24: Happy New Year - The Songkran festival
Remember the best water-fight that you've ever had? If you grew up in the eighties or early nineties, you'll remember the era of the 'super-soaker.' Water guns bigger than the children carrying them boasting splintering power akin to the Guns of Navarone! You'll also remember almost wetting yourself with laughter as the fight reached its climax, that is before the shivering began, before your mother scolded you for getting so wet, and before the inevitable two week cold began.
That never-to-be forgotten fight 'til saturation was absolutely nothing compared to my last few days. Imagine if, in this legendary water-fight, the adults didn't get angry but actually drove you around with the express intention of wetting other people, the fight wasn't just between you and your friends, it was everyman for himself and the whole city of 200,000 people was taking part, you didn't just use water pistols, you used hosepipes, buckets, pressure washers and even dustbins filled with water! Free ice was given out on the street to cool your water down for 'maximum shock value' and some people even had elephants helping them to soak people!
It's Songkran in Thailand, the festival to cap all Thai festivals. As temperatures soar to unbearable levels the country has uniformly erupted into laughter, colour and exhilarated eccentricity as all an' sundry celebrate in welcoming in the New Year.
Songkran is a Thai word meaning 'move' or 'change place,' it is celebrated on the day the sun changes its position in the zodiac. Historically this has been in either March or April (though latterly 13-15th of April) in Thailand, and has always been a celebration of family intimacy, a return home for those who have moved elsewhere, and a demonstration of love and respect from the young to the old. Traditionally the day would begin with an offering of food to monks. Then, the Thai house (and particularly the myriad Buddha images) would be cleaned thoroughly and respect paid to ancestors. Buddha statues would be washed and those which were highly venerated would be paraded through the streets. A younger member of the family would pour a little scented water of the hands and shoulders of his/her family elders. The water is thought to act as a cleanser, washing away all bad luck and leaving only good fortune to occur throughout the New Year. Travellers passing through Northern Thailand would have water thrown at them as a blessing from the locals.
This small mark of reverence has now descended into outright countrywide mass water warfare! The roots of the festival rest in the North, this is why I decided to spend my week holiday in the Northern city which is such a favourite of many travellers, Chiang Mai.
Staying in a lovely guesthouse in the outskirts of the city rather than in one of the many centrally located hostels/hotels proved (through fortune rather than planning) to be a very wise move. On my first brave venture in to the city centre, I naively strode along one of the long one-way systems leading toward the ancient city walls. I could hear shrieks of laughter and terror combined as I walked further. In a short moment I knew why as a young Thai standing in the back of land-drover (equipped especially for Songkran like a water assault vehicle) emptied a full bucket of iced water over my head! I recovered from my shock paralysis just in time to hear him shout through his laughter: 'Sawadee pi mai!' Yes; Happy New Year.
From this moment on I realised that to attempt to stay dry was lunacy. As the German actors used to say in the old war films "resistance is futile" and I was much better off getting into the spirit of things as much as possible. The scene at the city centre was unforgettable. There was on-stage (yes you've guessed it) the famous Miss Songkran competition; presumably the Miss Songkran must be a different lady to the Miss Loy Krathong, the Miss Chiang Mai, the Miss Summer and the Miss Winter. All around was a hubbub of action, water fights, market bartering, food sellers, handicraft mearchants, rows of chairs lined with foot masseurs and all manner of public performers. Almost everyone (monks and police officers seemed to be the only ones exempt) was soaked to the bone.
If I had to guess as to who the locals' favourite targets were, I would say without hesitation that (1) farang (foreigners) and (2) pretty girls drew the most attention. Everything which I saw on my first day in Chiang Mai was done in the most fantastic spirit. Adults and children alike wore perpetual, aching smiles as they threw bucket after bucket, never tiring the whole day long. In the evening I was lucky enough to witness a more traditional side to the festival. While visiting a wat (temple) situated at the summit of Doi Suthep the mountain fantastically overlooking Chiang Mai city, my timing couldn't have been better. After looking around for a short while I noticed a group of 10 monks come out into the centre of the temple area. I joined the rest of the crowd in getting down onto my knees as the monks performed the 'Bangsakun' ceremony in sacred memory to ancestors who have passed away. It was for me a fascinating but also very humbling experience to see Thai people praying with the monks, their collective devotion so manifestly palpable.
With teaching the furthest thing from my mind and a hot shower the most prevalent (some of the water thrown was undoubtedly river water, the smell gives it away) I made my way back to the guest house. On the way home I received innumerable buckets of water to the face in the back of my windowless songteaw (taxi). The most memorable came from a huge European gentleman who refused to allow even a suggestion of a smile to creep onto his face as he crept to within one inch of my nose before unleashing a bucket of water. The water struck me with such power that my ears were pinned back and my hair stood up like a well known computer-animated hedgehog. I even had the decency to offer a smile though it was returned only with a sneer of derision. I went to bed that night having thoroughly enjoyed my day, I was looking forward to another four days of the same, I couldn't however keep the thought of revenge at bay, if I saw that European gentleman again, he was in big trouble.