Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thailand 2011 - Songkran

When I was growing up, every summer me and my friends would each get a Super Soaker and have water fights with each other. It would be about 4 or 5 of us, and the fight would always end with us getting yelled at by the parents because we squirted the window or accidentally hit dad's car. Super Soakers were a toy that all our parents loathed, and if you grew up in 90's like I did you probably can relate.

Now what if I told you that, somewhere in the world, there was a place that not only let you Super Soak everyone and everything, but that the culture and even the government itself encouraged the water play?

I'm not making this up, that time and place exists beyond all my expectations and dreams. It's Songkran in Thailand, also known as the World's Largest Water Fight.

The Songkran Festival itself is the traditional New Year in Thailand, with the dates coinciding with many other cultures in Southeast Asia. It is usually a couple days long, with 'New Years Day' taking place around the 13th of April. It is a time when people clean their houses, visit the wat (a Buddhist monastery) and give food to the monks, give thanks and clean their Buddha images, and all around a time to spend with family.

The water during this festival came from the act of cleansing their Buddhas. This is a holy practice, and the water used during this act is blessed. The people would take the water running off the statues and pour it over their family and friends to bring them good fortune for the year ahead. It just so happens that this festival occurs during the hottest month in Thailand and also ushers in the wet season, so the evolution from a gentle water blessing to a full on no-rules water fight was natural.

Yes, you just learned something from my blog. Congratulations. Now for my first-hand experience.

My Songkran celebration started pretty dull. Like a little kid waiting for Santa, I had my Super Soaker prepared early in the morning and was anxiously waiting for the day to start. My expectations were very high, and as we rolled out on our scooters around 9am I was excited beyond belief. What I didn't take into account was the fact that the Festival itself started last night, with the water festivities taking place today. Therefore, many people were still asleep recovering from the night before and the streets were dead as we rolled through town. Yeah, you had the random group of kids dousing you with a hose, but it wasn't anything major. I was disappointed.

That was very short-lived as we made our way through the hills around Phuket. Although there is a big city here, in the hills the towns are very small and 'authentic', with a couple bars here and there and maybe a gas station. These people were the heart and soul of Thailand, and they showed me why as I turned the corner coming into the hills.

Every 50 feet or so were these giant buckets of water, and around each bucket was about 10-20 Thai's and foreigners with Super Soakers, bowls, and just about anything that can hold water. In the distance I could see the splashes and the water flinging across the road. We later deemed this road 'The Gauntlet, as we went on that road 3 more times and didn't get out dry (not that we wanted to in the first place). The Gauntlet is a skinny road, barely two cars can get by. Therefore, as we were on scooters, there was no escape from the water. People were flinging and gunning from every direction. Within seconds, we were soaked and would remain that way for the rest of the day. The best part was watching people actively try to stay dry. If you're at Songkran with the intent on staying dry, the only way you'll succeed is if you stay in the hotel room. I'm not kidding, every man, woman, and child young and old, rich and poor is out to get everyone else as wet as possible. There are no rules, so play the game or go home. Oh, and the entire country is participating. Good luck.

A lot of the time, it was just people flinging water at you with all the strength they can muster. Occasionally, however, you would get a group of Thai's who did it the 'proper' way. They would stop you on your scooter and the whole group would swarm you. Some would have water, which they would pour over your head and back gently. The others would have this chalk that they would dip their hands in and touch your face and body with. Apparently in Buddhism you aren't suppose to touch people like that, but during Songkran it was permitted. It sounded weird and creepy at first, but once I did it the first time I felt this sense of belonging and love from them. They smiled and laughed as they doused you in water and chalk, and you couldn't help but laugh yourself. This is a celebration after all, so if you aren't smiling by the end you did something wrong.

We would also pass these bars with music blaring and people dancing, and these were the best places to stop to get your dousing. It was always some kind of party music blaring in the background, everyone was dancing, and they would hug and kiss you and laugh some more. Being a blatant foreigner (I have a camera strapped to my helmet during all of this), they would take great joy getting me wet and spreading the joy. Also, for some reason, all the local girls loved me. I don't want to sound cocky or conceited, but whenever they would come up to me the whole group would giggle and kiss me and even hop on my scooter to see if I'd take them with me. The foreigners would laugh too because here's this kid looking like he's 16 with a bunch of grown women (and Lady-boys at one point, which was interesting to say the least) fawning over him. Yes, even the moms and at one point a restaurant owner was a part of the women coming after me. I liked the attention, I mean what guy wouldn't? You just have to enjoy it for what it is, because there's always the chance that you'll never be back.

Most of the day was like that: we would ride, stop a lot, get wet a lot, get chalked up, hug and kiss some locals, then ride some more. By noon all the roads were drenched and the traffic was ridiculous. Trucks with 20 or so people in the bed would be blaring music and dancing as they threw buckets of water at you while you sped by. It was a party atmosphere wherever you went, and it went non-stop till 4pm.

Now that I'm dry and in the room resting, I can really appreciate what I just experienced. I was part of one of the world's greatest parties, where you didn't need to know the bouncer or pay a ridiculous cover to get in. Everyone was accepting and loving, and you could feel that love during the entire festival. You don't have parties like that …in fact, you don't have that kind of love for a stranger anywhere else in the world. Everyone's so shielded, yet once we're giving the opportunity to let loose we really let it go. Race and money don't matter here, only that you're a person who's willing to kick off the shoes for a little bit and participate in the fun. It's an experience I won't soon forget, and I hope to find that kind of love and joy that I felt today and share it with as many people as possible. Happy New Year everyone!

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