My initiation into Songkran (Thai “new year” and water “play” festival) this year was less than pleasant – a lot less. On reflection, it was “initiation by fire,” in terms of metaphor, but “by water” in reality. I was walking through a marketplace in Sukothai – which mercifully sees a fraction of the number of foreign tourists that flood Chiangmai, where I currently live – and a kid sprayed the back of my travel companion with refreshing cold water, or what looked like it.
I glanced back to see the kid and hopefully receive a similar cooling douse, but instead found myself spitting out water he’d propelled directly in my face with a water gun. Given his height relative to mine the trajectory was perfect for directing a stream of water up my nose with enough force to drive it back down through the nasal passage.
Note – “squirt guns” have come a long way since I was a kid. These days they could put out a small fire. His “gun” had 4 holes, and it worked by forcing a long canister into a wider barrel. It was a kind of makeshift “super soaker” the more thrifty families use. That explains why it hurt, because you just don’t squirt water up your nose with that much force.
I think I sputtered something like, “Not in the face,” at the proud kid, knowing vaguely what if feels like to be “big game” having been shot, when I noticed him reloading his water gun. He was siphoning via a suction motion, from a cooler chest that previously had fish-for-sale in it, or maybe eels or frogs. It was cloudy, discolored water with foam at the top. Creatures had festered and maybe died in that water. It was a soup you’d never drink, and if you did odds are you’d expect to spend a lot of quality time on the toilet, and would probably have to pay the doctor a visit, and a premium.
So, I was pissed. Any kid – or anything more intelligent than, say, a snail or slug – knows aiming a jet of water in someone or something’s face (something with eyes, a nose, and a mouth) is going to suck, and he definitely knows using stale fishy water is F’d up. In case there was any confusion about whether his aim was deliberate or not I saw another kid (or maybe it was the same one) shoot another foreigner in the face, close range, later in the evening, as I crossed the street to avoid getting soaked.
Songkran was originally a Buddhist holiday in which children poured water gently over their elder’s shoulders as a sign of gratitude and respect. Nowadays it’s more of a water war, relatively good natured among the Thai themselves, but re-interpreted by foreign visitors, such as we Americans, as a watery version of the battle of Fallujah. We western guests don’t have the Buddhist background, so often think in terms of ambushes, sniping, guerilla tactics, evasive maneuvers, and an overall battle which can be won through guile, bravery, athleticism, and god being on our side. Otherwise we may think in terms of a wet T-shirt contest – for many, many foreigners Songkran revolves around titillation. Sukothai was refreshingly free of Westerners during the festival, so I got to see a more tame, traditional Thai version than I’ve seen in Chiangmai.
The second round of the water bout I faired a little better. I had to go to the bus station to reserve tickets for the trip home to Chiangmai, and this necessitated creeping out onto the main drag of the scheduled parade and general epicenter for water flinging concourse. In the time it took to get the tickets I was only subjected to a few cursory, gentle plashes of water, but on the way back arrived when the full mayhem was already in motion. Most of the action revolved around people in the backs of pickups trying to fling water at the people in the street or on the sidewalks, and vice versa. The pickups were outfitted with large blue vats of water, garbage cans, or even the largest outdoor fish pots. Meanwhile the sidewalks had giant water refilling stations and any and every other kind of container to hold water.
My friend and I had to make our way through the festivities in order to return to our lodgings, which we did by veering close to the buildings and walking behind the food and beverage stalls, and other small sectioned areas locals had erected for themselves in order to observe the goings on in relative comfort. We got drenched, but it was all basically lighthearted, and I was enjoying a more traditional Songkran.
Later we returned to observe the parade. Not as spectacular as what one would see in Bangkok or Chiangmai, but, rich with local color, and absent of the combat mentality westerners tend to bring to it, as well as any of the bar girl wet T-shirt and super short shorts spectacles.
The next day we headed out for the “Historical Park” in the old city, to take in the famous ruined temples, giant Buddha sculptures, and remains of palaces. We made sure to get out of the new city before the festivities started up again. After cycling around and exploring the sites for a few hours, we ran into a big problem we hadn’t anticipated. Songkran was being celebrated on the street directly in front of the park, and there was no public transportation to get us back to the new city for hours. Rather than sit and wait we decided to navigate through the heart of the revelers and catch a tuk-tuk or songthaew. We just underestimated where and when the festivities would thin out.
For the next few hours, and covering a distance of over 5 miles, unarmed and defenseless, we trudged through a continual onslaught of being squirted, splashed on, having our faces wiped with colored paste, and having iced water poured over us. For the eyes (and the camera) it was a great way to observe the celebration in all it’s vicissitudes, but because we had no choice but to keep on, it became an endurance test. We felt like we were sitting ducks for any truck that came by, and any group of people along the side of the road.
Those groups were worse, because the happy celebrators would feel obligated to pour water over us and reapply powder to our faces, not knowing how far we’d walked and how many times we’d been through this already. Maybe we were amassing massive good luck through all the ablutions, but it felt all the world like walking the water gauntlet. Not one tuk-tuk, songthaew, bus, or taxi for hours. Toward the end I began to enjoy less and dread more the next incidence of getting soaked.
Finally, my friend saw a “Big C” sign far off in the distance, and we assumed this would be the equivalent of “civilization.” It’s a major destination, I argued, and surely there would be public transportation there. When we arrived we made straight for our respective toilets, then met up, soaked and covered with powder, to get quick nourishment at the KFC. The A/C was fierce, and so we started to get really cold and had to eat outside. Oddly, nobody had hot coffee, which I craved like mad.
After eating we discovered I was wrong and there wasn’t any public transportation, so the long trek continued. Finally I saw a lone tuk-tuk driver coming up behind us and hailed him over. He was happy to take us back to the new city. Too happy! Bless him, he was in the proper high spirits appropriate to the festivities in his own homeland. We were more like wet kittens hung over a railing. In his good-naturedness he slowed the tuk-tuk wherever there were those looking for targets, and so we got subjected to yet more water pummeling. But now it wasn’t baking outside anymore, and the icy water wasn’t welcome at all. My friend got a bucket of ice water hurled in her face, and I had to restrain myself from flipping off the people who threw it. Yes, sometimes, even in a more traditional festival, people go too far. It’s the equivalent of a festival where people slapped each other on the bum, but it turned into kicking each other in the balls with steel tipped boots. It’s impossible to not know that a bucket of ice water hurled in the face is somewhere between a firm slap and a punch.
To dry. To be dry. This was my quest. To only be dry. And warm.
A few more good rewettings and the driver, who was also getting his fair share, found a back dirt road that took us to our rooms. Once I’d had a hot shower and toweled off, I relaxed and reviewed some of my pics, thinking I was actually really lucky to have inadvertently been thrust into the belly of the celebrations for a couple consecutive days, especially as I only intended to circle around the periphery.