BANGKOK - MOOKDA Khunpraseart began her Thai New Year kneeling in a sandbox in traditional dress, chatting and giggling with friends as she carefully arranged purple flowers on a sand pagoda.
The sculpting is an old Thai tradition to symbolically help temples with any upcoming construction or repairs, she said.
With the setting sun gleaming off a Bangkok temple behind her, Mookda, 21, said she had no interest in the free-for-all water fights that most tourists associate with Songkran, Thailand's Buddhist New Year, which runs Sunday to Tuesday.
'The water fight isn't the best part of Thai culture,' Mookda said.
Try telling that to Joe Mattram, 22, of Britain, as he reclined in a plastic chair on Sunday, leisurely sipping beer and squirting passers-by.
His favourite target? 'Dry people,' he said.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) expects more than three million Thai and foreign tourists to holiday during Songkran this year, earning the kingdom about 4.1 billion baht (S$176.8 million), up two per cent from 2007.
The Thai government and the TAT have pushed for a more mellow approach to Thailand's biggest holiday this year, but people along Bangkok's famed backpacker street, Khao San Road, broke every rule authorities could make.
Despite a push for modest dress, Thai teenage girls strutted through the water war in skimpy white shorts decorated with Playboy bunnies.
Water-weary revellers grabbed beers for sale on the street, defying cartoon characters on posters urging them to abstain from alcohol.
Traffic safety was also brazenly disregarded. Crowds were packed into the back of moving pickup trucks to dump buckets of water on people they passed.
Pedestrians got revenge by smearing chalky goo across windshields.
Water conservation and gentle and traditional water-pouring blessings were nowhere to be seen.
After posing for a quick photo with a Thai man, Briton Faye Walker blasted him in the back with her 250-baht water gun.
Her shout of triumph was interrupted by a shriek as a girl ran up and poured ice water - another Songkran delight the authorities tried to stamp out - down Ms Walker's chest.
'I don't really know what the festival is about,' said Ms Walker. 'All I know is it's crazy.'
Plenty of tourists wandered into the fun without realising they had scheduled their vacations during Songkran, although they can pick up the history from damp leaflets handed out on Khao San Road.
While visiting Thailand's former capital Ayutthaya, 26-year-old Australian Elisa McKell and her friends stumbled upon an elephant blessing. Covered in swirls of paint, the elephants paraded down the city streets aiming trunks and squirting water at people, a good luck omen in Thailand.
'Songkran is still a bit of a mystery to us,' Ms McKell said. 'But this is cool.'
For locals Songkran is a time to visit family, pay respects to elders and earn religious merit.
Families queued up at temples to sprinkle water over figures of Buddha.
Flip-flops and strappy designer sandals came off as people knelt down to pray and burn incense.
Children hid behind monks waiting to shoot foreigners with water guns.
'The water guns may not be traditional, but they're part of Songkran now and we need it in this heat,' 19-year-old local Neetraporn Sapprasert said. -- AFP
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