You don’t want to get wet? You don’t want to have nipples that cut diamonds? You don’t want to be sprayed directly in the eyes continuously? You don’t to be smothered in a white paste which inevitably runs into your already stinging eyes? Are you too grown up for the most intense water fight of your life? Well not possible here as young, old and everything in between are partaking. Age and maturity left at your door. If this is not the case for you, stay indoors, maybe even lock your doors or just get out of Thailand for the week while you still can.
So Songkran is actually the Thai New Year celebration, not just another over the top party like the others you hear of throughout this land of smiles. There is tons of history and tradition surrounding this holiday. The official day of Songkran is always on April 13th, which can span up to a week depending on where in the country you happen to be. Water has always run deep in the Thai New Year acting as a symbol of cleansing and renewal. The gentle sprinkling of water would be poured on the shoulders and down the back while prayers were muttered. The white paste traditionally spread on the face, neck and torso to ward off evil spirits. A very spiritual, graceful and meaningful event.
Now in all seriousness, as an outsider looking in, this is not what you come for and the chance of witnessing these gentle acts are slim. People come from everywhere, plan trips around it. Almost every hostel, hotel, hole in the wall is booked up for the most epic, world’s biggest, no holds barred H2O riot. No one, nowhere and nothing is safe. Worse thing to be is dry. You stick out like no other, a flashing sign might as well be above your head like in the cartoons. Once spotted which won’t take more than a minute, you are immediately targeted. Wet in 60 seconds. Scooters and tuktuks are also prime targets. Scooters often end up with an ice bucket facial while tuktuks get it from all sides. Ice water bukkake. Even sitting in a restaurant, thinking of a momentary break while enjoying a beer is not possible. Passersby will still take aim and shoot. Now I may or may not have provoked this, but even my beer fell victim to the shrapnel of the canal water. Oh well, drank worse in India.
Let’s bring it back a couple days. From my Thailand home Kanchanaburi, I was taking the night bus to Chiang Mai. This is where you want to be if you are coming to Songkran. I arrived a couple days to simply enjoy the city before the chaos broke out. Any reason to spend time in Chiang Mai I’ll take, actually no reason is needed. I love this city. It was clearly the calm before the storm. Things seemed quieter than the previous times I’ve been here. Everyone knew what was coming, patiently awaiting, quietly reserved to then let completely and utterly loose, their inner child bursting forth. The knockoff super soakers were beginning to appear, then stands were erected along the canal on Moonmuang Rd. It was building, festering underneath the skin, waiting for the final scratch that tears it open sending water squirting uncontrollably citywide.
Sunday, April 12th, 2015… it begins. All seemed normal when I exit my hostel, The Tipsy Manor tucked away up on Soi 9, the northeastern tip of the old city. I rounded the corner almost to Moonmuang Rd. and could hear it before I caught sight of it. The mayhem had unleashed. Only another few hundred feet and dryness was going to become a distant memory. I was unarmed still at this point and it took mere seconds. A child stared straight into my eyes, sprayed me in the chest and giggled. What can you do but smile and laugh? Then from behind me a bucket of ice water hit me directly on the neck immediately sending a chill down my spine. Refreshing but unexpected. I guess I was still unsure as to what to expect. I spun around to see a pick-up truck, one of hundreds, stuck in traffic. The back full of people with a rain barrel of ice water. As I turn, I receive another bucket to the face. I cleared my eyes to see nothing but seven laughing faces. Five minutes out the door and I was soaked through. This was going to be a good week.
First order of business, I needed a weapon. I didn’t have to look too far, they were everywhere. It was just a matter of which one and in this case size does matter. I grabbed the one with the biggest water tank and filled up. I was locked and loaded. I shot at everyone, especially if eye contact was made. What you looking at? I followed the canal to Thapae Gate, where luckily the only real safe zone was. Obviously around the food. Around the stalls set up there seemed to be a general respect not to be a douche and spray water everywhere. I filled my gun again and stuffed my stomach in preparation for the day drinking that would commence shortly.
Stages sprung up overnight it seemed. All with pumping speakers, dancers and people spraying hoses into the throng crowding and blocking the street. Traffic constantly at a standstill, renting a scooter was not only dangerous as all hell, but simply an attempt in futility. I manage to make it through the thickest mass of bodies and after that feat alone it was time to dive into a bar. My first of many Leos and I joined in the front line outside of every bar shooting anything within range. All with a non-stop hose filling a cooler. The streets in sections were shallow rivers. First beer down it was time hit the streets again. I found a selection of a handful of bars I found to be the most fun and rotated between them. A beer or two at each and move on. I kept cycling between them only with the odd jaunt out for food and a quick jump around at the stages.
7pm… the sun goes down, and somehow miraculously the chaos slows to a halt. Seems the unofficial yet known rule is darkness signifies the days end. A temporary truce until morning. The streets disperse, bars clean down putting some order back into the establishment. People looking deranged, eyes red, skin wrinkled, and the adrenaline wearing thin. The cold slowly seeping its way to the bones most went the route of dry clothes, dinner and went on about their night as usual.
Eat. Sleep. Repeat for the following three days.
Thursday came and I wasn’t sure what to expect. A fifth day of awesome? I was definitely hurting all over, but knew I could summon the strength for more of this. Just needed breakfast and a beer. The first one is always the hardest. I left the Tipsy Manor same as Sunday morning. Rounded the corner, but there was silence. Just the noises of a regular day, traffic running smoothly, the streets cleaned and roadside stalls taken down. Overnight it was as if nothing had happened. Did I really just attend the world’s largest water fight or was it a dream. I knew I had and so did my body, but it wasn’t over for me. No, just a day break which in hindsight served me well. I relaxed, recouped, ate and hydrated myself in preparation for one final day. I was back on a night bus heading where I had come from.
Friday was Kanchanaburi’s blow out. I arrived in the calm of the early morning and made it back to the Jolly Frog unscathed. A quick nap and large plate of Khao kluk kapi, a popular dish in this region. Not well known but it plays on all the taste buds. Rice fried with salty shrimp paste (umami), pork or chicken in a sweet glaze, tart green mango, and fiery red chilies along with sliced omelette, dried shrimp and red onion. Food sidetracks me, but it was back to the streets and I needed a new weapon. Essentially the same as Chiang Mai on a smaller scale, the main difference was the use of this white paste which is apparently talcum powder mixed with water. Opposed to guns many carried buckets of this smearing all over. Like the water it was inescapable.
A better final day of Songkran could not have been had than in a town I hold close to my heart. Celebrating with friends I had met throughout my five months spent here. This was by far the most intense festival I have personally been to. A week long debauchery with the most childlike outlook on life. It’s not in Thailand’s ideal travel season being the hottest time of the year, but planning around this would not be regretted, not to mention the water helps battle the heat. I extended my visa for this festival and turned out to be more than worth it. The whole week might not be everyone’s thing but even a day and just let your inhibitions fly. Get wet and wild!
Tip: I wouldn’t suggest renting a scooter, the roads are slick and you are targeted by everyone. I watched a local slide out and skid across the pavement directly in front of me. Hundreds do die during this week, many involving accidents.
Have a quality waterproof case for your necessary belongings. The cheap ones they sell I found to be more or less useless.
As I mentioned before, Chiang Mai is the place to be, sheer insanity in all the best ways!
Loving how much your loving it over there! We could use some of my those festivals , here in Canada. Thanks for sharing these memories Jason! Hope to see more of you and your edible travels- John. Mansfield.