Most tourists in Thailand think of Songkran as a huge 3 or 4 day water fight. No holds barred. Take no prisoners. A great big, loud, obnoxious, drunken party. Similar to the Full Moon parties people think that it is okay to lose your inhibitions and do things that you would never do at any other time.
Acting like this tends to support the stereotype of falang being loud, obnoxious, and not respectful of Thai culture and customs.
Chris and Angela Scott made a nice post on their Tieland to Thailand blog about the expectations and realities of Songkran that tourists have and experience once they attend the Songkran Bash in Chiang Mai.
Traditional Songkran Celebrations are quite far removed from the current Tourist Event Songkran Water Fight.
We have been able to observe the more traditional celebrations and have avoided the Tourist event altogether. We find it hard to imagine how the tradition became so bastardized except to pander to the Tourist industry. The traditional celebration is a beautiful, peaceful, respectful, and culturally significant event.
The gentle splashing of water over the elders shoulders, back and hands is traditionally done with the utmost respect as a symbol of cleansing and renewal. Songkran is the beginning of the Thai New Year and it is traditionally a time for families to be together.
You won't find adults doing things in public that they would normally chastise and punish their children for if their children did the same back home. They wouldn't tolerate their 8 year old bringing a squirt gun into a restaurant and squirting their sibling with it at the table. They wouldn't tolerate their other child throwing a glass of water on the first child in retaliation either. But here they think it is okay because they are having fun.
They wouldn't tolerate their teen son using a festival as an excuse to grope unsuspecting females, but it happens quite often at the tourist celebrations here using the traditional white powder as an excuse to “cop a feel”. Thai authorities have outlawed the use of the traditional powder in some areas during the Songkran celebrations in tourist areas this year because the groping is against their cultural mores. Enforcement may or may not happen. Probably not, but it shows that the Tourist Event is getting so out of hand that they felt the need to address the problem.
Throwing buckets of ice water onto passing motorcyclists in their home country would be punishable by law, but here it is all part of the fun even though people are seriously injured (and even some deaths) because of it.
A good description of the traditional celebration can be found here:
Sawasdee bpii mai. Sawasdee Songkran. Khap!