When I heard I was going to be traveling through Thailand during their New Year’s celebration, Songkran, I was quite excited and curious as I learned the celebration is marked by a four-day water fight. Little did I know what chaos awaited me, especially as I was planning to spend those four days in Chiang Mai – the city where the water fight originated.
I got my first taste of what lay ahead as I was finishing up a three-day trek through local villages outside Chiang Mai. I had begun to understand why the Thais marked their New Year with a water fight – it was unbearably hot! I had apparently picked the hottest, driest part of the year for my visit. Everyone in my group was anxiously awaiting the third day of the trek, where we would go river rafting on a bamboo boat and be able to cool down a bit.
On that day, we excitedly walked to the river bank to find our boat, which turned out to be flat and consisted of long bamboo trunks tied together. Our guide stood on the back and steered while we sat cross-legged in front of him. As we started drifting calmly down the river, we soon realized there would be nothing calm about this trip – the whole river and its banks had been turned into one raucous party for Songkran. As soon as we encountered other bamboo boats, locals were splashing us with their hands, with squirt guns, with soda cans – any way possible to join in the soaking fun. We laughed and happily splashed back. Along the river banks, huts were set up to vend sodas, beer, and snacks, and lots of people sat along the water’s edge or on porches of small houses and watched the chaos below. Kids played and splashed in the water; even some young monks with their shaved heads and orange robes joined in the merrymaking, doing flips and cannonballs into the water. It was a rather surreal experience floating down the river through the celebration while elephants wandered along the banks now and again.
My fellow travelers and I ended our river trip feeling exhilarated and happy, laughing about how soaking wet we were in our clothes and wondering what the next few days held in store for us back in Chiang Mai. Before we would know, however, we were slated to go elephant riding that afternoon. I had never been on an elephant before and it seemed pretty non-threatening. It turned out to be scarier than I thought! The baskets strapped to the elephants were a bit roomy for the two people we had in each group, and my wet, slippery clothes didn’t help matters. Every time my elephant started to wander off course and up or down a ditch, I would slide helplessly to the edge of the box or into my friend seated next to me. Other groups seemed to fare a little better, especially the ones with two big guys sharing a box, which left little room for slipping and sliding around. One guy was even brave enough to sit on the elephant itself, switching places with the Thai man who was leading the animal from a sitting position behind its head. When the ride was over, I decided it was a unique experience that I am glad I had, though I would definitely not call it a relaxing one!
Finally, it was time to head back to the city. As we rode in our safari-like vehicle, we realized that all the towns we went through along the way were eager to join in the Songkran festivities. We got pummeled again and again with buckets of water, some warm, some icy cold, and one even containing a few chunks of ice that left scratches on my back and on my friend’s shaved head. At first our group laughed at the hi jinx, but we soon became chilly as the wind whipped against our faces and the freezing water soaked into our skin. Our truck had a cover over the bed where we were sitting on two benches, but unfortunately the area from the side of the truck up to the roof cover was open and exposed us to the water-throwing craziness. It was a LONG hour and a half trip back to Chiang Mai. Once our trekking group arrived back at the hotel, we were happy to stay put and just lounge by the pool. We had had enough excitement for one day!
On the second day of Songkran, my first day to experience it in the city itself, my friends and I decided it was time to get out on the streets and wreak some water-fighting havoc! One of the hotel workers was planning a trip through the town in a pickup truck for any guests who wanted to join in the fun, so we eagerly climbed aboard. There were about twelve tourists from the hotel in the pickup truck, all of us armed with different water-fighting weapons. Several people had squirt guns, some had buckets, and the rest of us, including me, had large water bottles with the tops cut off. We had a massive bucket in the middle of the truck bed to store water, and as soon as we pulled onto the streets of the main square, we were in complete chaos! There were trucks and scooters and cars creating a giant traffic jam because no one was concerned with driving – everyone just wanted to soak each other. Locals and tourists alike could be spotted jumping from their vehicles with buckets and hauling back water from the moat-like river on the inside of the main square. There were even people along the street selling enormous blocks of ice to make the water you were throwing extra chilly for your victims! The men from our truck bought us a block and we soon had icy cold water for our attack. Whoever we targeted was going to have a bone-chilling surprise! I was seated on the side of the pickup, and my favorite activity soon became dumping water on the heads of passing motorbike riders, especially the ones who still looked dry. Everyone in our truck was getting drenched as well, and random locals were running up to us and smearing flour on our cheeks like war paint. (I never learned the symbolism of this, if there was any.)
My only concern was to not swallow the water being hurled at us. The previous day, my friend Christine had drunk too much beer while participating in the soaking frenzy and consequently didn’t remember to keep her mouth shut to the dirty river water. As a result, she had been vomiting for the past twenty-four hours and had not been able to join us on the truck. The task of avoiding the dirty water became a little tougher when we stopped at a gas station to get some beers for the ride. Not only did we need to shut our mouths as quickly as possible when being bombarded with buckets of water, but we also needed to attempt to cover our beers so they wouldn’t become infected with the brown sludge. If I didn’t have my guard up and thought my beer may have been contaminated with river water, I simply retaliated by dumping the remainder of the beer over my attacker’s head! That was good for a few extra laughs.
Every time our communal bucket ran low on water, a few people would jump off the truck and get small bucketfuls from the river to replenish our supply. In some places, the river was getting so low that we had to tie our buckets to long strings to reach the water. We shifted positions in the truck several times as we alternated responsibility for getting new water, and eventually I ended up manning a spot on the roof of the truck. It was really exhilarating riding on the roof, as that is obviously something I would never have had the chance, or wanted the chance, to do in any other circumstance. The fact that we were going only about a mile an hour made it a lot less dangerous. Of course, being tourists in such a visible spot drew even more attention to us and we became an even more sought-after target. As we slowly made our way around the town square, we passed several sites where DJs had set up and there were people dancing; we joined in the fun and had our own dance party in our vehicle. When would I ever have the chance again to dance like a soaking-wet idiot on the roof of a truck?! As we had more beer and the day got even crazier, several of my friends who were still sitting in the truck bed would jump off every time we stopped and try to soak unsuspecting people with their own buckets of water before they could realize what was happening. We were having so much fun, but soon we started to get cold and tired and realized we had been at it for over four and a half hours! I was feeling a little woozy from the beer as my tolerance for alcohol had been greatly reduced from traveling alone for so many months and not having much to drink during that time.
My friend Jen and I soon decided we had had enough, and we jumped off the truck at a street we recognized and walked the fifteen minutes back to our hotel. It was nice to be back somewhere calm again! There weren’t any lounge chairs available by the pool, so I lay my towel on the pavement and soon fell into a beer and sun and excitement-induced nap. When I woke up I felt a bit hungover, so I grabbed a bite to eat at the hotel’s restaurant and then went back to my nap, this time in my hotel room, and this time for much longer – almost five hours! I woke up with an even more miserable hangover headache, which only got worse as I realized my wallet was missing. It had about 100 dollars in local currency in it, plus my credit and debit cards. I tore my room apart, checked by the pool, at the restaurant, at reception… nothing. And it would be hard to make the necessary phone calls to cancel my credit cards as my phone card had been in my wallet too! I was really ready to flip and resign myself to the hassle of figuring it all out when the receptionist realized it WAS at his desk in an envelope. Better yet, it still had everything in it! Apparently, one of the other tourists who had been in the pickup truck with us found it outside the hotel restaurant and turned it in. I learned this later when she overheard me talking about what had happened over dinner with my friends. She came up to our table and shared that she had been the one to find it; it was nice to have someone to thank for preventing a stupid predicament caused by the fact that I was too tired and hungover to realize I had dropped my wallet in the street.
After such an intense day of water-fighting, plus the chaos while river-rafting the day before, I decided I had had my fill of Songkran fun. Our hotel luckily had its own travel agency that could book some activities for me, as I would be drenched many times over by the time I reached any kind of travel agency outside my hotel’s gates. I spent the next two days visiting the northern Thailand hill tribes and taking a Thai cooking class. As much fun as it was to throw water at people, I was enjoying learning other things about Thai culture now instead.
I did, however, have one more experience with the holiday’s merrymaking. The water fighting was supposed to cease at 8 PM each night. I wanted to go shopping at the night market, and I headed out a little bit early, thinking those ten minutes wouldn’t make a difference. Well, I was definitely wrong! As I got close to the market I passed a local bar and ended up getting hosed down by a drunken tourist. I would have been less annoyed if it had been a local; instead it was a raucous American guy who clearly had had one too many. Oh well, at least I got some good bargains at the market. That helped temper my annoyance at having to bargain while sopping wet!
I had not originally planned my travel dates to coincide with Songkran, but it had turned out to be a very fortunate accident! The next day, as I took a bus back to Bangkok, I carried with me fond memories of the festivities and a feeling of good fortune for being able to take part in another country’s traditional celebration.