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Published: April 16th 2008
Countdown to Songkran: Day -1
These boys (along with hundreds) started celebrating on April 12th.
Songkran: Now this is how you have a water fight!
Sawadee Pee Mai, Happy New Year! In Chiang Mai we just celebrated the coming of the Thai New Year, 2052. Songkran is known as the Water Festival and it is known to be the most fun in Chiang Mai. Water Festival, however, is probably better understood to Westerners as a huge
water fight! The holiday lasts over three days. On the first day people will clean their homes and set off fireworks to cleanse and scare away any bad luck from the previous year. Then in Chiang Mai there is a parade of Buddha statues which people throw holy water on to cleanse as well (this is where the water fighting originated from). The next day Buddhists will go to the temple for merit making by presenting Buddha and the monks with gifts and offerings. On the final day youngsters are to celebrate by pouring water on their elders and then have fun with water games, dancing and other festivities. But like most holidays, over the centuries these traditions have evolved into something a bit different yet the meaning remains. For Songkran this means the water pouring has turned into
Children are always cute in buckets!
the world's biggest water fight!
The holiday starts every year on April 13th. For us, though, we were first doused with water while ridding in a songtaew on April 10th by some farangs… Friday, April 11th was when the Thais started. Brian and I were running from school to school for last minute interviews. To do so appropriately we had to hire a driver at a pretty penny but it was a good thing we did because our cab was crossing enemy water lines every time we went over the moat or river. Without our armor we would have been dripping of smelly, dirty moat water at each interview…but honestly, I don’t think anyone would have minded—it’s a Thai thing.
Saturday, April 12th (not even the official holiday yet…) Brian and I dressed in all of our moisture wicking, quick drying outdoor gear we bought for the days of 100% humidity. We walked out to a somewhat tame scene and caught a ride with an open top tuk tuk (a hybrid between a three wheeler and a golf cart). While the streets were still somewhat dry we wanted to walk around some perspective schools to look for potential
Sawadee Pee Mai
is what you say when pouring buckets of water down one's back.
apartments. Here we were mildly introduced to the sacred pouring of water. Our driver took the moat route where children and their eager fathers stood on the banks filling their buckets with surely e-coli water and hurling liters of it across the road and right on our heads. Then there were the trucks. Pick up trucks with abundant amount of youngsters in the back with huge troughs of water and buckets… Funny thing was, though, we noticed this look they gave you before they drenched you. A look like they were almost giving you a chance to back out but of course we were now scared of losing face over saying no and still being drenched so we smiled big and braced ourselves. The rest of the day wasn’t too bad. Children on the street soaked us here and there with buckets or squirt guns but we were never really dripping and always found stretches of dry road where we could dry off for 10-15 minutes before the next attack. After a few hours we came back to the room and hid out till nightfall when the water throwing supposedly would stop. Then we headed out for the Songkran festival
This is the line of fire.
which really was vendors and vendors of food (did we mention that Thais love food!). I found this day to have that Christmas Eve sort of feeling, where a lot is going on but at the end of the day it is all just in preparation for the next morning. Except in this case the next morning would last three days.
So now it is the first day of Songkran. The main drag inside the moat had been completely closed down and filled with vendors and celebrators. The two temples in this area were running full on festival style with fun and games alongside merit making. Buddhists purchased flowers and incenses to give to Buddha while they prayed and then poured holy water on Buddha statues. Outside, water (holy and just dirty) was pouring on everything. Day 1 was in full effect. And on this day you could forget about that permission seeking look, if you were out on the streets you were going to get wet! Music was everywhere: pop songs coming from radio and television broadcasts, folk songs from numerous festivals, bars playing anything from AC/DC to club music and of course the streets themselves were bumping
Good Shot, huh?
The ice cold buckets are the best!
from its vehicles’ finest sound systems. Walking down the street felt more like swimming. You could go several minutes just trying to catch your breath as buckets of water were hurled in your face. For the most part, people tried not to hit you hard in the face but in this kind of chaos, sometimes you can only throw!
We began our enjoyment the Thai way, with food. Thankfully Thais serve all vendor food in plastic bags (so you can easily take it home to feed the family since the average Thai doesn’t cook or even have a kitchen). These plastic bags saved our food for a few bites of enjoyment but then, of course, they would be splashed with moat water and lord knows you wouldn't intentionally want to put that in your mouth so out it went. After lunch we observed the craziest of people who jumped in to swim and party in the actual moat… from there we swam up the street, joyfully spraying and being sprayed every stroke of the way till we found a clearing with music, beer and break dancing. This is where we stayed for at least an hour. We bought a
Thapae gate rigged with a waterfall for Songkran.
couple of over priced Singhas (Thai beer) and sat on a wall watching the local teen kids break dance under a water show of squirt guns. Probably one of the most entertaining parts of this scene was when a kathoey (Pronounced KA'-toy; Thai for Ladyboy; there is an extremely prevalent transgender population in Thailand) hopped out of the back of a truck to have an impressive dance off with one of the more talented break-dancers. This went on a few rounds and ended with her throwing a rubber in his face and jumping back onto the back of a truck with all her hysterical friends. The katheoys have quite a good time during Songkran. Most Thai girls dress quite conservatively especially during Songkran, purposefully avoiding light or loose clothing that could reveal too much when wet. The kathoeys, however, wear hotpants and bras to parade down the streets in while soaking wet. It is all in good Thai fun.
From here we went to see the parade. More families and elders came out for this and the streets definitely calmed. No one was very interested in throwing buckets of water on you. If anything, you found Thais giving you
The Moat: Day 1
Children playing in the moat on the first official day of Songkran.
the respectful cup of water on your shoulder while pleasantly wishing you a Happy New Year--the way water pouring was intended. The parade was a great chance to dry off and witness the calm peace and meditative state Thais have when celebrating Buddha. It was a pleasant break from the wild moat scene of earlier.
After a few hours and a water rash and sunburn, Brian and I had to retire to our room and by time it was safe to go out again, we had passed out from overexposure to everything! The next day continued much the same as the day before. We braved the streets from about 11AM-4PM continuing to walk the moat for more adventures. On this day we stopped at one of those bars blasting AC/DC and found a good corner to sit in where we could submerge in the fun and then resurface for air. We were also sitting behind some fun loving Thai girls (or maybe kathoeys…all Thais are so petite sometimes it is hard to tell) dancing to the music in matching sequined white dresses (their modest need to wear clothing underneath makes me think they are authentic Thai women). Anyways, they
Pickup Trucks: Day 1
These are unavoidable on Songkran.
were dancing in the water when a huge 20-something farang guy came up and dropped his drawers so he was dancing in only his tight green chonies. The girls squealed and a man ran to close one of their eyes until a Thai man finally physically pulled up the farangs pants—this is one of those don’ts
for Americans in Thailand and I think we have it on video below.
April 15th is the last day of Songkran and perhaps was the best! We decided to take advantage of the water in the heat and walk around the entire moat that surrounds the old city, something that could never be done without the aide of ice cold water down your back. Everyone seemed a bit more relaxed on this day. The New Year was finally here and it was time to relax and celebrate it. The banks of the moat looked more like a lazy beach with entire families camped out on blankets while the kids played in the water. We slowly made it around the moat stopping occasionally for food and beer. Then somewhere in the mix of water we met Kit, our favorite Thai yet. Kit was out
Moat Road: Day 1
Traffic along the moat during Songkran...still probably better than L.A.
celebrating the New Year with his sisters and girlfriend and for some reason took a liking to the look of us and brought us along for “concert, super Thai stars, dancing, you go?” Yes, we went. He took us down the main metropolitan road of Chiang Mai where we actually hadn’t been yet. The entire street was blocked off and in the center was in fact a concert with super Thai stars and dancing. Kit and the girls all had large plastic cups with warm beer and as they walked through the streets beer was poured into their cups as easily as water was poured down their backs. And this, of course, they shared because the Thais share everything
. I can’t say we paid much attention to the music—it was Thai pop…I’m sure you can imagine if you try. But the crowd was great. Beneath skyscrapers with signs in foreign characters was us and probably 50,000 other people dancing and drinking in soaking wet clothes. Kit seemed to have enough after an hour or so and took us to go drinking on the moat. Literally, vendors along the moat sold beer and laid out blankets for their customers to drink
Kathoey Dance Off
Picture of finale for the Kathoey dance off. With the clever rubber insult, Khateoy won!
them on. This is where I told Kit that Brian was a good swimmer and just as I had hoped, this forced Brian in the dirty moat! We sat with Kit for a while as his various friends came and went. Kit would speak to someone in Thai and then food or beer would appear—he was a very good host! But as nightfall came and we were still in the same wet clothes, it was time to say goodbye. We got his number and managed to make a date to go the Chiang Mai Zoo sometime in the near future.
I am glad that I probably won’t be soaked with water for another year but it was quite fun while it lasted. While we sat with Kit and his friends along the moat watching the sun go down, I couldn’t help but get swept away with how happy I am to be here and be apart of Thailand and its wonderful New Year. Brian and I continually pondered what such a celebration would be like in the states. Even though it looks from first glance as complete chaos, it is really not. Thais are very respectful and they only
For my friends at the PSCC
This entire country does not get the concept of trash collection so give the poor cheerleaders a break. :)
mean to have a little fun and wish everyone luck for the New Year. Would celebrations like this be so void of malice in the States or other Western countries? If a drunken guy got squirted in the eye with a powerful Tommy gun of a squirt gun, would he smile and wish his opponent good luck for the New Year? Would fights break out? Or would it ever even have the chance to exist? Would news programs monger fear for the safety of your children and property? Would it all be regulated and only permitted in a fenced in water safe park? Would they start to charge lots of money to celebrate in this regulated park? Would it just turn into a day off from school and a day to play at Knott’s Soak City where parents pay through the roof for souvenir slushy drink cups that say “Happy Songkran?” I’m not sure but I will say I’m glad I was here and got to experience it and learn just a bit more about Thai culture. And for those of you who may invite Brian and I to a future New Year’s Eve Party, don’t be surprised if we
Thank God for all those vaccination shots before coming to Thailand!
come armed with a squirt gun.
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