Thailand’s Songkran Festival. Or, How I lost my Thai Smile.
A two part account of one hapless, young man’s journey to the Songkran festival in Chiang Mai.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Waiting at the Bangkok train station is quite a pleasant experience. The great hall is arranged as though into a theatre, though the only show is one of red lights and incandescent, scurrying words; the timetable, that is. There’s also, as is expected in any public building in Thailand, a huge picture of the King, stood rather grandly next to his dressing table.
You, dear reader, find me just as I am about to embark from Bangkok by train on a journey 700km North to Chiang Mai, the epicentre of activity and celebration during Thailand’s Songkran festival of the Thai new year. The most widely known celebration of Songkran is the throwing of water; however, this was not always the main activity of the festival. Songkran was traditionally a time to visit and pay respects to elders, including family members, friends and neighbours. Besides the throwing of water, people celebrating Songkran may also go to a Buddhist monastery to pray and give food to monks. They may also cleanse Buddha images from household shrines as well as Buddha images at monasteries by gently pouring water mixed with a Thai fragrance over them (I happened to be caught up in this particular ritual and carried a sweet scent with me throughout the rest of the day). It is believed that doing this will bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year. In many cities, including Chiang Mai, the Buddha images from all of the city’s important monasteries are paraded through the streets so that people can toss water at them, ritually ‘bathing’ the images, as they pass by on ornately decorated floats. In northern Thailand, people may carry handfuls of sand to their local monastery in order to recompense the dirt that they have carried away on their feet during the rest of the year. The sand is then sculpted into and decorated with flags.
However, not being a Buddhist myself, my primary reason for visiting Chiang Mai was to experience the prodigious water fight that takes part in Chaing Mai throughout Songkran (13th-15 April); and what and experience it was!
If there’s one thing only that you take away from the train journey from Bangkok to Chainge Mai, it’s the heat. The intense, burning, stifling, energy sapping heat that carries the potential to scald you should you be hapless enough to expose yourself to it for more than a few minutes. There is no air conditioning, just a couple of rusty fans nailed to the sealing, blowing hot air around the carriage. Naturally the windows are left wide open; in fact there is no need for window panes, so they are taken away, however, I came to conclude that this was more a curse than a blessing. You see, an open window on a train when the temperature is nearing 40 degrees celsius is only useful to you when the train is travelling fast enough to create something of a breeze, but because of the somewhat ‘laid back’ organisation and time keeping of the Thai rail network, you find that your train really does move as little and as slowly as it can. I don’t think ‘slow and steady wins the race’ should necessarily have been adopted as a motto by the Thai transport authorities. So with no window, and no shutters you are exposed to the searing glare of the sun. And for a pale white person from the South West of England, this to me was a glimpse at the experience of a turkey on Christmas morning.
The carriage of the train itself is quite pleasant. It must be said that I had just arrived from India, and so my opinion of the Thai carriage was entirely relative to the filth and chaotic squalor on board an Indian sleeper train. But nevertheless, if I had come straight from England I would not have been displeased. The seats are comfortable and spacious, there is plenty of storage for your bags, the facilities are comparatively clean, there’s running water, it’s light and it’s airy (airy, on account of the windows having no panes).
The passenger across the aisle from me struck up conversation. He had a full head of ginger hair, an impressive ginger beard and large round spectacles. At first I thought it to be Chris Evans on the run. He was some sort of wild hard-core traveller, and not the annoying type, thankfully, as the prospect of a 20 hour train journey may have begun to be a little miserable had he been. He had served in the Swedish Navy for a few years (it turns out his specs were the standard issue) and now he was just doing a little ‘travelling’. By way of ‘little’, I assumed he meant a day of two, for I noticed the only thing he had with him, aside from the clothes on his back, was a guitar.
“Oh yeah, I’m travelling round Thailand with only a guitar” he said, after I begun to probe him on this observation.
‘Only a guitar!?’
‘It’s all I need really.’
I found this quite charming, and almost inspiring. There was I with my great, ruddy-big rucksack and all my western mod-cons and tid-bits, while he was travelling light as a feather. Perhaps this is the way that you really experience a country and connect with its people, through music. After all, music is a universal language, everyone can understand it. Why not make the only object you carry one which allows you to meet and entertain all those around you. Brilliant! Though I must say, I smirked a little at the thought of him turning up at some Inn, or gathering, and in some Brent-like fashion whipping out his guitar and strumming the chords to free love freeway. I was about to ask him what he did for a change of underwear and cleaning his teeth, but there was heard the call of a small Thai gentlemen who was selling drinks up and down the train. And I should imagine he was making himself a tidy little profit, given the mid-day heat and the prices he charged. The gentlemen I had been talking to ordered a beer in Thai and then struck up a little conversation with the salesmen. This was impressive, but at the same time I was a little disheartened; for weeks I had been trying to get the pronunciation right for ‘thankyou’ alone, and I hadn’t even achieved that, instead I had had to resort to pointing and waving the product, or relying on my Thai friend, Kawee, to translate. And now here was Chris Evans, having a happy chat with the locals. I moderated further conversation with the guy across the aisle as I felt he may have just been put there to encourage me into realising my own inadequacies.
Sleeping, for me, was tough. During the day you wonder where you’ll be sleeping, as after all, this is a sleeper train, and yet you see no beds. But, come 7 oclock the bed fairy (as I’d like to think the locals call him, but they probably don’t) comes round and unlocks all these individual compartments that are built into a roof, he lowers them and inside you see a mattress, a pillow, and clean linen and bed sheets. The bed fairy then makes the bed for you whilst you watch (which, I have to admit, is a little awkward). You now have a clean, made-up, bed all ready for you to snuggle into. Now, again, my opinion of the sleeping arrangements may have been somewhat skewered by the lingering memories of the Indian trains, but I found the beds on the trains in Thailand to been comfortable and clean. You are also offered privacy by a curtain that you can pull across the width of your bed. There’s even a little light if you want to read. I cleaned my teeth, took my shoes off – being careful as to where I put them – and climbed into bed. Then it hit me. Once again it was the extraordinary heat. It was night time, and the temperature had dropped a little, but I was unlucky enough to get a bed on the side of the train that has been exposed to the sun for the whole of the day. You have to endure the constant heat being released from the metal roof and sides of the carriage. At times you nod off, but then you awake with a start to find your bed sheets are soaked. Have you wet yourself? No, it’s just the sweat pouring from your body.
Arrival at Chiang Mai station was slow and prolonged, we were already seven hours late (although, this was a blessing in disguise as it meant we did not have to get up and ready ourselves at 5am) and you know that no matter what ludicrous reason you can envisage for our delay, the real reason is probably far more peculiar. My Thai friend told me that once, whilst taking the train to visit family in the North, the locomotive pulled away from the station only for the passengers – and the station officials – to discover that they weren’t actually attached to it. I think this issue was resolved by running after the train with hands frantically waving.
The Station itself occupies a quaint small building in the traditional Thai architectural style. Inside it was busy because of the time of year, but it felt relaxed and non-threatening; something that you appreciate when arriving in a new city after 20 hours of travelling.