(Originally written and posted on what was going to be a very different blog in 2006)
The Thai New Year celebration, Songkran, is the third “new year” celebrated each calendar year by the festival-loving people of Thailand: first, of course, since by calendar year I mean the western calendar, is “Phi Mai”, celebrated on December 31st and January 1st in much the same way that New Year is celebrated in much of the rest of the world; then comes Chinese New Year, usually in February, with a dragon parade through Bangkok’s Chinatown and various other Chinese-style celebrations held throughout the country, with a special degree of intensity and flair in areas with traditionally high populations of Sino-Thai people, like Chantaburi and Hat Yai. Songkran is also known as “Thai New Year”, and if there is any holiday celebrated in Thailand that communicates a better sense of Thai culture and Thai people, I don’t know what it is.
Not that Songkran is universally endorsed by the Thais themselves; there are those who feel that the celebration often gets out of hand and reflects poorly on Thailand as a modern civilized country.
It is particularly despised, and I suspect feared, by many in the large ex-pat community in Thailand. Picture yourself walking along Sukumvit Rd. in Bangkok on a sweltering afternoon in April, the hottest month of the year. A pickup truck passes, the back full of soaking wet Thais bearing gigantic high-pressure water guns and plastic bowls full of water drawn from the barrel sitting in the middle. Imagine a sudden barrage of cool water soaking you to the skin. Or perhaps a young child flings a bowl of water in your direction and then a young comrade runs up offering to daub your wet face with talcum powder; admittedly, not everyone’s idea of a good time. As I write this, my trusty old Nokia is in pieces and I hope drying out, soon to return to full functionality. It is not wise to have your phone in your jeans pocket as you do your stroll down Sukumvit; we live and learn. And neither is it wise to wear heavy absorbent cotton clothes; you will stay wet for a very long time if you do.
The number of traffic deaths, high at the best of times in Thailand, soars through the four days of Songkran, most attributed to drunken driving, some to dangerous driving conditions created by the unbelievable amounts of water flowing in the streets after a few hours of “water-play”. Even Songkran aficionados will admit that there are definite drawbacks to the excesses the holiday provokes in certain celebrants. But cracking down on Songkran activities or attempting to eliminate the most extreme behaviors associated with it would be a definite case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in this case from the back of a pickup truck. And that’s no way to treat a baby.
The Songkran holiday begins with the rather subdued and beautiful washing of Buddha images with small amounts of water poured by people who line up to take their turns to do so. Songkran rituals are almost all associated with cleansing, a kind of cosmic spring cleaning if you will; as a matter of fact, April 12th, the day before Songkran begins is the day when many Thais do a thorough cleaning of the house. On the 13th, the first day of four, people also pour water over the hands of parents and grandparents as an expression of respect and a blessing.
For most peoples living in tropical climates where rice culture is attuned to the seasonal monsoons and the radical shifts between long hot dry periods and shorter intensely wet ones, water has always taken on the characteristic of the sacred; in this, the Thais are not unique. The Mekong River, one of the longest in the world, beginning in the Himalayan foothills close to Tibet and running through southern China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, down to its vast mouth in the South China Sea, is still worshipped as a divinity in all the Buddhist cultures it bathes in its life-giving waters. Several of these countries celebrate a similar water festival to mark the beginning of spring, but Songkran in its modern, and some would say debased, form is a uniquely Thai expression of this reverence for water, without which, of course, no human life would be possible.
It is also, and this is the simple wisdom of so much folk-culture, a great way to cool down for a few minutes or hours as the temperature hovers in the vicinity of 40C. And what a great excuse for a party.
I more or less missed the first day of “water-play” on this, my first, Songkran. What I did do was watch from the balcony of my hotel room as a group of children set up their water and talc supplies, looking for all the world like a five-cent lemonade stand, on the sidewalk across the street and subsequently began dousing passing taxis and pedestrians with small amounts of water thrown from brightly coloured plastic bowls of a kind I’ve always associated with traditional squat toilets, not the greatest association, I admit. I was curious to see whether foreigners, farangs in Thai, would get any special treatment, hoping to thus gauge what my experience would be like once I did in fact hit the streets.
What I saw was instructive; anyone, whether Thai or farang, who indicated by the least apparent gesture of refusal to engage was spared a dousing. The application of matching stripes of talc on either side of the face was always offered rather than thrust on the recipient. The way these children of eight or nine or ten years applied the talc was reverent in a way that reminded me of the colored spots placed on foreheads by holy men in Katmandu. Many of the Thais wai-ed after receiving this powdery blessing as a way of saying thank you, which is, I’ve learned, the “proper” way to respond.
When I finally ventured out into the night, leaving the quiet soi behind, I found that the children’s respectful and essentially joyful mischief was not the model for everyone flinging water and talc at passersby, although it did appear that most of those who made it very clear that they did not wish to get wet were spared a drenching. And I do mean drenching. Groups armed with hoses and high-powered water guns were stationed on most corners, directing their ministrations mainly toward passing vehicles and especially those pickups full of revelers, but occasionally turning on pedestrians. Most of the “water-players” were themselves wet to the skin and many faces were caked with talc, giving them mask-like visages reminiscent of carnival in its many forms from around the Christian world.
As uniquely Thai as Songkran is, there is something so fundamentally universal about it that you begin to feel a part of some timeless expression of human being, besides, of course, cool and wet, and oddly discombobulated, as you stroll soaking wet past five-star high-rise hotels and tailor shops and travel agencies on Sukumvit Rd.. It is also, I might add, a great opportunity to for once not look like the typical perspiring farang in a city of disconcertingly cool and dry-looking Thais. This is just one of the ways in which Songkran “water-play” acts as a great leveler in a society that is riddled with hierarchical distinctions.
One of my principle tactics when I wander the streets of Bangkok, a city that I have grown to love over the eight years that I’ve been visiting, is to simply “follow the music.” The little jewels of experience I’ve discovered this way range from elaborate performances of traditional Thai dance and music to thunderously loud presentations of young Thais singing out-of-tune Christmas carols in the 30C heat of a December night. The tactic did not let me down on this occasion. In fact, on the second day of “water-play”, it led me to one of the finest moments of Dionysian bliss that I’ve ever known.
Emerging from the cool, dry environs of a subway station I’d entered only to avoid crossing the vast and chaotic intersection of Sukumvit and Asoke Rd., I was entranced by the very loud strains of mor lam music pouring out of the tiny Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok’s “notorious” redlight districts. Drawing closer, I noticed that there was what looked for all the world like a river of talc-stained water pouring out into Asoke. What I saw when I turned into the soi made my heart leap: hundreds of soaking wet people dancing and whooping and spraying jets of water into the brilliant afternoon light. And this was only four o’ clock in the afternoon. Have I mentioned how much I love this intensely rhythmic Isaan music, mor lam? Here was one celebration of Songkran I was not going to miss out of a misplaced sense of propriety or any other sensible folly that would excuse my not getting into the spirit of the “water-play”. I plunged in, dancing and whooping and splashing with the best of them. It was here, I’m sure, that my cell deep-sixed. A small price to pay.
There’s little more to say, except to note that for the first time in years, I wished I had a camera (equipped, of course, for underwater shooting), or better yet a video camera. I wanted the sound, the colour, the sense of continuous movement; I wanted to record the three women who placed an ice-cube, drawn out of one of their blouses, onto the ground and began spontaneously to pass their hands over it like witches summoning a spirit, then fell in a soaking heap, giggling at their own invention; I wanted to record the katoey in a mumu who leapt atop a high table and danced in haut camp joy and the people who solicitously caught him when he slipped and fell; I wanted to record the stiff tourist faces melting into huge easy smiles once the inevitability of what they’d let themselves in for by entering the soi bore in on them. For a brief moment, I wanted to record it all. But then I remembered that it would all begin again next year, just as much a part of the seasonal round as the monsoon or the hot dry winters. And so I went back under, as Nietzsche might say, losing myself in the dance, in the music, in the water that we were all soaked in, and the water that we are all made from. What better blessing or cleansing could a man ask for on his fourth day in his newly-adopted hometown?