at his website Kung Fu Imaging and he can also be found on Facebook (requires proxy).

All images: Adam Crase

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Best part of this festival is that everyone is smiling. A Chinese city full of smiles!

Terrific pictures. Great photographic skill.

We are down here in Jinggu for the same festival and Paragliding, hot at 34oC..

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