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Posted by Tim on Sep 9, 2009
Songkran: the Thai Water Festival

The biggest holiday in Thailand is Songkran, which takes place every year from April 13 to April 15. The start of the Thai new year, Songkran is Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July 4th all rolled into one. (For those of you reading this from outside the US, just go ahead and substitute a couple holidays of your own for the last two on that list.)

Traditionally, this is the time of year that all of the Buddha images get ritually cleansed. As it takes place at the hottest time of the year – late in the dry season – it was only natural for this serene and holy cleansing of religious iconography to devolve into, well, the world's largest water war.

Every year, the streets of every city, town, and village in Thailand are packed with frenzied hordes of happy people, madly throwing bucket after bucket of water at one another.

This is the part where I point out that for obvious reasons, we left our camera in the hotel during Songkran. As a result, the only photo for this post is the serene picture of Ko Chang gracing the top. (You can get a feel from the images on the Songkran Wikipedia article.)

Returning to Ko Chang

We'd been looking forward to the Water Festival ever since we got to Thailand. As it started to draw nearer, the two of us set about planning on where we'd be when it arrived.

We knew finding a room without booking ahead would be a bit of a struggle during the country's biggest holiday, so we wanted to make sure we were someplace with a lot of options. The idea of being in a big city for it, though, wasn't all that appealing. And what we especially wanted was to return to a place we'd been to and enjoyed, so we could enjoy the comfort and security of knowing our way around as we were being deluged with dozens of buckets of water.

And then it came to us: the marvelous isle of Ko Chang. What a better place to get soaked to the bone than on the beach?

A Roof Over Our Heads

When we arrived on Ko Chang, our first order of business was to sort out accommodations for the duration of the festival. This proved to be as tricky as we'd expected, but in the end we got ourselves sorted.

We started out at a truly marvelous private beachside cottage (one which will actually be the recipient of an upcoming Golden Hedgehog Award, once we get back to handing those out). Because they didn't have availability for the whole time, though, we then had to switch to another place, a cute little hotel named Mai Pen Lai. After Songkran was over and the island cleared out a little, we switched back to the fancy place again.

As it was, though, we found ourselves needing to get from the fancy place to Mai Pen Lai on the morning of April 14th, the absolute height of the festival. The lovely woman who ran the fancy place was nice enough to drive us over in her truck, to protect us and our backpacks from all the flying water.

The drive over was twenty minutes of exuberant madness. The streets were absolutely packed with people, all of them soaked through and madly chucking bucket after bucket of water. Because the throwing of chalk is also considered sacred, as is the smearing of pastes made by mixing water and chalk, half the people were covered in a thick veneer of white, red, green, or some other color.

It was intoxicating. We couldn't wait to check in, drop our bags off in our room safe and dry, and head back out into it all.

It Begins

The gaggle of giddy young men who ran the hotel had set themselves up with quite the arsenal of water, and we joined them when we got downstairs. Our hotel was set on a empty stretch of road between Ao Klong Prao ("Coconut Bay") and Kai Bae Beach, the two nearest towns. As a result, we were nestled in a little void between the masses, and were the only ones in sight.

Which meant that we got to snipe at anyone going by on the road.

Jessica and I armed ourselves with buckets from the small pile they had built up, and joined our three co-conspirators around the large barrel of water, which was being constantly refilled by a hose. Whenever anyone would come around the bend, we'd all fill our buckets and run over to douse them.

Half the traffic on Ko Chang is motorcycle traffic, and we quickly realized how enjoyable those were to splash. My personal favorite, though, was to wait for a songthaew (pickup-truck taxi) full of farang (gringos) to trundle by. The drivers always seemed to slow down so that all the passengers could enjoy a good soaking, whether they wanted to or not.

We got on like a house on fire with our hosts. They kept offering us drinks, but not being entirely sure what was in said drinks, we politely declined. (We pretended the reason we were passing on drinking with them was because we had the traveler's woe, so as not to cause any offense.)

After an hour or so of sniping, though, we started to get hungry for more. We wanted to join in the hectic spectacle we'd driven through earlier. And so we bid our hosts farewell, handed over our buckets, and headed off up the road toward Kai Bae Beach.

Unarmed.

Madness

We didn't make it far before the first band of water-bandits tagged us. Being on foot means you have no chance of getting away, so you just have to gamely walk up to them and let them get you. And frankly, given that it was in the neighborhood of 100° F (38° C), we were only too happy to oblige. Plus, once you've had your first soaking, you're not quite as attractive a target anymore.

Rounding a bend, we came upon Kai Bae proper. It was just as we'd driven through in Klong Prao: complete and utter madness. With all the water and paste and shouting and screaming, it looked just a bit like the end of the world, except that everyone was in a much better mood than I'd imagine they'd be in for the end of the world.

We started getting hit on an almost-constant basis – a bucket of water from the left, then the right, then the left again. A cloud of white chalk came in from nowhere, leaving us looking a bit like powdered donuts.

We noticed a Thai woman with her daughter, an adorable child of about 4 or so. She was trying to get the little girl to come over to us and smear us with white paste, but the girl was too shy. We squatted down so that we wouldn't seem so intimidating, and beckoned her over to us. She tottered over on uncertain footsteps, inserted her hand into her small paste-bucket, and then very gently patted some on each of our cheeks. Then, with a smile that could light up the world, she fled back to her beaming mother, whooping with delight.

Not long after that, we met an old friend.

Fernanda

A few months earlier, during our first visit to Ko Chang, we once found ourselves desperately craving pasta. Not Thai noodles, but "real" pasta, Italian pasta. And so it was with great delight that we came across a place called Ziva Bar and Restaurant. I remember seeing the sign out front advertising six different kinds of bruschetta, and saying to Jessica that surely an Italian must work there.

And indeed one did: a firecracker of a woman named Fernanda, who quickly became as enamored of us as we did with her. We ate more sumptuous meals than I can count there. Eventually, she stopped letting Jessica order, and started just whipping up something special for her whenever we came by. We adored her.

One night, while chatting with us about our itinerary, she made her case for India, planting seeds that will be coming to fruition very soon.

When we returned to Ko Chang, we quickly made our way to Ziva's and reunited with Fernanda, who was overjoyed to see us again. She told us we should stop by during the festival.

We'd completely forgotten about that until now.

Part of a Crew

She was marching through the crowd bearing a bright smile and an enormous platter of tiramisu, offering it to all of the hungry revelers around her. When she saw us, she lit up even more, and quickly beckoned us over.

"You must come with me," she said simply, "we have sangria."

How can you argue with that?

We followed her back to her restaurant, where she'd acquired quite the little "crew" of water-warriors. Oliver, a waiter there and another friend of ours, handed us each a bucket and a glass of sangria. Fernanda scuttled back into the kitchen, no doubt to whip up more fabulous tiramasu.

Having spent the past hour walking through the street alone and getting more thoroughly soaked than I'd ever imagined possible, it was great to be on the offense again splashing other people. As before there was a heady camaraderie with our fellow bucketeers: we'd each call to one another, picking out choice targets and planning our attacks.

Sometimes water-trucks would go by, worthy adversaries indeed. These were pickup trucks loaded with celebrating Thais (and occasionally drunken farang) equipped with their own buckets, who would roar by dousing the would-be dousers along both sides of the road. One particularly noteworthy truck had been keeping its water ice-cold, and definitely got our attention.

At one point Jessica splashed a little boy, who looked back at her in awe and amazement. Smiling, she walked over to him and re-filled his empty bucket with water from her own full one. Then she squatted down next to him and encouraged him to splash her. After a moment's hesitation he did so, much to the delight of his sisters.

But my favorite part was all the older Thais, to whom this was still much more spiritual than fun. They'd walk slowly up to you, clasp their hands before their face in a traditional wai gesture, and wait for you to ritually cleanse them with your water. Even in the midst of such a Mardi Gras atmosphere, the way they approached it made it impossible not to shiver at what a holy rite we were participating in.

Standstill

The rumor spread through the crowd like wildfire. Jessica and I couldn't believe our ears.

"Who's coming?"

Oliver bounced excitedly. "The princess is coming. She will be driving by any moment."

I surveyed the scene skeptically. It was still an absolutely frenzy of water and paste and shouting and joy. I tried to imagine a motorcade passing through it unscathed, and couldn't.

"She's coming through here? Really? Won't she get soaked?"

Oliver laughed more loudly than ever, shaking his head. "We would never throw water at our princess. Don't be silly."

I nodded disbelievingly. But then, at that moment, it happened.

Where there had moments before been chaos and mayhem, suddenly all was still. The entire crowd went silent instantly, as if spellbound. Everyone melted out of the street and stood respectfully along the sidewalks.

A brief motorcade slid through: a cluster of four or five fancy cars, with one of them presumably containing said princess.

Not a drop of water flew through the air. It was amazing. (And familiar.)

When they'd passed by, the silence lasted a moment or two longer. Then the chaos returned, passing through crowd like something in the cars' wake, starting down at the end of the street and sweeping through us and on after the motorcade. The air filled again with laughter and shrieking and whooping and hollering, and with buckets of water and clouds of chalk.

And Jessica and I smiled at each other, and refilled our buckets once more.

subpolka
September 18, 2009 at 8:44pm
Sangria and buckets! Buckets and sangria! Sounds like ridiculous fun. You should take me with you next time. Yep.
Jessica the hedgehog
October 5, 2009 at 11:24am
It is an absolutely ridiculously fun time! You guys would love it. :)

You should take me with you next time. Yep.

Deal. I think Thailand would suit you very well. It's a really neat country with friendly folks, spectacular (and even vegan-friendly) food, and awesome sights. Then of course there are all the islands and the beaches: perfect for buckets and sangria…or perhaps buckets of sangria! :)

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