The first thing I have to point out about this post is that it contains no original photos. Disappointing, yes, but unavoidable.
There is no possible way to record Songkran without risking destruction of the camera. That’s how wet it is. Especially on foot and definitely on a motorbike. It cannot be handheld or stashed in a pocket. There is no avoiding the large volumes of water being thrown, projected, squirted or splashed your way. I do not have a closed vehicle. That would be the only way. Ergo, everyone keeps their phone wrapped in plastic.
Along virtually the entire lengths of the moat surrounding the Old City of Chiang Mai, maybe through six of its eight kilometers, colourful vendors offering plastic buckets, all manner of multicoloured plastic sci-fi water-weapons with the size and look of an 80s boom-box, and other paraphernalia stand side by side along with masses of people in various forms of dress and undress, costumed or wearing ridiculous blazingly coloured shirts, bespectacled, goggled and chapeau-ed, young and old wielding those weapons with great effect on passing traffic. And, mind you, this is on both sides of the moat, an unlimited water supply, bordering both avenues circumnavigating the Old Town in opposing directions.
In places, the throngs edge their way into the roads, slowing traffic and rendering all vehicles and motorbikes virtual stationary targets as they creep by. A red light at a major intersection makes you a sitting duck. None escape the dousing. Police presence is greater, with check-points popping up in multiple places to screen for alcohol consumption. Many businesses are closed for three days. Traffic lights become mere suggestions or are ignored as intersections slide toward gridlock. And this was all before 11am.
But the fun is everywhere. It’s a continuous party. Partaking prominently are the foreigners who give every appearance of participating fully and in some cases taking the rowdiness to new levels of creativity, and danger, thrashing passersby with two gallons at a time. Pick-up trucks loaded with vats of water and people armed with water-guns that look like bicycle pumps wind through traffic, trading barrages with the crowds on the sidewalks. Water may be thrown from upper floors. The best vantage points with the best equipment are those elevated perches manned by water cannon hooked up to to garden hoses for continuous and forceful cleansing that can arc across the street.
Later in the day, everything is even more intense, more cars, more people, more water. Virtual gridlock rules. If you want to know more about the significance of the holiday, go here. To see anyone who is dry is rare. Teenagers, three to a motorbike, are all dripping wet. Open taxis loaded with tourists do not escape the water coming from the roadside, other vehicles and even from the back of motorbikes. It’s a great relief from the heat, which is hitting 104F.
I take a very circuitous route to my destination, giving the Old Town a wide berth. But even on the less traveled roads, there may be a single kid on an otherwise vacant block holding a small bucket or even just a kitchen bowl by the side of the road. You know, as you ride by, that their practiced aim will hit the mark. You are doomed. Sure enough, you are baptised at full speed.
By evening, in the centre of the tourist zone, the drinking is much more obvious, the booming music scrambles your brain waves. There is dancing in the streets, water flying in all directions. But the main roads settle down. Traffic moves at normal speed. And the throngs along the road are gone, resting up for another two days of this.
But honestly, though there’s only limited appeal to all of this for this aging foreigner, it is all completely reminiscent of a much earlier time in my life, living in Rangoon (Yangon), Burma (Myanmar), Thailand’s neighbour, and doing the exact same thing at the exact time of year in the very ways most prevalent today, the pump-action water guns, the hoses, the oil drums filled with water by the side of the road, or standing in the back of an open truck dishing out a dousing to everyone we pass.
And that was 50 years ago. As they say, the more things change,…..