A Travellerspoint blog

Songkran is the New Mardi Gras

and just as cool

sunny 104 °F

Imagine, if you can, a country-wide water fight that lasts for three days during the hottest time of year. I had trouble picturing it as well. Then it happened.

Officially, Songkran is a celebration of the Thai New Year. Wikipedia informs me that "The throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over the Buddhas for cleansing and then using this "blessed" water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder."

Since then, however, the holiday has turned into one giant water fight. Think of this as Thailand's Mardi Gras.

I decided to come back to Ubon for Songkran, forgoing what I assumed would be crowds of tourists (both Thai and foreign)in Northern Thailand for an Isaan holiday. I arrived in Det Udom two days before Songkran started with no real plans, hoping that someone would adopt me. My neighbor welcomed me back and asked what I was doing the next day, suggesting that I join her the next morning at 6 am. So I did. We hopped into a car with some other teachers and their families—and drove to the Mekong.

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First thing's first: a trip to the wat. The English level amongst these teachers was nil, but they were very excited to have me along. We dropped the children off near the river and ran to the wat for a bit. There is a spiritual aspect to Songkran, and though I never had it explained to me, I definitely experienced it. The wat was overrun by monks, and people were waiing and bowing and walking on their knees as they made their way around the temple complex. I followed the example of those in front of me and knelt, waiting for a monk to come to bless us. One monk spotted me, however, and with a mumbled "farang" he rushed to us, cameras in tow, and began to practically dump holy water on me whilst asking where I was from. After an awkward conversation through spurts of holy water , I was handed my amulet (well, it was dropped into my hands as monks cannot touch women) and we headed to the Mekong, super-blessed.

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I splashed around in the water, saw Laos, ate some really lovely food before piling back into a truck for the 3 hour ride back to DTEC and preparations for Songkran began.

Cochon de lait. Kind of.

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Sticky Rice!

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Please notice the itty bitty Thai flag that tells you what side you are on...

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Then it came. The build up to this holiday was immense: one semester of classes that were challenging and rewarding, not to mention exhausting; the promise that this was the hottest time of the year; every guide book/website/friend of a friend who lived in Thailand once raves about it. So I was excited if woefully unprepared. Piboon invited me, the boys, and some of their friends to join him to his village for the holiday. Cue three days of pruny fingers. We loaded into the back of a pick-up truck and made the treacherous journey to Piboon's mother's house. We had no artillery and no ammo and were lacking in the official attire. One stop at a 7/11 and one more at a TESCO and I was finally prepared.

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Official Songkran Outfit and Equipment, from the bottom up:
1) The ever-reliable pair of Chacos—ready to be slipped on and off at will and practically waterproof.
2) Pair of pants that could be easily dried, rolled up for wading through water, rolled down to prevent sunburn.
3) Cool, quick-drying shirt.
4) Hawaiian print shirt with blue flowers to wear on top of aforementioned cool, quick-drying shirt.
5) A double-barrel water gun, made in China and purchased at 7/11, small, but fierce with the ability to be filled at any faucet, anywhere.
6) A cross cowboy hat/floppy straw hat called "The Big American," key to preventing sunburn
7) Sunscreen. SPF 70. 'Nuf said.

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We also bought the essentials of food (and some alcohol), storing everything in the cab of the truck for safe keeping. Once at Piboon's, we picked up some of his family, changed trucks, and got water. I would like to thank Mrs. Brenda's bus for teaching me the fine art of bus surfing as I managed standing in the back of the truck, everyone holding on to whatever they could, while still leaving a hand free for water throwing. And a free hand to accept the glass of whiskey that was passed around.

So this water throwing. I feel that this needs a bit more elaboration. Attacks come in several ways, each with their own specific dangers and defenses.

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Side of Road, Hose:
The constant stream of water means that aim is much less important. The weapon of choice for parents who are filling the buckets of their children and can't really be bothered with exerting the effort for the bucket method. Only terribly dangerous when stopped.

Side of Road, Bucket:
Probably the most commonly faced. The position you have in the truck is a key defense for this one… back left
Is just asking to be continuously drenched (remember Thais drive on the left side of the road), though the entire left hand side is an easy target. Throwing a bucket of water at a moving vehicle involves a certain skill and good aim (as well as timing) is critical. Considering most of these people have been doing this once a year for their entire lives, they had the appropriate amount of practice behind them. What the younger children lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm, practically launching the water. The biggest danger from this method is the surprise ice water assault. While the main objective of Songkran may be to cool down, no one enjoys a bucket of ice water thrown in their face.

Side of Road, Bucket Pour:
Very similar to the SOR Bucket, the pour version is sort of a slo-mo advance toward a single person and a pouring of water over them. A much more personal form of attack, it is completely drenching and there is no known method of defense. All that can be done when one sees the approach is bow the head in resignation and try not to cringe too much. This is method can be the deadliest when ice water is involved. Luckily, smiles and laughter are the usual aftermath.

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Side of Road, Water Gun:
Usually wielded by overly excited little kids or "I'm really cool" teenagers, this method is particularly effective when the truck is caught in traffic or moving slowly through a town. The stream of water isn't too devastating unless it makes a direct hit to the eyes.

Other Vehicles, Bucket:
You know those math problems where a train is heading at speed X toward another train, which is moving at speed Y, and taking vectors (Victor), you need to find out when they will collide? Add some water to the mix and that is what was coming at us from the other side of the road. Sometimes easily visible (everyone standing in the back), sometimes a bit more subtle (the sitting down, sneak attack), the velocity at which the water came was what caused the damage here. Our speed + their speed + small droplets of water = being PELTED. Think when a rainstorm gets really bad, or, better yet, when you are in a vehicle and the rain hits you. The other factor in this method is the distraction it produces. Inevitably, while responding to the SOR Attack, we wouldn't see the OV Attack, or vice versa. Having no time to duck (or attempt some sort of shield) direct (slightly painful) hits were most often accomplished in this fashion.

Friendly Fire:
When your own turn against you, not only soaking you, but depleting your water supply.

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Then there came the powder. Now, in general, Thailand uses a lot of talcum powder. It absorbs sweat, smells nice, and sometimes has menthol-like something in it that makes you feel particularly cool. I've been using it more and more as the hot season progresses and am less and less concerned with how silly I look. This powder takes has a special role in Songkran. While I am not too certain what it means (you can consult wikipedia yourself for the answers there), after pouring water you rub powder on people's faces, usually accompanied by good luck wishes for the New Year. Some were a bit slapdash, catching a face with a handful of powder as the truck continued to drive away. Cooler powder in my eyes is one of the more bizarre (and uncomfortable) sensations I have ever experienced. Other people had more of a genuine "Good Luck in the New Year" feel to them, eye contact being made and the powdering restrained to the cheeks in a much more gentle way.

We were quite a spectacle: a truck full of farang in an uncommon area…which made us a favorite target. Driving through towns, the truck would slow down (partly to make us an easier target, partly to ease the sting of the water) and we would be met with the initial spray and then cries of "Farang! Farang!"as people scrambled to get us extra good. Or so it seemed. People pulled out all the English they knew. "Hello!", "I love you!", "Thank you!", "Welcome to Thailand!", and "Amazing Thailand!" (the catchphrase of the tourism authority). The most common response was a moment of shock, followed by the cry of "Farang!" and then a particularly enthusiastic pelting. This was a constant.

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Songkran follows a three day schedule: Travel Day, Family Day, and then Party Day. Well, roughly put.

The first day of Songkran, after travelling to Piboon's village, we went to see what Piboon called the Grand Canyon of Thailand. (Take that, Gaty Bunch).

At his mother's house:

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Thai swimming is my kind of swimming. Fully-clothed = less to sunscreen

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The next morning, we line in front of Piboon's parents, receiving a blessing from them in the form of very sweet smelling water (powder, jasmine, and other flowers were mixed in) pour over our heads as we gave them our best wai. Respect for the elders done with, we headed to another teacher's village. The few hours there took us to some mighty battlefields. Picture a Mardi Gras parade going both directions, inching along. And everyone is throwing water. There is no making it out alive in that situation. We rationed water by picking out our favorite targets—motorcyclists, pedestrians, the occasional cyclist. (As one of our party put it "Being a pedestrian during Songkran is just dumb.") We made several water stops along the way.

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This water was... probably disgusting, but free! Plus, we were powdered right after anyway, so we generally smelled nice.

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We made it in time to have lunch with his extended family, see a lake and turn around. Before leaving again, his elders tied strings to our wrists, another form of good luck blessings, as we knelt before them and poured sweet smelling water into their hands and they let it fall over our heads. I feel so lucky to have been included in that.

A couple hour-ride back to Ubon proved to be the most trying. We were exhausted and permanently soaked. Highway speeds at night plus the occasional cold water spray did nothing to help matters. We arrived and after a quick stay at the park which had a MASSIVE sprinkler beyond description set up) we returned to the house and collapsed.

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Day three we went to Piboon's sister house where she ushered us to a place on the street that had music and an endless supply of water. We took our places on the other side of what we had been facing the past few days, ready to exact our revenge. And so we spent hours throwing water and powdering people. Every now and then a truck full of redshirts would pass and shouts of "Dissolve the Parliament" begin and cheers would go on until the truck pulled away. And we danced until we froze and then we kept dancing to keep from freezing. Eventually, we conceded that Songkran had in fact won. With our heads held high, we shivered back to where we were staying, ready to sleep for days.

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The holiday lived up to all of the expectations I had. The looks on the faces were classic. A little kid who didn't even have time to respond to our attacks, just standing in a puddle with this look of utter "what did you do to me?." The old man on a bike that cringed a little when the water hit him, but then gave us the most amazing smile as we pulled away. The 7 year old who stared death at us over his water gun.

It was incredible.

The next morning, I grabbed all my stuff, snuck out early, and flew to Bangkok.

Posted by decuirrl 02:56 Archived in Thailand Comments (8)

Hey Thailand...

... can we go back to the whole "no worries" outlook?

sunny 100 °F

The most recent NY Times article:

Thai government sets new ultimatum in Bangkok protests

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Luckily, I am out of Bangkok and back at DTEC. There has been a bit of red shirt rally/blocking of bridges/ get together with music and food in the park in Ubon, but it is generally quite peaceful. Det Udom is the sleepy town it always has been, so no worries on my end. Keep your eye on Bangkok, though... and continue to assume I am safe.

School starts on Monday, though in typical Thai fashion I have yet to see my schedule. I've been spending the weekend cleaning, lesson planning, news-watching, and preparing for the eventual catch-up on blogging. Things to look forward to: Songkran. Living in Bangkok for a bit of Fulbrightness. Chiang Rai. Yasothon Rocket Festival. Triumphant return to DTEC. Let me know if I leave anything out.

Also, check out www.dirtycajuns.com for yet another oil leak resource. It has become part of my obsessive news-checking routine.

For now, I'll keep cleaning, writing and, trying to stay cool. 100 F + 1 fan + 1 window = 4 showers a day. On average. Yesterday the power went out at noon, so the number increased to five.

PS

CONGRATS to all the graduates I know. I'm proud of y'all!

Posted by decuirrl 02:14 Archived in Thailand Tagged events Comments (2)

Nepal Part II

with apologies for the delay

I made it back to Kathmandu around noon following my trek. Taking my blistered feet into consideration, I decided that the rest of the day would be best used sitting on a bus to Pokhara, the next of my destinations. The receptionist at my hotel kept trying to convince me not to take the public bus, but rather to wait until the next morning for the tourist bus. I respectfully declined and then forcefully declined this suggestion. I've done the insane public bus ride before and I was certain that once I was on the bus, things would be alright.

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And they were. I managed the chaos of the bus station, thanks once again to that odd form of distinction of being a foreigner with white skin and therefore being privileged. I got out of a cab and was immediately ushered to a bus.

Bus Interlude Two:

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Buses in Thailand are often painted in garishly bright—this appears to be a theme throughout Asia (based on my research in all of two countries). Nepal put them to shame. The fronts of buses and trucks were painted with bright designs and amazing slogans slashed across the bumpers. A few of my favorites include:

Road King
Road Hero
Road Life
Road Star
King off Road
Speed Control
Slow Drive, Long Life
Love is Life, not a Dramma
Black Buti
My Life, My Enjoy

And the marvelous:
Sports/Relax/Party/Ok/bye

All of theses were accompanied by appropriate pictures and tassels and fringes. And the music, oh man, the music. My ears were practically assaulted by Nepali and/or Hindu pop at least half of the 8 hour ride. If youtube was working better, I'd find you some of these songs to keep you company while looking at the pictures. The bus was cramped with both people and cargo; at one point in time, we had a bench in the aisle as we were bringing it from one town to another. The first stop we made was to load up the top of the bus with sacks of ginger. We passed a bus that had a goat on its roof (guess he wasn't allowed inside?). In the U.S., the people who ride buses may be sketchy—in Asia, it's the buses themselves.

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The bus ride itself wasn't too bad. Long, yes, but people would come up to the windows selling various forms of sustenance, so it was manageable and treated me to some spectacular scenery.

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The lack of electricity was evident in the last part of the ride, as we passed houses lit with just that slightly orange halo of candle light. There were no streetlights. We zipped through the dark, throwing light and loud music onto things as we passed. By nine that night, I was finally pulling into Pokhara. I found the first guesthouse that looked decent and was open that late at night. They had no empty rooms but offered me one of the brother's rooms . No matter. I slept well enough after the bus ride and woke up the next morning to explore the town, eat, read and make plans.

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There was a follow through plan with the lovely Christine—while looking at the non-existent mountains in Nagarkot we made plans to meet up at the World Peace Pagoda on Easter Sunday in Pokhara. The beginning of the trail was by boat and reminded me just how much I love/miss the water.

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On the way down we tried to make it to a waterfall. We stopped to ask for directions and the kind man who was telling us about the waterfall stopped mid-sentence and said, "That tractor is going to the waterfall, stop right in front. You want to ride?" Christine and I hesitated just long enough to look at each other before accepting. We clamored on top, sitting ourselves over the wheels and proceeded to hold on for dear life as the thing rushed downhill on an unpaved road. I could already envision the headline, "Austrian and American killed in freak Nepali Tractor Accident." But we made it just fine down to a very unimpressive waterfall and then back into town.

Nice dinner, some shopping, good conversation, and then to bed.

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The next day was reserved for one specific adventure: paragliding.

Once, I jumped out of a plane. I hated the free fall part and forgot to breathe. I figured, however, that if the parachuting part was something I loved, then paragliding should be right up my alley.

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IT. WAS. AWESOME.

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Christophe, my tandem guide, was from France and switched between languages whenever he felt like it.

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At the bottom, we were mobbed by Nepalese children shouting "Christophe! Christophe!", all the while unbuckling here, pulling a strap there and essentially releasing me from the harness. Nothing beats floating for one hour.

To gloss over the rest of the trip, I hopped back on a bus (this time a tourist bus, not much nicer, but a lot less interesting) to Kathmandu. I found a hostel and was settling in for my last night there when I struck up a conversation with a lovely girl (whose name I have since forgotten) there for her first night. We decided to buck up and go out for a drink and some live music to celebrate the beginning/ending combination. It was a nice evening of cover bands and rooftop seating.

I woke up at dawn the next day to see this:

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One of the most famous Tibetan Buddhist stupas, it was a sight that I did not want to miss. Seeing it at dawn was spectacular. There were no other tourists and people just made their rounds, fingering their prayer beads. Surreal. Magical. All of those really corny words but without the corny attachment.

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Nepal was a very odd country for me. The English was generally fantastic and people were incredible helpful. However, this helpfulness bordered on intruding at times. The country is poor. A simple statement, but it is just striking to see how people live as it is to see the scenery. The sheer amount of physical labor I witnessed left me in disbelief, if not staring. People breaking stones and loading them into trucks. Harvesting rice by hand. Plowing fields with oxen and wooden plows. Carrying immense baskets of leaves and sticks up and down mountainsides. Bringing water to the home. Hauling soil in order to build a wall. Things that we would normally associate with peasants in old Europe was a daily reality for anyone not living in a heavily touristic area. he country is really quite dirty. Trash on the streets, on the hiking trails. And not just litter, but mounds of trash. I saw a cow trying to find something to eat in one and someone burning another pile for warmth. But the country is also quite colorful—the buses, the jewelry, the shrines. Somewhere in that mixture of color and dirt is where I understood Nepal to be.

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Then I got on a plane and headed back. Free wine and The Frog Princess made me remember why I love Thai Air, and seeing Thailand after seeing Nepal made me realize how nice it is to come back to something familiar. As much as it may feel that I haven't really connected with the country in the ways I would like, I do have connections here. Coming back felt nice.

My two weeks in Bangkok is almost up, and while I am physically stuck in Thailand, my mind and heart is with the Gulf Coast.

Posted by decuirrl 03:02 Archived in Nepal Comments (2)

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