Monthly Archives: May 2009

SONGKRAN!

Since my return, folks have asked me many dime-a-dozen questions.  If someone asked, “How was Asia?”  I say, “Great, how was America?”  Snide, I know, but that is what you get if you ask a stupid question.

A not so stupid question, though similarly generic, is “Where was your favorite place?”  When I stop to think about it, it is really a difficult question as all the places were so different it feels difficult to compare them.  Thing is, I usually don’t even let my interrogator finish his question before I answer with a definitive, “Thailand!”  This doesn’t surprise many people, as most folks who go to Thailand return enchanted by the beauty and diversity of the landscape and its people.  But when I say Thailand, I am really thinking primarily of an event that many travelers do not get to see, and this is Songkran: the greatest holiday ever.

Songkran madness, by Cory Goodwin

Songkran is the Thai New Year celebration which takes place in the middle of April, and is one of the most anticipated events of the year.  Why is this?  Well, because it is a three day long, nation-wide water fight, of course!  All over Thailand, every citizen and many a visitor gear up for this wet extravaganza, and on the first day of Songkran, and sometimes a day or two before, join the masses in the streets and throw water in every direction with the greatest euphoria I have ever seen in a crowd so large.  Young and old join together in smiling glee as they joyously dump water on each other’s heads, squirt each other with hoses and water guns, or bless each other with clay and a happy “Sawateekah!”  The streets fill with happy people on foot, in tuk tuks and in pick-up trucks, playing music and spreading cheer.  Everywhere you look people are laughing and squealing regardless of whether they are six or sixty.  Everyone greets each other with widespread kindness and an air of pure fun.  Picture this:  A wide city street which would normally be full of disgruntled drivers and shopkeepers jam-packed with happy, drenched people dancing, laughing, and engaging in the grandest display of the best form of fun for the middle of the Bangkok summer.  The euphoria is contagious.

Songkran Maddness, by Cory Goodwin

Songkran Maddness, by Cory Goodwin

When told about Songkran from a fellow American traveler, it sounded like a terrifying time.  He made it seem like a bunch of drunk people would hide around corners waiting for you to come into view and they would dump water on you no matter what kind of valuables you were carrying.  He made is sound like dangerous chaos, and warned us to try to stay away from Bangkok during the holiday.  When we got to Bangkok, however, our missionary hosts couldn’t wait for Songkran to start.  At the very mention of Songkran, they all transformed completely into little kids at a water park.  They had already bought their water guns, which were actually plastic backpacks with hoses connected to squirting hand pumps.  They even began to “play water” a day ahead of time, which made Thais laugh at them for their lack of patience.

Prepared

Prepared

On the first day of Songkran, the missionaries pulled us into the back of their neighbors’ pick-up truck which was already loaded with two huge barrels of water, three enormous bags of dried clay chunks, and a bunch of Thai children armed with water guns shaped like elephants and Winnie the Pooh. Off we went down the road for a slow but intense ride, doing drive-by water playing and getting quite wet ourselves.  Every once in a while, some other truck load of people or even just kids on the street would have buckets and cups full of ice water and would throw that on our group, a move which would draw out an inevitable chorus of squeals.  Perhaps I should state a disclaimer:  it is a million bajillion degrees in Bangkok—the ice water felt fantastic.  Because it is so hot, no one cares about getting wet.  In fact, a water fight is one of the best activities for a hot day, and no one should ever say that he is too old for something like that.  I would put money on the power of Songkran (combined with the heat of Bangkok) to transform even the crabbiest dry person to a watery Rambo.

A funny observation of the day was that, well, we were white.  Of course we knew this already, but our whiteness, or I suppose I should say Western looks, made us stand out amidst this sea of racially similar people.  The Thais saw us coming a ways off and ran up to our truck to dump water on us or to bless our faces with the clay.  We were celebrities.  As Brandon, one of the missionaries, said, “People look at me like I’m a glowing white god.”  They seemed thrilled to have us celebrating with them, or at least they found it really amusing to see us having such a good time during their holiday.  You see, our white skin, (though I maintain my tan was far along by that point and I was actually quite brown) is a coveted possession in Asia.  People kept telling us how beautiful we were because of our Western faces.  They wanted to touch us, and Songkran gave them an opportunity.  Yes, this was weird, but a fascinating sociological observation.

On the second day of Songkran, (I keep feeling the urge to put new words to the Twelve Days of Christmas when I say that), we didn’t head out into the fray, but instead remained in the back streets where the tiny children were waiting for someone to squirt.  We couldn’t have been more pleased to indulge them.  When they saw us big kids coming, their faces lit up and they ran towards us screeching with pleasure and spilling their cups of water as they ran.  There’s nothing like the joy of the little kid who gets to squirt the big kid.  It was pretty fun to be the big kid, too, because I got to see all of these little children so happy to play water.  The most amazing thing about this playing was that it needed no language.  None of these kids spoke any English, and I think I know a total of three words in Thai.  It didn’t matter, though, because playing water on a hot day is a universally accepted pleasure and requires no explanation.  As a traveler, I love to reflect on such moments that require no language.  You don’t need a special cultural lens to interpret why people enjoy Songkran.  Surely it would be more surprising to find someone who didn’t like playing water.  This kind of fun thrills human kind, and what a blessing it is!  While playing water with the little kids, I was stunned that we didn’t need to know each other’s names, we didn’t need to speak at all.  They were even perfectly courteous:  all play would stop when someone needed to refill their gun.  Some of the kids even offered to do it for me and would quit squirting me as it was being done!  Who would of have thought that a water fight would lead to such a gracious cross cultural exchange!

I brought home my elephant shaped gun.  I couldn’t bare parting with it.  I laugh to think what the security guards at the airport thought when they saw it go through the x-ray machine.  I feel so blessed to have experienced that holiday.

“All is fair in love and Songkran.”  –Jill

Songkran comrades, courtesy of Cory Goodwin

Songkran comrades, courtesy of Cory Goodwin

If you would like to see a video of Songkran, among many other awesome Thai adventures, please visit Cory Goodwin’s blog.

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Drawing Conclusions…

Back in the USA.  It feels nice.  I don’t know why I feel like making rice.

paradiso

paradiso

I’ve been home for over a week now, and I feel pressed to write my conclusions before my short trip to Asia gets too far in the past.  I knew while traveling that the ratio of stimuli to reflection time was way too much to way too little.  The lessons learned from the trip would come out gradually after I came home.  I was right.  The conclusions started flowing as though a dam burst and now I have to clean up the aftermath.  Showing the photos to folks helps me pull together conclusions about the trip, conclusions both for the trip as a whole and for the individual places I visited.  If any of you venture to South East Asia, I hope these thoughts can serve you as advice for how best to plan.

Six weeks is simultaneously too short and too long to do the trip we did.  On the one hand, we only got a taste of South East Asia.  We dipped our toes, we didn’t dunk.  There are so many more activties, so many more places to go.  We spent a month in Thailand and didn’t even skim the surface of all there is to do there, whether as a tourist on vacation or as a traveler trying to find the real Thailand.  There are hundreds of beaches in Thailand, and we only saw three.  Tales from Chiang Mai and the northern mountains came from every other starry-eyed traveler, but we were unable to follow their advice and go up there because of time constraints.  In this sense, the trip felt too short.  On the other hand, though, we covered an enormous distance for six weeks, which, though impressive in retrospect, felt like a whirlwind at the time.  We moved every few days, and rarely got a chance to meet many people, observe what normal life is like for residents, and really get to enjoy the surrounding areas.  Instead we came to deserve our backpacker’s status, and kept moving, despite our growing exhaustion.  It gets hard, moving to new places every few days without a break.  It wears you down.  Given this feeling, six weeks felt like too long. Considering these conflicting predicaments, we either should have stayed longer to cover that distance, or just picked one country to tackle in our six weeks.  In the future, I think the rest of South East Asia could be explored in three-week stints.  It wouldn’t disrupt life at home too much, and it would allow you sufficient time to do an equal amount of resting an exploration.

This trip to Asia took me by surprise in the sense that it was unlike everywhere else I’ve travelled, places I could figure out my itinerary as I went along without too much difficulty.  Looking back, we should have made more decisions ahead of time, given how short the trip was for the distance.  My travelling buddies and I figured we would just ask for advice on what activties to pick once we got there.  The Lonely Planet overwhelmed us with the number of cool activities it listed, everything from kayaking Halong Bay to Rock Climbing in Krabi to riding elephants in Chiang Mai to boating through the floating markets of Bangkok. They all sounded good.  We had no clue how to organize this trip.  We were pretty proud of ourselves when we finally decided to look at a map of Southeast Asia and draw a circle through it and call that an intinerary.  (Incidentally, it turned out that we weren’t too far off with this crude method, as most of the travellers we met had a very similar circle in mind.)  Needless to say, we weren’t even close to completing this circle in six weeks.  Part of this, however, was not our fault.  What shocked me in particular was how difficult it was to get advice, particularly from people in the tourist industry.  In most of the places we visited, you couldn’t trust the locals for advice.  You never knew if they recommended you to a legitimately good place, or just some place where their friends worked, or some place where they would get commission.  I can’t tell you how many taxis and tuk tuks we took that wanted to take us to places we didn’t request.  In Cambodia, our tuk tuk driver took us to three different guesthouses before he finally, and begrudgingly, took us to the hostel we originally requested.  In Vietnam, the streets of the old quarter are checkered with tourist agencies booking tours that all looked exactly the same on paper and we couldn’t for the life of us figure out how they different apart from price.  It turned out they didn’t differ at all because the all were the same tour.  Everyone on our boat had booked the tour at a different place and at different prices, a fact that made us all realize it was a giant conspiracy.  This kind of thing happened so frequently we felt the need to be constantly on our guard, even when people were acting genuinely kind.  I always felt terrible whenever we came across a person who was not trying to take advantage of us, because we had to address them at a disinterested distance, and sometimes accidentally came across as downright rude.  I hated this, but it was a necessary caution.  Of course, the overall effect of the inability to trust people was that a lot of our travel time got sucked into logistics and buses that took too long.  In spots, we were only able to figure out where we were because, by the Grace of God, there were other, more knowledgeable Westerners there who could point us in the right direction.  Lesson learned: Read more before hand.  Oh, and get better maps.

Another lesson learned, albeit, a happier one, was to relax.  We were so nervous before this trip, nervous about disease and things like abduction into the sex trade.  Granted, there are legitimate concerns to take into account and have in your mind as you travel through these places.  Then again, it is rare in life to find places where you can be completely at ease.  Thailand may have riots on occasion, but the South Side of Chicago is far more dangerous on a regular basis.  I realize, of course, that this reasoning probably doesn’t soothe my grandmother much, but it nonetheless puts things into perspective.  On the South Side, don’t walk alone at the dead of night, or else you might get mugged.  Easy to remember.  In Thailand, if you see someone wearing a red or yellow shirt, walk the other way.  Rules for common sense living exist everywhere, and it doesn’t pay to worry excessively just because the rules differ slightly from place to place.  Most of the time we were surrounded by people, Westerners included.  In such populated areas the biggest risk we faced was being financially ripped off, which did happen but never for large amounts. Now, if we had decided to venture into the heart of impoverished Phnom Phen for an adrenaline rush, I wouldn’t have this lax attitude.  But we’re not dumb.  To a certain extent, and without applying this assurance to liberally, I think we can rely on our streetsmarts most of the time without letting anxiety get in the way of enjoying such beautiful places.

Many thoughts to come.  Stay tuned.

Sunset Koh Phi Phi

Sunset Koh Phi Phi

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