Thursday, April 17, 2008

Songkran: Thailand's Big Water Fight

I had been looking forward with curiosity and trepidation to Songkran, the Thai New Year's festival this month. It bookends nicely with Loi Krathong, the rice harvest festival in November, when Thais float little boats with flowers and candles on the rivers. At Songkran, however, they fill buckets with water and throw them at each other. That's just for starters. What began as a time to wash Buddha images and sprinkle lustral water on family and friends as a form of blessing has become the world's biggest water fight.

Songkran comes from a Sanskrit word meaning "astrological passage," and it marks the transition from Aries to Taurus. Similar to New Year's holidays in other southeast Asian countries, Songkran, which is held in the hottest month, signals the end of the dry season and the start of summer and the planting of new crops. According to Thai astrologers, the Sonkgran Diva for this year, 2551, is Thungsa Thaywee, a mythical figure who will bring sickness, death and disasters to the country. She's also a vegetarian. Like last year's Diva, Mahothorn Thaywee, her duty is to "protect the Earth and defeat the ogres that have harassed humans," one astrologer told the Bangkok Nation. Until 1888, Songkran was the beginning of the Thai year; April 1 was used until 1940, but now January 1, like most of the world, starts the new year. Water, as a symbol of fertility, is splashed to induce abundant rainfall in the new year, and it is also used in purification rites. But that was before super soaker water guns were invented in 1989 (I love Wikipedia).

Jerry has come to hate it, probably because a passing pickup full of hooligans once hit him with a pail of water that destroyed his hearing aid. So he tries to get out of town when the holiday falls every year between April 13-15. This year, because it came over a weekend, Songkran stretched from April 12-16. Pim and I decided to spend half of her holiday from the Post Office in Chiang Mai and half in Pai with Eric and Ket at their new hotel, Indiana Cottage. But even though she is a native and I am a good researcher, we weren't prepared for what transpired.

Our getaway weekend began with Pim's first airplane flight, on Nok Airways from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Since we left after dark, all she could see were the bright lights of Bangkok, and, closer to Chiang Mai, a spectacular lightning display (which repeated itself on the way home), something I've never seen. She seemed calm but her palms were sweaty, and she confessed later to being worried at takeoff that the plane might not stay up. Before the trip, I soon discovered that Chiang Mai was a popular Songkran destination and it took several attempts before I found a room at Tri Gong Residence, run by a weathered and wise Thai man with the improbable name of Adam. It was located within the city moat in a backpacker ghetto off Thanon Moon Muang's Soi 9, an easy walk to Tha Phae Gate where all the action takes place. After checking in (and testing the wireless connection), we headed out for some street food. Squirt guns were on sale and we bought a couple for the next morning. Even though Saturday the 12th was not officially part of Songkran, since it began the weekend we expected some sanuk (Thai for fun).

After a sumptuous western breakfast at the Blue Diamond Cafe on Soi 9, we stripped down to what we thought were the essentials, filled our guns (I had something out of Star Wars and Pim a demure little fish squirter) and we went out looking for some action. People were lined up along the moat, pulling very questionable water (think: polluted) up with buckets and heaving them at the trucks, tuk tuks and motor bikes traveling down Th Chaiyaphum. As we hiked up to Tha Phae Gate, the traffic increased. There we found a baptismal frenzy of water fights. The city had installed metered pumps to provide ammunition. Pim's little squirt gun proved insufficient, and so she got a bigger one. When both our guns broke, we bought two more. Everyone was slinging water. Trucks carried big 10-gallon drums. Blocks of ice were sold and often it felt like a glacier was being poured over my head. While it is a Thai festival, the naturally aggressive farangs were enthusiastic participants, some in costume (like the two life guards in red) and many wearing rubber masks. Raincoats were popular. Bar girls and lady boys were dancing in the streets at the intersection of Kotchasan and Loi Kroh. After several hours of squirting and being soaked, we walked over to the Mae Ping River, fighting running water gun battles all the way, and onto the Nawarat bridge which was outfitted with fountains on each side that sprinkled the traffic, courtesy of the city fathers. There was no safe place for the waterphobic anywhere in the city. From the river we took a tuk tuk back to our guest house to assess the damage, but because of the huge traffic jam we had to walk through some of the crowded and wet streets and over the moat under our own steam (literally, when the hot sun hit our damp clothes).

The picture above was one of the last taken with my trusty old Nikkon which, when I took it out of the soggy pocket in my shorts, no longer worked. Likewise Pim's relatively new cell phone. Both were casualties of the water fights. Pim's purse and my wallet were drenched and we had to remove everything. The counters of our room were covered with drying money and other valuables. The dark bag I bought in Luang Prabang left a bright blue stain on my white tee shirt. That evening we found our way to Pantip Plaza in the Night Bizaar, a miniature version of the IT mall in Bangkok, where Pim got a new phone and I bought a Canon PowerShot A570. Although $90 less than the Nikkon I purchased from eBay over two years ago, this camera has 7.1 mega pixels, image stabilization, and a number of features not found on the old one. But I learned my lesson and kept it at home when the water throwers were on the prowl in Chiang Mai and Pai.

On Sunday we got to the Arcade Bus Terminal early but couldn't get a seat until the 12:30 minivan to Pai. Still, it was safe there, and I found myself ready to kill anyone who threatened me with a squirt gun while we were carrying backpacks and a suitcase full of fragile goods. I was clearly in need of some meditative quiet time. Pai is 134 kilometers northwest from Chiang Mai and, according to one tee shirt, the road contains 763 sharp curves. But the woman in the seat in front of us threw up her lunch before we'd even reached the curviest section. She stayed behind and the driver cleaned up as best he could. Pim's eucalyptus oil for the nose came in handy. I spotted a cremation out the window, the deceased in flames. We were greeted with water at nearly every turn, but thankfully the windows were shut tight. A bucket of water hitting the windshield of a van traveling 50k an hour makes quite a thud. It was hard to sleep. After nearly three hours, we reached the relatively quiet streets of Pai, a small village that has become for no readily discernible reason a popular backpacker's destination, and met my friend Eric who took us across the river to Indiana Cottage, the collection of huts that he and his Thai wife Ket recently opened.

I was last in Pai several years ago, just after the disastrous flood that destroyed most of the huts on the far side of the of the river where Indiana Cottage (their Thai partners were thinking of Indiana Jones and things Indian, when they named the place, and not the state) is located, and I was naturally concerned. But Eric, a musician and a house painter from San Francisco, assured me that the river had been dredged and the bank raised a few feet. In the river Monday evening, villagers were digging up sand to be used in the construction of a sand pagoda in the yard next to Wat Pa Kam. On New Year's Day, which began with amplified chanting at 5:30 in the morning, the pagoda was covered with flags and banners and worshippers filled the wat to pay their respects to the Buddha. The afternoon before, we had followed a colorful procession with Buddha images and young dancing girls through the village streets, our squirt guns at the ready. The water throwing was less aggressive by the Thais, more of a gentle sprinkling, which occasionally included talcum powder for good luck. But I left my camera back at the hut to be on the safe side. Hence the lack of colorful photos I might have taken of the parade.

Eric has been coming to Thailand for over twenty years, first to import goods for sale in the U.S., and later to open up a restaurant in Pai with Ket. They purchased land for their hotel before the flood and said that the rushing waters had done them the favor of demolishing old bungalows. Their new rustic cottages are all bamboo with teak leaves used for roofing. Bathrooms are downstairs with the main rooms raised up. The bedroom consists mostly of a large king-sized bed with a mosquito net (which was necessary). There is a large porch with pillows and a table which we used for eating the Isan street food we purchased one evening. Our cottage was shared with a talkative gecko who, though never seen, spoke to us in almost human tones. On the night we arrived we had dinner with Eric and Ket at a new Vietnamese restaurant. They like to keep track of the competition. And Pai is incredibly competitive. A recent article in the Bangkok Post claimed that, like Angkor Wat and Luang Prabang, it is way overdeveloped. (Marcus sent me an interesting article from the New York Times saying much the same thing.) Why would you want to go to Pai in the hot season? we were asked in Bangkok. My last visit was in November and the streets this time were uncrowded compared to then. Indiana Cottage is one of at least a dozen "resorts" built on that side of the river since the 2005 flood. While many of the shops and restaurants were closed for Songkran (employees having returned to their home cities and villages), there seemed more than enough establishments (including a new Black Canyon Coffee) to handle visitors. Shan women in colorful costumes with identical handicrafts lined the night streets and tee shirt vendors did a brisk business in Pai branded items. On New Year's Eve we attended a crowded "Cultural Festival" to listen to Thai singing and watch the dancers, and we popped balloons with darts to win two bags of snacks.

The high point of our time in Pai was on the roads, traveling through the valley and up into the hills on the Honda Icon motorbikes we rented. I felt like a cowboy (why doesn't the west fight global warming by trading in their bloated SUVs for economical motorbikes?) On Monday we rode up to Mo Paeng Waterfall where Thais were picnicking and sliding over the rocks. On the way up we stopped at the luxurious Muang Pai Resort where Eric and a friend were swimming in the pool. It was owned by a fellow musician. Eric is in the process of putting a band together which will play at Happy Yim, formerly a restaurant (serving Mexican food), currently a massage parlor, and soon to be a bar with music. On the way up to the falls we were liberally dosed with water and powder (the photo above was taken safely the next morning). Getting hit in the face with a bucket of water while speeding down the road is a jolt (Thai newspapers bemoaned the death toll of 324 and the 4,000 accidents over the holiday, mostly caused by drunk motorbike drivers). On New Year's Day, we rode our bikes to Wat Pra That Mae Yen in the hills above Pai with its wonderful views, and past the five elephant camps to Tha Pai Hot Spring Spa Resort where we had breakfast (accompanied by four hungry kittens) at a terrace restaurant overlooking the Pai River. We tried to visit the Tha Pai Hot Springs but their fee of 200 baht for foreigners seemed too steep for a look-see. So we returned to the main Highway 1095 and stopped at Pai Canyon where Pim dragged me up the hill to see what turned out to be a fascinating geological formation. After a look at the new airport (1600 baht for a 20-minute flight to Chiang Mai), we returned to Indiana Cottage to pack up for the return home.

On the minivan ride back to Chiang Mai, the scenery looked very familiar to a Californian. Pampas grass lined the highway. But the frequent groves of bamboo were strictly tropical.

The dry season appears to have ended decisively with heavy downpours in Bangkok, yesterday and today, accompanied by thunder and lightning. God's Songkran.

No comments: