As the Sun God peeks over the smog-filled horizon, my senses are aroused in a surge of excitement. Today’s goal has been set; walk from my apartment on Soi 21/1, to the end of Sukhumvit Soi 77 and back again. A simple goal, it would take less than an hour from start to finish and provide a chance to passively observe the day’s festivities. The camera, the phone, the passport and the wallet will all stay at home during this adventure, in a place where they’ll be safe. Soi 21/1 was a small street and, at midday, I encountered only a few children patrolling the area on their bicycles, armed to the teeth with brightly coloured water guns and ready to soak anything that moved.
Soi 21/1 spills out onto Sukhumvit 77, a main thoroughfare in a section of town called On Nut, which hangs on the outskirts of an overflowing City of Angels, known as Bangkok. At the intersection an 8 year-old, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, sprints toward me holding a bowl of water with my name on it. It’s the middle of the hot season and the inevitable splash of water comes as a welcome relief, however I realise a drastic mistake I’ve made… I’ve just joined the world’s largest water fight and I’m completely unarmed!
The sidewalks on both sides are dotted with fifty gallon rubbish bins full of water. Some of which are filled with dreaded ice water. Long hoses attached to every available spigot, aim indiscriminately at all who pass by. Water comes at you from all angles, as the onslaught begins. Strangers approach with powders and pastes made of coloured chalk that they exuberantly rub on your face. It somehow feels like we’re all friends. Traffic on the street is crawling along, and just ahead, I spot a black truck hauling a rubbish bin full of water in the back and half a dozen kids brandishing water guns, dousing people as the truck drives by. As I walk past the truck, now stopped at a traffic light, the whole family beckons me to join them.
Slightly confused by the invitation, I hop in the back of the truck and I’m handed a plastic bowl to use to splash the crowd as we drive by. As we inch along, the kids and I frantically toss water at our well-armed opponents. Having the higher ground and a mobile base, we have an obvious advantage and manage to do a fair amount of drenching, and amidst the wild laughter I begin to wonder just how long it had been since I had a water fight. Finally we reached the end of Soi 77 and, as much as I want to continue on this lively ride, I stick to the original goal, high-five the kids and hop out.
The slippery journey back to the apartment begins. On the corner, in the open air market, a few dozen people huddle together trying to inhale a quick bowl of food before someone dumps more water on them. As cars drive by, people are pouring buckets of water on their windshields, temporarily blinding the drivers. Horns honk incessantly. Wild dogs roam the streets delighted at the abundance of food and water. Weaving through this crowd takes a bit of finesse, and a bit of luck. By now people have set their own territory for the day and are settling in. Beer is a wonderful addition to the equation and it’s not long before I have a cold one in my hand.
An intricately carved wooden archway is the gateway to a small side street to my left. Down the street, is a handmade plywood stage with some teenagers belting out a half Thai / half English version of Paradise City by Guns N Roses. Magnetically, I gravitate toward the stage. A crowd of people welcome me and body-language-signal me to join them. After a few more songs, the band quits playing for a moment, walks over and has a few drinks with us. These kids are true blue rockers, and the guitarist hands me a book of lyrics for all the songs they know how to play, and motions for me to pick a song. It was a pleasant surprise to find that these young kids knew a lot older stuff like UFO and early Scorpions, so I picked ‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘Black Out’. Their eyes light up at these choices, beers are downed and they pull me up on stage to sing with them. We drink for hours, my new friends and I, we sing, we scream, we rock. Music proving itself, once again, to be a true international language.
Between libations, one of the teenagers who can speak a tiny scratch of English enthusiastically tells me a local ghost story. Just down that very street is a Wat, a temple that serves as the resting place of the angry spirit of Mae Nak. She, and her unborn child, died tragically and her spirit sought vengeance on the local community. This spirit was responsible for a lot of destructive hauntings throughout the years. If you see the spirit, you’d better run as she will stretch out her arms to grab and kill you. Many people don’t even like talking about the spirit. I inwardly hope that Mae Nak has found peace and is enjoying herself today, along with the rest of us.
The sun begins to fade away and my double vision is on the verge of tripling. I thank my crew, and start the hike back to the apartment. The streets are completely saturated. Small rivers coated with debris meander down the gutters on either side of the street, the piles of rubbish are immense, the smells are indescribable, and stray dogs are doing their very best to clean up everything edible. Laughter echoes down the street and its network of alleys. As the sun slips away, the fluorescent lights that line the streets flicker on, giving the entire scene an over-exposed, otherworldly look.
Happily negotiating my way through the elbow to elbow chaos, I arrive at the turn to Soi 21/1 and am greeted by the dozen motorcycle-taxi drivers who normally wait here to grab fares. We see each other every day as I walk by to and from daily adventures. They often take me to my destination for a small fee and it’s my absolute favourite way to navigate the insanity of Bangkok. Today, it’s as if we are old friends. They sit on the pavement, crowded around a piece of cardboard that has some markings drawn on it. They use folded beer bottle caps as pieces. I have no idea what this game is, but we sit and drink whiskey until my double vision has quadrupled. We don’t know each other’s names, we can’t speak each other’s language, and it truly doesn’t matter.
The Thai New Year’s celebration of Songkran is pure exhilarating fun, a fascinating experience quite different to anything I have witnessed before or since. Traditionally, it is a time to visit with family and friends, to participate in the local community events, to visit temples and to reflect on life; a time for cleansing and renewal. Like all celebrations, it’s a chance for people to come together. And what began as a blessing of good fortune using holy water has morphed and escalated to an enormous nationwide water fight, most likely due to the fact that it happens at the peak of the hot season in April, and provides reprive from the sweltering and overbearing heat and humidity.
Songkran helped me to remember a bit of my own childhood that somehow I had forgotten… Who doesn’t love a good water fight? Growing up in California, it was one of my favourite summer pastimes. As you grow up, you seem to gradually lose out on the simple joys, like that of a good ole-fashioned water fight. Songkran allows a chance for everyone to awaken their inner rambunctious child, let go, and have some wet and wild fun. It absolutely warmed my heart seeing people of all ages joining in this celebration, and the fact that so many people went out of their way to include me, a foreigner, in their festivities is something I’m quite thankful for.
As I walked the streets on that first day, I literally could not believe that this was even allowed to happen. Immediately I chuckled to myself as I imagined the many ways in which this mega-water fight would never fly in The States. The government would shut it down in a matter of hours, it would be complete bedlam, and probably end up in a lot of injuries and even more arrests. That kind of fun, on a nationwide scale, over the course of 3-5 days, would never be allowed in my home country. Too many liabilities and potential lawsuits. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare!
The following year, I was lucky enough to find myself back in Thailand, and I had a strategy on the first day of Songkran. We were going to a party on the far side of town and we decided to make a game of it; to see how far we could make it without getting soaked. We stealthily crept down back alleys, hid behind structures, and even followed some of the underground khlongs to our destination.
Things were going so well, and we managed to make it almost to the destination, when just one small block from the party we were ambushed by a pack of wild children wielding buckets of ice water. You can guess who they targeted… and everyone got a good chuckle out of me being soaked while the others were bone dry…
Once at the party, I am immediately rewarded for being the only target, with a bellyful of laughter and a large glass of Sangsom and Cola. As the group destroys an ample supply of whiskey, we raid the fridge and cram just about everything onto a small ceramic grill. We teach the locals about the beauty of bacon-wrapped pineapple. They share with us squid-flavoured chips. Not exactly a fair trade in my book, but it’s really the thought that counts. The time comes for another booze run and I volunteer to run to the corner shop, where the shop owner and her entire family sit outside blasting Thai rock music, drinking the shop’s supply. This is not a tourist section of town and as much as this custom is still new to me, I’m certain that they were just as amazed with me as I was with them! They pour me drinks and we dance and laugh until my group sends a scout to find me.
Living in Thailand had many challenges, one of which was constantly feeling like an outsider. I couldn’t have stuck out more if I tried, as I’m much taller than the average Thai, and with blonde hair and covered in tattoos, and it was impossible to ‘blend in’. But, it was moments like this where I felt an overwhelming acceptance that made up for all the times that I felt like a circus freak. Songkran gave me a chance to participate in the culture and expand my understanding of this foreign land that I was in.
It also gave me a chance to marvel at the concept of ‘time’. According to the Thai Solar Calendar, which uses the Buddhist era, instead of the Christian era, the year I moved there was 2553 BE. The thought had never even crossed my mind that there are different ways to calculate time, and I realised that any day can be new year’s day, and that the year can be any number, so long as we all agree to it. In that way, we really are masters of our own reality. I had never been anywhere that didn’t use the Gregorian calendar (and in fact, I didn’t even know that was the name of the calendar used in the western world until I looked it up). I marvelled at how with the Thai calendar, holidays are calculated using celestial movements and therefore change slightly from year to year, vs. the Gregorian calendar which has been constructed in a more rigid format in order to enable conformity and place holidays at convenient times.
What else did I learn from that giant water-fight? No matter how different we may think we are, humans have basic commonalities and, as viewed from that perspective, we are indeed all brothers and sisters. Despite language and cultural barriers or generation gaps, we can all share in a moment of celebration together if we take the time to participate in the world around us and keep an open and tolerant mind. It’s fantastic and amazing just how much we can communicate without the use of words. Oh yeah, and don’t go to a water fight without a water gun!