and just as cool
17.05.2010 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.
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.
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.
Please notice the itty bitty Thai flag that tells you what side you are on...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When your own turn against you, not only soaking you, but depleting your water supply.
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.
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:
Thai swimming is my kind of swimming. Fully-clothed = less to sunscreen
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.
This water was... probably disgusting, but free! Plus, we were powdered right after anyway, so we generally smelled nice.
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.
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.
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.