Sunday, 17 April 2011

On the waterfront: Songkran in Thailand

An ingenious variation on the traditional water ceremony at a temple on Koh Kred.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Water has many associations in Thailand at this time of year. It’s a symbol of devotion to elders and the Buddha. Yet it’s also a sign of youth and anarchy; of childhood and play. This week is Songkran, or Thai New Year, when the entire country marks the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth by staging the world’s largest water fight. According to the traditional Thai calendar, the year is now 2554.

The word Songkran comes from the Sanskrit ‘saṃkrānti’ meaning astrological passage. It lasts for three days, from 13 to 15 April, and falls into two distinct parts. In the mornings, Thais go to visit their elders and pour water on their hands as a sign of respect. Then they go to the temple and wash Buddha statues with water and flower petals from golden bowls.

At work this week, we had a short ceremony where we poured water over Anupama and Tomoo’s hands – the heads of UNICEF’s regional and country offices respectively. We also saw temples where ritual washing was in progress. At one, on the island of Koh Kred in the Chao Praya river, an ingenious contraption had been set up. For a donation, you got a bowl of water that you attached to the claws of a golden bird. By turning a wheel, you activated a series of pulleys that hoisted the bird on a cable up to the top of a temple spire, where its bowl tipped over, pouring water and petals down the side of the building.

Originally, Songkran was all about these devotional activities but, like Christmas in the West, it’s taken on a more secular character over the centuries. Songkran is now primarily about celebrating, with street parties and water fights erupting across the country during the afternoons and evenings. We’d heard that the biggest fights in Bangkok took place on Khao San Road, which runs through the heart of the backpacker district near my office. So after lunch on Wednesday, Joyce and I changed into shorts and T-shirts, with dry clothes and a camera cocooned in layers of plastic bags in a backpack, filled up our super-soaker water pistols and headed out to do battle.

Children guard a water station by Phra Sumen Fort.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Game on

We didn’t get far before our first water fight. We arrived at the boat pier at Kiak Kai to catch a boat to Banglumphu. An extended family had set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the pier, with a large tank of water and a hosepipe. They weren’t paying attention when we arrived and there was only a small girl at the water tank. Her parents shouted at her to get us but she just looked at me, eyes wide with apprehension. If we thought we were safe, however, we were mistaken. A young man and a middle-aged woman pursued us onto the pier with bowls of water, which they tipped over us. In return, we shot as much water as we could at the young man. The woman made signs not to shoot her, presumably because of her age, but I felt this was a poor excuse given the drenching she’d just dealt out, so I gave her a modest squirt from my gun.

In Banglumphu, we made our way to a small park by Phra Sumen Fort, an old whitewashed fortress on the riverbank. This octagonal brick-and-stucco building was constructed in 1783 to defend against naval invasions and was one of 14 watchtowers that once lined Bangkok's old city wall. Today, a music stage had been set up here and a band was practicing, with speakers covered in shrink-wrapped plastic. Children were running around with water pistols, shrieking with joy. We had a few fights but invariably ended up coming off worse – the kids had better guns than us and were already soaked, and hence fearless. We shot one small girl with her parents, however, who was so started that she dropped her gun.

There was a small bridge set up on the pavement where you could fire at passing traffic. Occasionally, a pickup truck would come past with a gang of well-armed teenagers in the back and the fighting would intensify. Occasionally, we fought among ourselves. We got ambushed by a young Thai guy manning the nearby filling station (normally a drinking water fountain). He was wearing a motorcycle helmet and had a plastic backpack in the shape of a Japanese cartoon character, full of water with a hose connecting it to his gun. Afterwards, he raised his visor so we could shoot back, smiled broadly and filled up our guns for us. “Sawatdi pi mai,” he said (Thai for Happy New Year), as he handed them back.

Throughout the day, the atmosphere was incredibly friendly and good natured. We chatted to a Thai couple at the filling station. “You can shoot anyone you like,” the young man said. “But if they’re unwilling you should always apologise first.” Later in the week, when we were dressed up and on our way to the cinema, a teenager cornered us with a bowl of water. “Sorry, sorry,” he said before tipping it over us.

A reclining Buddha statue, still wet from his morning bath.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Band of brothers

At the park, we met our friends Michael and Kari, a Kiwi-Aussie couple who run a regular yoga and daal night on Tuesdays. They were wearing floral ‘Songkran’ shirts and Michael had two large guns on a strap around his neck, reminding me of a character from a John Woo movie. “It looks cool but they’re a pain to carry after a while,” he said. Both of them were already drenched. “We got a tuk-tuk here and the driver stopped at every water point so they could soak us,” Kari said. “He got wet too of course. It cost 400 baht but it was well worth it.”

Together, we made our way down Phra Athit and into the backpacker district. Some tourists were just arriving, fully dressed with wheelie suitcases, and were very upset about getting their stuff soaked. I felt sorry for them but Kari took a harder line. “They should have done their research properly,” she said. Other, better prepared travellers were indeed wearing waterproofs and had their backpacks wrapped in plastic.

We took a short cut through a temple complex where orange-robed Buddhist monks live in traditional Thai-style wooden houses. Here the fighting eased off as people burned incense sticks and a line of golden Buddha statues stood glistening in the sun, still wet from their morning ablutions. We came out of the temple opposite Khao San Road, where the size of the crowds and intensity of the water battles exceeded anything we had seen so far. It was also a much more adult affair. The road was lined with bars and scantily clad girls danced on top of barrels holding up signs advertising beer prices. Sound systems pumped out dance music and occasional party classics like House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’, which I remember well from indie discos in the 1990s.

The road was completely rammed and you had to push slowly through a crowd of revellers in varying degrees of drunkenness. The militias that lined the roadside here were more hardcore. They had a new weapon – massive ice blocks that melted to produce freezing cold water. We were already wet but it was like getting soaked all over again. It's a bit like diving in a brackish lake you come to a point where you suddenly realise that there are two types of water. Water fights here often took the form of locals vs. backpackers but it was hard to say who was winning. We also encountered another feature of Songkran here – teenagers with pots of white clay which they plastered on your face, hair and clothes, usually with a ritual “sorry, sorry”. This practice originates from the chalk that monks use to mark blessings, but now it’s just another part of the general mayhem. At each end of Khao San Road was a mountain of discarded clay pots, and the water underfoot turned white with their run-off.

Locals and tourists face off amid the mayhem of Khao San Road.
The Khao San Road militia, armed with cartoon character water backpacks.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Time out

Half way down Khao San Road, we escaped down a side alley and ordered pizza and mojitos at a bar. A large, pale American came up to us with a cigarette and lighter. “Can anyone help me light this?” he asked. “I think you need dry hands, or at least a dry thumb.” His hands looked terrible – the fingers were white and puffy like a bloated corpse. Then I looked at my own hands, which were suffering from a milder form of the same condition. At the next table was a Thai nationalist, a rare exception to the civility and friendliness of the day. “America will be destroyed! Britain will be destroyed!” he ranted at an unfortunate pair of tourists. “In Thailand we have a great and powerful King.” The next minute he threw up down the front of his shirt and passed out on the table.

We finally emerged at the far end of Khao San Road by Democracy Monument – the scene of recent political protests by ‘red shirt’ demonstrators, where we jumped in a tuk-tuk and headed home. On the way back, I emptied my water pistol by shooting at passengers in other tuk-tuks whenever we stopped at traffic lights.

Later in the week, I explored our neighbourhood on foot to experience the local side of Songkran. By this point, Joyce had had enough so I headed out on my own with my trusty plastic pistol by my side. There’s a 7-Eleven store on virtually every corner and these were invariably manned by a small mob with a sound system, water tank and hosepipe. In some cases these were family groups, in others teenagers. On one corner there was a group of transvestites in coloured bras and wigs, dancing to kitsch disco music. At another corner a small boy stole my gun, then wrapped his arms around my leg and tried to stop me leaving, to laughter from the adults.

The group nearest our flat were having a street party that had lulled until I arrived. When they saw me coming with my super-soaker, they turned their music back on and began dancing excitedly in the street. After exchanging good-natured waterpower, they poured me a whiskey and ice and refilled my gun. I practiced my conversational Thai and chatted for a while to a young man who spoke broken English. He indicated three girls in the street. “Ladies no man,” he said several times. I didn’t get what he meant at first but when the girls competed to take a photo with me, giggling loudly, the truth dawned. “Sorry, I have lady already,” I apologised.

Songkran was probably the best time I’ve had in Thailand so far. It was a chance to meet local Thais from different social backgrounds, to understand more about their culture and national character, and to take part in one of the biggest and best-natured street parties I’ve ever been to. Perhaps most of all, it was a chance to get in touch with my inner child. As a boy, I’d always dreamed of being able to shoot water pistols indiscriminately at passers-by but it’s not something you can get away with in Britain’s more formal culture. Here, everyone is a child for three days. Adult Thais even talk about themselves as such. On Thursday I turned up for work in a T-shirt and shorts, with dry clothes in my bag as a precaution. “I see you’re ready to play today,” my colleague Pear said with a smile.

Friendly locals pose for a photo outside a nearby 7-Eleven store.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

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