NOTE: This post has been edited. An earlier version indicated that I spent Saturday #42 wielding a Super Soaker on the streets of Bangkok. The water fights were actually on the Sunday. A separate post detailing Saturday #42 will be up shortly.
I’m not sure when I first realized that I would be in or near Thailand during Songkran (Thai New Year) but I recall discussing it with some people that I met on a patio in Auckland in January.
Nigel and Linda were Brits, a few years older than me, well-travelled and apparently wealthy. At least I assume they were pretty flush as they were half-way into a 115-day, 50-port, 30-country, 5-star, round-the-world cruise. (To put it another way, I suspect they had more millions than that last sentence had hyphens!)
“Whatever you do, don’t go to Thailand in January,” said Nigel. “We were there last year and they really jack up the price of the bloody hotels during Songkran. It’s highway robbery, I say.”
“And that’s not the only way they soak you,” chimed in Linda. “You step out for tea and they throw buckets of disgusting slime at you. It’s dangerous and they’ll ruin your clothes. Believe me, silk and water do not mix.”
A few days later I was texting a Swedish girl that I had met in South America. We were comparing our Spring itineraries. When I told her that I was heading to Mongolia, by way of Thailand, she offered this dire warning: “I was in Bangkok for Songkran in 2011 and I still have nightmares about it. Never gain,” she said. “It’s a gazillion degrees, the crowds are f___ing nuts, and they declare all-out war on tourists. Don’t go. Just don’t. You’ll thank me.”
Now, I hate to sound unappreciative, especially when the advice is coming from well-intentioned folk with many more Air Miles than I, but frankly, I’ve tuned out. When I hear people discuss their good or bad experiences in a particular city, region or country, I try to determine what exactly it was that made that experience so good or bad. I’ve met people that have written off an entire country just because a taxi driver charged them $5 more than they paid a day earlier. On the other hand, I’ve met people who have literally danced through war-zones and enjoyed every shrapnel-dodging minute just because the weather was nice.
Nigel and Linda weren’t inherently negative people. In fact they provided me with a long list of 5-star properties that I “simply must visit.” I’m unlikely to spend time in Monaco or the French Riviera during this trip (or this lifetime) but apparently the Brits didn’t realize that you can do a round-the-world trip without cutting a six-figure cheque to the Cunard Line. After paying their bill with a black Am-Ex card, the Brits headed back to their ship for pre-dinner cocktails on the Lido Deck with The Captain and Lady Telford-Boxley. I, on the other hand, ordered another pint of draught and fired up my laptop. Within 10 minutes I had booked a flight to Bangkok for April 12 – the very eve of Songkran.
I haven’t been the best student of Thai traditions but I do know that Thai housewives remove all trash from the house on the night before Songkran to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year. Another tradition calls for the washing of all Buddha statues and likenesses throughout the Songkran holiday period.
I wasn’t in the country an hour and I came to my first Buddha bath. This temporary shrine was set up on the sidewalk outside the subway station that was closest to my hostel.
The small cups of water are obviously symbolic. If they really wanted to clean the statues, they could break out the fire hoses… if they weren’t already being used to fill large tanks of water that line the streets. Pedestrians are encouraged to fill their buckets from these tanks and then toss water at passing vehicles. About half of the vehicular traffic in Bangkok is motorcycles or tuk-tuks, so this is a very effective way get maximum H2O coverage per litre.
I left my hostel bright and early on my first full day in Bangkok. I didn’t get 10 metres down the street before an old man appeared out of nowhere and poured a bucket of frigid ice water down my back. A few minutes later I came across a group of teenage boys wielding water guns. They took it relatively easy on me as I was unarmed. For now.
The first store that I came upon was a 7-11. I popped in for a bottle of water and anything resembling breakfast. I came out five minutes later with two granola bars and a 2.5 litre capacity Super Soaker filled to the brim with ice-water. Two can play this game, I said to myself. Well, actually, about 14 million can play this game, as it seems that every single resident of the Bangkok Metropolitan Region is out and about… and fully armed.
There were lots of great photo ops over the course of the three-day festival but most of the time my phone was in my pocket, encased in three ZipLock bags, or back at the hostel. I did manage to get a few shots from an elevated walkway in the city centre, and a few more when I hid behind pillars and bus stops, but most of my Songkran water fight memories are simply in my water-logged head.
Thinking back on the dire warnings that I heard from Lord and Lady Range Rover and the young Swedish backpacker, I now realize that some events just aren’t for some people. The Brits were aghast that they had to pay a premium to stay at a 5-star hotel over (Thai) New Year yet they didn’t mind paying for three days worth of spa treatments, wine tastings and fine dining just to avoid leaving the hotel and possibly getting wet. The pretty little Swedish girl weighed about 100 pounds and I can see where she might be uncomfortable in large crowds, especially roving packs of teen-age boys armed with high powered water guns.
Each of us came to Songkran with different opinions of what might make for a fun-filled holiday. Each of us left with a different opinion of Thailand and its most famous festival. I had an absolute blast, and it appeared to me that about 99% of the people on the street were having the time of their lives. Much like Pride in Toronto, there were massive crowds yet no fights, no pushing, just a lot of people having good clean fun.
A week has passed since the last day of Songkran and I’m still being reminded of how people can experience the same event in wildly different ways. This morning I read the Bangkok Post online and noticed this poll:
The poll asked: “Did you enjoy Songkran festival around the country of Thailand?” The results:
Yes: 22.6% No: 74.7% Not Sure: 2.7%
I dug deeper into the site and found this: “Sixty people were killed and 724 were injured in 671 traffic accidents nationwide on the first official day of the Songkran holiday Monday. In the first five days of annual Thai New Year festival, there were 2,406 road accidents in which 251 people died and 2,532 others were injured. More than 40% of the accidents resulted from drunk driving and most of them involved motorcycles.”
Wow! I had no idea. In future if anyone should ask me about Songkran, I’ll tell them how much fun I had. It’s not for everyone, and renting a motorcycle would be a very bad idea, but otherwise if it sounds like something you might like, then I’m pretty sure you will LOVE it. If the whole thing sounds like three days of water torture, then I have it on good authority from a lovely British couple that the spa treatments at the Shangri-La are simply smashing.*
*Super-Soakers not required.