Coming back from the meditation retreat the other day, I asked my roommate when the water throwing would begin (we were catching up after sharing a room together in silence!). Moments later, a splash of water caught the back of our ‘songthaew’ taxi, giving our feet a refreshing bath. I briefly caught a glimpse of the cheeky grin on the face of the assailant, jubilant to begin new year celebrations.
“I guess it’s on!” I exclaimed, and wondered if a week could really get much better than this. First, learning meditation from a Buddhist monk, whose peaceful energy was still emanating through me, and then participating in the biggest water-fight in the world!
I’d heard about Songkran, or Thai New Year and the water-throwing activities involved, but had never been in Thailand during the celebrations. I was chuffed to be ‘settled down’ in Chiang Mai for the month of April, if only to see what this bizarre festival was all about.
It started slowly. A splash in the back of the taxi on Wednesday. Ambushed by a polite, smiling man in a brightly coloured shirt after my walk around the park on Thursday, who gently poured a small bucket of water over my back.
Okay, this is nice. Refreshing. I think I can handle this…
By Thursday afternoon, things were heating up, or rather, cooling down. The bucket and water-gun sellers were out in force around the moated ‘old city’. People had started gathering around the moat, hauling water out with buckets attached to string, and hurling the contents at passers-by. Walking, riding, driving, they were all fair game.
We managed to duck into a small restaurant for lunch without getting drenched. A fellow diner sat perched on a motorbike outside, water-gun aimed at passers-by. He chuckled every time he hit an unsuspecting someone with a light spray. We chuckled too.
I mean there’s just something utterly hilarious about being allowed, no hang on, encouraged to behave like a naughty six-year-old at a pool party. He was obviously enjoying himself, especially when a scantily clad western woman grumbled at him after being caught in the firing line.
I mean, really?
It was going to be an interesting few days! We wasted no time acquiring our weapons, two pump-action rifles. We were armed, but not quite dangerous. This behaving like a six-year-old thing was going to take some getting used to.
Are you sure we’re allowed to do this? What are the rules? Are there any rules? Is everyone fair game?
SOMEBODY HELP US UNDERSTAND THIS RIDICULOUSLY AWESOME RITUAL!!!
We were Songkran virgins, armed with our weapons and too scared to use them, like kids that needed to be led by the hand and told what to do. Only there was no-one to do that, we were on our own.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, was our nervous motto as we headed towards the moat…
Whilst I had intended to write in chronological order about the four days of water throwing we participated in, it has all blurred into one big drenched recollection of sogginess. So…
Cut to day four!
Feeling like veterans now, we buy a huge block of ice from an ice-seller, who lugs it into a fifty gallon drum filled with moat water.
By this stage in the game, regular lukewarm water from the moat just isn’t cutting it. We need chilled water to elicit better reactions from our targets. God knows it’s the cold stuff that really gets our attention when it’s poured down our backs. We’ve also employed simpler weapons (buckets) which have proved more effective, and way more fun.
Plus our buddy Marty has just surprised us by rolling into town after his month-long bicycle ride through Malaysia, and we are hellbent on getting him involved in some serious Songkran action.
Even after three days of practice my aim is still a little off, my throw quite pitiful, as if I’m still afraid of offending people. They are driving around ‘the red zone’ by the moat in the back of trucks, wielding icily chilled water, so this is completely crazy.
The ice-seller scoops a huge bucket out of the moat and with a calculated backswing, hurls the contents across the road gathering heads, arms, backs, eyes, ears and gaping mouths in its wide, wet arc.
That’s how it’s done, his satisfied expression tells me.
I start scooping icy water like a mad woman, and taking my cue from the ice-seller, start hurling it across the road. The chill-factor evokes more satisfying audible reactions, i.e screaming and shrieking. Then of course there’s the physical ‘shrinking away’ that is acted out when cold water hits the skin, like a sudden attack of muscle atrophy, or a slow-mode rendition of a soldier being gunned down, complete with gaping mouth and animalistic groaning.
Kind of like this: Yeeeeaaaaaaooooooooooouuuuuuuuuwwwwwwuuuuuuuuooooooooow!!
Every time I get hit with the icy stuff, I involuntarily do the same thing, despite already being drenched from head to flip flop.
Some of the water thrown from moving vehicles is even colder than what our 20kg block of ice can deliver. They are the professionals, I suppose.
The wonderful, fleeting, playful interactions with more people than I could possibly count was the best part of it all, and despite the precarious equation of People + Water + Booze, not one of them was aggressive. Despite being completely drenched for the best part of four days, everyone I came into contact with was joyful and happy, and most of all very welcoming to foreigners like us.
On day two, a man crossed the street to where we were attempting to take photos and with a false apology, poured a bucket of water over our backs. We joined him on the other side of the road closest to the moat, and for the next two hours or so, we hurled water with him, his wife and enthusiastic young son.
We didn’t say much to each other, we were speaking the hydrogen and oxygen-infused language of Songkran.
Yesterday, a young girl ran up to me and asked her friend to take our photo. In a place that so many foreigners flock to, I’m certainly not an oddity, which really emphasises the friendliness of the Thai people. They not only tolerate us coming in to their country to partake in their wonderful lifestyle, but they welcome us as if we almost belong.
Songkran was a prime example of this in action, Thais and foreigners side by side in the wonderfully silly activity of chucking shedloads of water at each other.
I don’t think it gets much better or simple than that.
I have to say it’s a bit of a relief that Songkran is winding up for another year. I didn’t see any revellers out this morning, and I hope that last night’s parties have kept them recovering indoors today. We have had a blast reverting to childhood for the biggest, baddest water fight in the world, but once a year is more than enough!
Happy Thai New Year Everybody!