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