Written by Punam Mohandas
Well, I’ve seen a few whacky festivals in my time, but Songkran in Bangkok beats ‘em all hollow. It’s the most amazingly simple way to have FUN ever invented!
Songkran, for the uninitiated, is the New Year festival in Thailand, celebrated with much splashing of water on friends, foes and random passers-by. The word is derived from the Sanskrit ‘samkrant’ and the festival itself is adapted from the Indian festival of Sankranti, although it is celebrated with water – but no colours – like another Indian festival, Holi. For farangs though, it is just one big street party.
This is my first full-fledged Songkran in Bangkok as last year, I decided to go home for these holidays – and I’ve been calling myself fifteen kinds of an ass the last few days. At the risk of repeating myself, I had absolutely no idea it would be this much fun!
The festival is spread out over four days, and the scene of action is different areas on designated days. For instance, the first day it’s always Silom Road, on the second day the focus shifts to Khaosarn Road, the third it’s Chatuchak, and so on.
An expat organisation have organised a lunch bash at Silom Road on the 13th April and, since I haven’t been a regular at their do’s I now do my bit of penance by volunteering for the badge duty for the 1.30 slot. I dress up in a nice spiffy white top, shorts and flipflops, and give myself a pat on the back for having the foresight to flag down a cab instead of a motorcycle. All is well until we near the Dusit Thani at which point a snail coulda made it faster. There are dozens of little shops set up outside the Dusit that have seemingly come up overnight, ALL selling food, water pistols and curiously-shaped pellets of white clay in beach buckets, that is mixed with water and applied to the face. I yell at my cabbie to stop coz there’s no way I’m gonna get thru this lot unless I hoof it.
Jeez, for an unguarded moment – in which I get pelted plenty with assorted water pistols aimed gleefully at my pristine unsuspecting state – I think I’m in the wrong place. Where is the familiar busy Silom Road?? This is some strange street, completely jam-packed with people, punctuated only by water trucks in the middle of the road; I didn’t know so many humans could conceivably (sic!) fit onto this street! Traffic is cordoned off and cops stand by, ever-vigilant but resigned to being face-painted by the crowd.
I start to hurry mindful of my ‘guard’ duty for the tags, which is a no-go; ‘hurry’ is a relative word on this day. I smile and try to squeeze my way through going “que me (excuse me, the Thais cannot pronounce the ‘x’ sound) na kha”, and I’m greeted equally sweetly as strangers insist on dabbing on the gooey stuff on my face, always polite, always smiling…aww, how can I resist this?! My white top is like some guiding beacon and I get squirted from both sides of the road.
Somehow, I make it gasping to the Molly Malone pub and thence to the Swiss Lodge hotel where the bash has been organised. Everyone is sitting around faffing and indulging in the vino and stuffing their faces – huh? This seems pretty boring and kinda ‘retired’ compared to all the revelry going on without. People are gaping at me as I hurtle into the room all sodden and with painted face, and I stand around fretting impatiently and complaining till they’re done with the eating.
At last! There is the hand washing ceremony, where water is supposed to be poured gently over the hands of elders. Since we don’t have any, Daniel and another person volunteer. Right after this, we are finally let at the guns stacked on the table! Suddenly, the sedate chow-champing adults have disappeared, and in their place is this excited bunch of kids – the most unlikely grown-ups are the ones grabbing the bazookas! I pick up a comparatively puny gun before that’s taken as well, and off we rush to fill up and aim.
Pretty soon everyone’s drenched, but this still seems like tame stuff to some of us, and so we daringly venture out onto Silom Road. I’m hanging on firmly to Joe’s T-shirt as we don’t wanna get lost in the crowd and – whoosh! Man! Those water trucks I saw earlier weren’t just standing kindly by so we could fill our plastic pistols. No siree – them babies have been hired expressly to unfurl these long hose pipes and just let loose with great gushes of water every time they think the crowd’s flagging! Silom has disappeared under one great chalky puddle and we’re all having the time of our lives aiming our pistols at random strangers. My little plastic toy gets a lot of sniggers – till I fill it with icy water and aim straight and sure. This seems such a simple and clean (!) way to enjoy oneself… there is no rowdyism or eve teasing, nobody gets hurt, indeed, the Thais duck their heads in that funny little half-apologetic gesture they have before they apply the chalky paste to my face. Fortunately, the gunk washes off easily and, in any case, is sprayed off one’s face almost before it gets on. The advantage is that one still knows whom one is talking to; in India, during the Holi festival, even the love of your life is unrecognisable from all the other walking rainbows!
There is no way we could get any wetter, so we head back to the Swiss Lodge. What looked like a respectable hotel a while ago has been overrun by hooligans. The group members have now graduated to pilfering ice cubes from the girls vainly trying to sell beer bottles on the street from their ice boxes. Suddenly, trucks turn onto our street and the Thais in it are chucking ice-cold water all over us in great pailfuls! I grab the water pipe we have and aim at one of the trucks and get an icy cascade in smiling retaliation.
Hmm, it’s hard work being a kid again. Although truthfully, I’ve never had such a merry and exuberant time without getting censured, even as a kid! Dipal, Jasmine and I are now ravenous, so we head down the soi for some street noodles and omelettes and, here’s the absolutely lovely thing about the Thais – they respect your ‘time out’ and the fact that you’re eating, so no one bothers you, even though this is quite a sight to be imagined… we’re sitting on plastic stools around rickety tin tables on the street, and the servers as well as the eaters are drenched through.
Okey, it’s time to go home, coz tomorrow is another day. I manage to hail a tuktuk and off we go. We are pelted on both sides …the roads are virtually empty of traffic, there are just people in hired trucks literally waiting to ‘shoot at sight’ or else residents of the sois who are standing by armed with buckets and hose pipes on the streets. We turn into my soi and mein gott – what happened here?! My neighbours seem to have gone bananas too! What was a quiet residential civilised neighbourhood now has people lined up with garden pipes either side of the road…the 7Eleven is a squelchy mess, and I duck home for yet another bath.
Come the morning and I’m up bright and early as I’m to meet Nicole, a Chicky Net member, and we’re braving Khaosarn Road today. I find a friendly cabbie to take me there – too friendly, it turns out as, without warning, he suddenly rolls down my window and I get a barrel-load of water in my face from a naughty Thai teenager! Oh well, mustn’t grumble, I’m stepping out with the sole intention of getting messed up.
This is an even bigger mess than yesterday and I’m late already. As I wade (literally!) through the throng, I’m hoping that Nicole hasn’t given up on me and is waiting outside McD’s as we arranged. Ah bless the girl, there she is, and once we have our ‘orphans united’ moment we rush off to buy water guns. The lady who sells them to us also provides free ammunition, i.e. ice-cold water….Khaosarn does not let go of a bargain with its bazookas, so water for the guns is being sold at 5baht!
Right, so now we’re armed and we aim indiscriminately as we keep walking, and whom do we bump into but some of the group members from yesterday. We form our own little water mafia and proceed on our merry way. I am longing for some of the yummy street pad thai Khaosarn is well known for, but it’s impossible today unless I want my noodles marinated in street H2O!
It’s crowded here and people are enjoying themselves but, if I had to compare, I’d say it was rougher here, and Silom Road was more fun besides being more controlled – as much as that mayhem could be called controlled. Around 4pm, Nicole and I decide to leave, which is easier said than done, as no cabbie wants to mess up the cab interiors with us in such a dripping state. I wait futilely for almost half an hour, while tuktuk drivers quote the outrageous price of 250baht –HA! Finally, just when I’ve dried off in the heat, I strike a deal with a motorcycle taxi of all things – it’s at your own peril to be on the streets of Bangkok on a two-wheeler during Songkran! We set off alright, much to the delight of the street side Cosa Nostra armed with their buckets and hoses…the joie de vivre is infectious… my bikey is ducking his head and weaving through jet streams, laughing at the mad farang riding pillion with him. I am actually having the time of my life, as random other bikers aim their bazookas at me and of course I strike back, till I run out of ammunition. I reach home looking more like a wet hen than anything else and thus does Songkran 2012 come to an end – oh wait, we’ve still gotta go pubbing tonite.
Punam Mohandas is a senior journalist with 18-years of experience. She has been the Editor of various publications such as Hotelier India (Mumbai) and The Big Project (Dubai) as also Coordinating Editor with the Times of India (New Delhi). Her weekly columns that appeared in leading English publications such as the Hindustan Times, the Times of India, The Statesman and the Delhi Midday, were hugely popular and ran for several years. She has lived and worked in both India as well as Dubai. Punam is currently Bangkok-based.
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.