Saturday, April 25, 2009


Imagine a nation-wide weeklong waterfight. Everyone, everyone is involved. Roads closed, main streets flooded, business and schools suspended. Children who are usually expected to show at least mischievous respect gleefully (yet still hesitantly respectfully) squirting forces of water from well-designed water guns, or dumping buckets of water onto adults as high as they can reach, usually belly-high. Hordes of enthusiastic, grinning, often-drunk young men driving around in pickups and motorcycles with well-planned routes, outfits, and water-dousing instruments to maximize their water delivery, soakedness, and flirtation opportunities. Middle-aged shopkeepers looking innocent, yet deadly with iced water in their sprayers. Old men kindly using the water in its more traditional handful blessing, but grinning if said blessing happens to get some foreigners or young people chillingly wet down the spine in the process. All of this to so great an extent that within five minutes of leaving a building’s protection, you are as wet as if you had been fully submerged in the moat. In fact, you may have actually been fully submerged in the moat, though if you are sober you can usually avoid this fate.

At first, it was really fun. We were doused, we doused, it was a textbook lifting of ritual social restrictions, an annual blowing-off of societal steam. And then the teenaged boys started having too much fun dousing Petra, who was looking especially pretty. And, despite the humid hot hot weather, I got cold. Standing around in drenched clothes, and being continually re-drenched, occasionally with ice water, just isn’t healthy after a few hours, let alone a few days, no matter how hot out it is. And then, after the third day, …well, let me just say that the water we were being doused with was not AT ALL clean, and my skin is still healing from the fascinating rash (though rash seems like too tame a word), though my intestines have thankfully recovered.

Songkran has not always been quite so conducive to illness. Though Thailand has used the Western-style calendar since the 1940s, they also follow their own solar calendar in which this is the year 2552, and the New Year is April 14. Songkran originated as the celebration of the change between years, with a sort-of Buddhist Yom Kippur feeling that consisted of cleansing all images of the Buddha, especially statues. According to Wikipedia, “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.” One’s bad karma is lessened by being spiritually cleansed with this holy water. If this is the case, then we are all really, really pure now due to the modern enthusiastic delivery of the blessed water. :)

While it was a bit overwhelming in Chiang Mai proper, we had a great time celebrating Songkran in a random little village an hour’s drive outside the city. We had been out on a day’s expedition in the hills (details to come later), and our itinerary called for us to visit an orchid farm on the way back to town. Our guide had been imbibing in a celebratory spirit throughout the day (we had a driver who was not celebratory, don’t worry, mothers), and he turned to us with pure mischief in his eyes on the drive to the farm and asked something along the lines of “Would you mind if it turned out the orchid farm was ‘closed’ and I provided some alternative entertainment instead?”. Well, our group (us and a bunch of Canadians and a few Aussies) couldn’t turn up the mysterious offer, and told him to take us where he would, which turned out to be his family home. We were greeted with great delight in the driveway by his extensive clan and spent the next who-knows-how-many hours standing in the road being hand-fed who-knows-what tasty snacks and drinks, dousing the few people who ventured by and each other, singing and dancing with abandon to frantic Thai pop, and being teasingly subjected to an elaborate matchmaker game by the old ladies (I am supposed to marry the charming gay Mike, from Vancouver, who looks just like Jude Law: could have made out much worse). The neighbours all came over with great curiosity and undisguised jealousy to see how the family got white people to come to their party: apparently we provided enormous social cache. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended, and thoroughly redeemed the holiday to me. Sawatdee bee mai! (Happy New Year!)

Note on the photos: I didn’t take many, since my digital camera is not waterproof, and I did not want to risk its ruin. The photos at the beginning of this slideshow were taken with a disposable waterproof film camera, and the soft-focus ones at the end are taken with my camera wrapped up in a plastic bag.

No comments: