Thailand’s Songkran Festival. Or, How I lost my Thai Smile. (Part 2)
All Day I Hear the Noise of Waters
We travelled from the station to the hotel in a roofed pick-up truck. The passengers sit alongside the back of the truck on two benches, running along either side is an open window and the only way in is through an opening at the back. For Thailand, the new year is a big thing, it’s a three day festival of water fights, processions, dancing, singing, and face painting; however, I was not prepared for just how seriously the water-fighting was taken. As I sat looking out of the taxi, admiring the surrounding cityscape, I noticed a convoy of pick-up trucks behind us. And in the back of each one was a large bucket of water with a block of ice for added effect. Around this tub sat a number of people with water pistols and receptacles for dispensing the icy cold water over those unfortunate enough to come within their sights and range. We stopped at a traffic light and a one of these pick-up trucks pulled up beside us. They began chucking water over us. My God it was good. There’s a quick scramble to waterproof valuables, i.e. money, passport, phone (but, this really can be avoided with a little prudence), but really, you enjoy the feeling. When it’s so hot, to be splashed with ice cold water is refreshing, you know that as soon as you step out the taxi your clothes will dry in the sun, and there’s a certain connection you feel with the locals in the fact that they have chosen to include you (though perhaps ‘sacrifice’ would be a better word) in their traditions. They soak you a few times and it’s funny. But then you realise the traffic lights still haven’t changed and the soaking you are getting begins to looses all its humour, fun, effect, or in fact, reason (why sprays someone who is already wet?) because of the repetitiveness of it. Eventually the taxi pulls away from the lights and it dawns on you that a precedent has been set.
The hotel room was clean, airy and spacious. Though, at 1000 baht I would have been disappointed had it not been. Though, alarmingly the, door that separated the toilet from the rest of the room was nothing but a set of swinging salon doors; no barrier to sight and smell. We dropped our bags off, departed with our, by now wet, valuables and made our way to the centre of the town.
There is a certain etiquette and a number of rules that are set out and generally agreed to by the whole of the city. Firstly, you cannot soak elders, unless of course they happen to be spraying you with some beastly water dispenser, then of course they are fair game. You cannot spray people whilst they are eating; nobody likes soggy, wet food. And you are to check your buckets for ice before you throw them. These seem like pretty fair, and in the case of the last point, commonsensical rules. They are all flouted by the westerners. This is the first point of annoyance in what would turn out to be a good few. It is the westerner’s who take it too far. They seem bent on breaking etiquette and on essentially turning the whole traditional dousing into an alcohol-fuelled attack on what would otherwise be a jolly, happy, peaceful cause. And again, there is the monotony and repetitiveness that the westerners seem prone to. I remember watching, as I sat eating my hot-dog on a roadside bar, a gym-going American (either that or he had been pumped with a tonne synthetic materials to boost his muscular tone) stood with a hose aimed at a petite Thai girl. He just continually sprayed her for what must have been at least five minutes. Surely the fun in a water fight is getting someone who is dry, and then soaking them, so they are no longer dry, but wet? Thus, after about five seconds when the person is perpetually soaked the action of spraying should lose its interest, anything further than that and it’s closer to assault or harassment. It’s certainly annoying. Every so often the American would shout ‘Whooah!’ and high-five his fat friend.
Every street is dotted with stalls selling buckets, pots, cups, water pistols, pumps, water balloons and just about anything else that will dispense water with some velocity. Kawee chose a super soaker, I being a little frugal chose something with less power, one of those little guns that shoots a thin stream of water about a foot or so. Then Kawee turned round to proudly display his super-duper-soaker 3000 extreme. It looked like it could lift a grown man of his feet and throw him a good twenty yards. I looked at my water pistol with a feeling of impotence.
The majority of the water fight takes place alongside the Chaing Mai moat that encircles the town centre, and it is not until you step out of a side street and into this watery arena that you can fully comprehend the carnage and pandemonium that you have let yourself in for. Thousands of people line the street with water guns, hoses and buckets. The stagnant water of the moat is used as a convenient refill for these ‘hydro-weapons’. The aforementioned cavalcade of blacked-out pick-up trucks proceeds along the roads bordering the moat, but there’s so many of these sinister soaking machines that they cannot move for all the traffic jams they have created. Couples on motor bikes and bicycles do their best to avoid the sharp aim of those with hoses. Tuk-tuks whizz past with buckets of water being thrown over them and their already soaked-through passengers. And there’s a good soaking for the dry tourists who have been unlucky enough to take a taxi through this mayhem.
The whole occasion is made into something or a media event also. There’s a few stages blasting out catchy Thai music, whilst other stages exhibit a number of scantily-clad women dancing whilst they ruthlessly endorse some tacky product that promoters have seen fit to associate with the Songkran festival (grinning girls in bikinis jiggling their limbs about whilst waving a carton of buffalo milk is something I found didn’t sit too comfortably with the ancient Buddhist traditions of the festival).
The selling of great, big, hefty blocks of ice flourishes during this three-day battle. One wonders where these ice blocks are made, or how, even. They are large, large enough to require carrying by two or three men, and are a little expensive; 50-80 baht per block. But one realises the price they can command when you feel the power they can give you in the water the fight. There’s a certain edge to be had when you place the ice amongst your water supplies. The sharp shock of the icy-cold water hitting you during the boiling heat of the midday sun is enough to generate a high-pitched yelp from the most masculine of men. The feeling you get when you get when you extract one of these yelps is strangely satisfying; so much so that the purchasing of blocks of ice became quite an addiction for us (oh, what it is to have the upper-hand in battle).
It is likely that you have never experience a water fight on such a scale. In short, it is an incredible experience, and one that everybody should get the chance to enjoy. But I hate to say, that for me, it moved from incredible to incredibly annoying and tedious after the first day. The first day is mesmerising and extraordinary for it is a truly unique experience, but on the second day it is no longer unique. All your energies have been sapped by the exertion of the first day, and come the third day you really can’t be bothered. On the first day the soaking comes as a welcome relief from the burning overhead sun, but on the second day you notice a slight breeze, by the third day you have a cold; a cold in a climate experiencing temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius and upwards!
By the second day you become bored of the many other Westerners and their exclamations of triumph upon soaking you, and why is it they must aim for your eyes? It is they alone who turn the event into a cliché.
You become sick of getting yourself dry and into a clean set of clothes ready for going out in the evening, and then getting soaked again with filthy moat water. It is possible to tell a Thai that you don’t wish to be soaked and they usually respect that, but Westerners seem blinded by some excitable immaturity. It just so happens that many of them left their sense of respect and decency towards other at home; I’m sorry to say that I found this applied mostly to Americans and Australians (and I did genuinely believe that the English were the worst abroad; but it seems that the English still pack their affable manners and a sense of ‘knowing when the line has been crossed’ when they travel abroad).
It is unfair of me to scorn the event because of my own petty dislikes and qualms; the native Thai’s get on with it alright, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t. But the native Thais are tolerant, and in fact, indifferent to the aggressive, self-confident, brashness or those uncivilized westerners I have aforementioned. My ‘malcontent’ for these oafs can perhaps only be summed up by describing the closing moments of my stay in Chaing Mai; a scenario woefully and vividly etched in my mind:
Day three, and after breakfast it was time for us to make our way to the airport to catch a plane back to Bangkok. Though our flight was in the afternoon, we had purposely left earlier in the hope that it would lessen our chance of being sprayed, for no one wants to sit on an air-conditioned flight soaking wet. We flagged a tuk-tuk and purposefully asked him to avoid the main areas around the moat and, where possible, to take us though the back streets. We passed many Thais with water guns and buckets, some even with hoses, by the side of the road, but our slowing down and frantic hand motions told them we were not game for a drenching. And so, for a good mile or so our dry clean clothes we had worn for the flight remained impeccable. But, then, as sod’s law dictates, we turned a corner to find a group of westerners encamped on the side of the street. They had a big icy bucket of water and a hose rigged up to a local restaurant. Their faces lit up like the Blackpool illuminations when they say us coming. They must have been lying in wait for some helpless pray for a while, and to them, a pair of beautifully dry students in the back of a tuk-tuk was more astonishing to them than perhaps an apparition of Genghis Khan eating Big Mac would have been. Through shakes of the head and signals of the hand we begged, nay, pleaded with them to let us pass without a drenching. But alas, it was all in vain. They soaked us through to the bone. Our bags became receptacles of one or two litres, completely soaking everything within; passport, money, diary, ipod, phone.
Upon arrival at Chiang Mai airport my face was the very picture of discontent. I had lost my Thai Smile and I couldn’t wait to get back to dry heat of Bangkok.