This story is from 2008. It was written shortly after my maiden experience of Thailand’s Songkran Festival. I had never heard of the event previously. I did not know it was the traditional Thai New Year. I did not know how intense it was.
That holiday has just passed. This was my third experience of it. I had a very intense time and the spectrum of activities was expansive. This year I learned more about how dangerous it can be. Fortunately, very very very fortunately, I remained ambulatory enough to get in and out of the hospital.
Anyway …. that’s another story for another time.
These 3000 plus words go back to happier festivities.
Wheeeeooooo!!! Those were some streamly intense days.
Among other things, they presented two challenging decisions. I opted for no in both cases; was woefully mistaken with the first and in a pother regarding the second. Both choices were in the same context and fear lie behind, over and around them.
I don’t like to look for solace in the probable recurrence of an opportunity, but by half time it was a pleasant place to rest.
Should I carry my camera and record the events?
No! It was too big a risk.
Mid April highlights the end and renewing of Thailand’s lunar year with the Songkran Festival. This is a protracted experience spanning several days. I had heard it referred to as The Water Festival, but grasping the full measure of that was about as possible as holding an aquatic flow in my hands.
The indicated depth and degree of the holiday was first ascertained on my early morning visit to the internet café. It was closed; a very rare occurrence.
The next portent was an archway created by a hose in the hands of a ten-ish year old. Fortunately, my passport and other papers were deep inside a pocket of my backpack.
April was hot and getting hotter. I was ready for a cooling off.
What kinda bothered me was the oncoming traffic appeared less accepting; and with total disregard swerved into/used my lane in a vain attempt to stay dry. I thought that was rude in both directions. The kid was awash in the celebratory season and just wanted to share his joy. As for myself, I preferred not to change motor scooters mid stream.
As luck would have it, there were a couple of outposts up ahead. They appeared to be lower budget operations – no hoses. They had reserve tanks and small buckets for dousing.
I chose to slowly approach and stop for their blessings.
It turned out the second team wasn’t as frugal as I had guessed. They had ice water! The shock of which was quickly assuaged by a symphonic eruption of glee. (There may be no other sound more enlivening than happy children bubbling over with the laughter of delight. Ah!! The unfettered essence of joie de vive.)
By the time I made it home, I had a plan.
I wanted more!
I conspired with a neighbor on the main village road and enlisted Ming as my protégé, ally and cover.
The neighbor was very accommodating with permission to use their faucet; I brought the hose. It took some cajoling to free Ming from the constraints of her imperious overseer.
Well in all fairness Ming’s grandmother (Pee Sow – older sister, as Ponra calls her.); or (Auhnty M, as what it sounds like Ming calls her) has just cause. Ming is a precocious four year old and does have a scampering tendency for expansive socializing.
We set up our reservoir and had some dipping vessels. There was a small elementary aged posse down the street from which I took my lead. Even though they had a huge urn, while I only had an eight liter bucket, our splashing containers were about the same and they had great technique.
We were combined in our common purpose as people passed, however the lulls brought their little buckets my way. They would approach in a unified front impervious to the low pressure stream from my hose, barrage me and disband like an aerial burst of fireworks. All but one would escape the crashing wave of my bucket. They knew the water system and took advantage of how slowly reloading was for me. In addition, the peer pressure of their actions inspired Ming to use me for target practice, too.
After several hours and copious amounts of water we retired the field and took our respective naps.
As I dried and drifted off to sleep, I slowly sank into sadness. I would not be able to safely photograph the big bash the next day. I imagined 47 ways to wrap my camera, but nothing would be able to save it if an overzealous gang wanted to see if I could float in the canal.
The din created by a Kalasin contingency of Mum’s clan yanked me from that slumber. (Mum gave birth to eight daughters and three sons. They, their spouses, the grandchildren and their spouses and their children drop by from time to time; especially on holidays.)
Joining the gathering I was gladdened by the chance to observe a traditional ceremony and ultimately highly honored to be included.
I viewed the ritual from the near by bamboo chopping patio. The resident husband wife team of Comb and Auntie M, along with Ponra were busy chopping away. (Bamboo rarely rests!)
My watching revealed that the oldest approach first. One by one they bowed, placed a garland around Mum’s neck and knelt at her feet. (She was supported on her day bed by a daughter from Bangkok and another from Chang Mai.) There was a mumbled exchange, which I understand to have been blessings and well wishing for the future, as well as gratitude for sharing the same space and time. While they exchanged oblations the progeny dipped an ornate demitasse size cup into a matching larger bowl containing pungently fragranced water which was used to delicately wash Mum’s hands and feet. The conclusion was the tying of a string around her wrist. (A string with money knotted in it.)
The guests came over and shared the same blessings (sans garland, feet and money string.) with Comb, then his wife and then Ponra. Ming wanted to include me so she came over and put a garland around my neck; took it off, laughed; put it back, laughed; took it off …. That cue was finally picked up on and I got my hands washed. (Maybe you have to be over eighty to have the feet done too, mai roo.)
After everyone left I snuck around the ‘hood a bit and digitized a coupla good scenes.
That was a very full day!
As we walked into the next one I shoulda carried my camera, but my deeply seated distrust of excessively intoxicate people prompted me to leave it home.
We started our socializing at a very tame school fund raising brunch. It would have been safe there. I missed an opportunity to video three monks chanting.
Maybe next year!
It would NOT have survived the march through town!
Aside from that:
There is a lot of fund raising.
It seems to go on all year or at least be associated with every major holiday. It is a grass roots process that involves a portable electric band trailing behind a motley collection of percussionists. Those who are not off chopping bamboo or tending cattle are cajoled along the money trail by the rhythm. Some dance their way along; many stagger; spectators are drawn in. Roars and hoots punctuate the thrum of the guitars and primal drum beats.
Along the way an ever enlarging money bush is held high. (Partially bisected bamboo sticks become the flag poles for twenties and hundreds; and are then stuck in a holder.) If the drunks (usually out front) don’t wheedle some baht successfully, the women ply their influence.
These raucous processions weave their way to the recipient’s locale where there is generally a gargantuan sound system, perhaps a stage with karaoke and dancers, more beer, whiskey and food. (A popular brand of Thai whiskey is called SangSom.)
So, that’s what I thought we were doing; joining the parade. But we didn’t. We just went to the school, sat at a table in front of a fan which recycled the dust from the adjacent soccer game into my eyes; and ate. Well, I didn’t eat. I haven’t broken down my elitist attitude about gritty fish heads. I did hit the Coke pretty hard. I don’t think it’s the Real Thing over here, no buzz.
The aforementioned melee crashed onto the soccer field and the dancers changed the wind direction. The spectacle off everyone’s face smeared with whitewash puzzled me. One frenetic teacher dashed from table to table applying said formula to the rest of us. It smelled ok and didn’t burn. “When in Rome…”
I was told that once the monks had finished their rice another parade would go back around to make more bushes. We had been invited to join a different neighborhood party, so we passed.
Off we went at the appointed hour.
We got there right when we were told to be there. Silly punctual me! Wayyyyyyyy too early!!
I fell back in a nice big chair and waxed remorsefully about those last three glasses of Coke; grateful for the respite. After the third song, the neighborhood PA tower took a break and even the four dogs at my feet ceased yapping and adjoined my relaxing.
A few Thai minutes later, our hostess arrived, greeted us warmly and bestowed upon each of us a fancy shirt. I had been told that flowery tropical attire was requisite; then I learned each village is color coded. I was delighted since we had absorbed several waves on the ride over; it was nice have a dry shirt. Also, my old shirt would dry while waiting for my return from the next adventure.
We put putted to the edge of a city street were there was a large bouquet of similar shirts. The food smelled good and I assumed this was going to be our launching point. Wrong! This was to be our final destination.
As soon as the crew unloaded the sound system, a bunch of us climbed into the pickup truck. I grabbed a spot on the roll bar and Ponra sat near by on a wheel cover. She suggested I sit, but I wanted to soak in the entire ambiance.
While perusing the venue she came into view. I couldn’t help wonder what she did to her shirt to achieve such a risqué presentation; she obviously new a thing or two about knots. (Thai knots!??) I new the instant my glance bumped into her she was trouble.
Like a sheet or three sheets in the wind she gusted towards the tail gate; one hand flailing an open pint. (Well ya know, the metric equivalent.) The probability of problems was reinforced by the number of people it took to get her into the truck bed. (Pick up that line Groucho wherever you are.)
That dance reminded me of many other dancers from the cab driving days. The partially consumed whiskey bottle prompted a nostalgic moment reliving an episode with a special passenger. Unfortunately, that memory stimulated a small smile. A smile that evaporated the instant I acknowledged the sharp pain coming from my big toe. My smile didn’t go far, it moved over to Ponra’s face. Well, to her eyes; where it was instantly transformed into an unmistakable sternness.
That scantily clad person, whom I renamed “Poo Jing ba” (Crazy Woman), wedged herself right up next to me and started slurring English. I was scheming an escape, but then the truck lurched forward and she collapsed backwards; fortuitously, into the arms of a man about seventy five who seemed as drunk as she was; in an unreserved sorta way. She was held firmly; and he grabbed her bottle too. That anchored her for the rest of the ride.
Now is a good time to share a historical opinion of an old friend:
“When you get to Thailand, you will be treated like a rock star!”
Yes, Thailand is one of a few remaining places on earth where white people are adored – particularly white American men. As we meandered to I didn’t have the vaguest idea where, I could hear the word “Farang!” repeat and echo ahead insuring that all buckets were at the ready.
Speaking of history! That would be all I had to judge the water dosing ritual by. On several past occasions at the Wat, the close of services precipitated a congregational sprinkling by a monk. It appears to be a Buddhist blessing.
As we progressed through the gauntlet, I got the impression it was also good luck or a great honor or especially extra exciting to get a Farang.
And get me they did!!
Above my you can’t miss me pink shirt, my head was somewhat shielded by an old obnoxiously blue Sitka Sombrero; my eyes by aviator sun glasses. None the less, I had to duck from time to time if I was marked by the crew of an approaching pickup. The force of a flung gallon (or several liters) can be rather jarring when amplified by the combined speeds passing vehicles, but ya don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. (Hey! Wait a sec; that is rocket science!)
Once we parked the pickup, I realized we were going to be part of a major parade. The staging area captured several city blocks. Fittingly for the Water Festival, there were many floats. Simple floats not the usual elaborate floral decorations; just a splattering of color and humble canopy covered thrones. The crown jewels of each motorized barge were bodacious beautiful woman in glamorous traditional silk Sarongs; each with a life size version of a cocktail umbrella.
One might think the umbrellas were an attempt to keep the princesses dry. Nay! They were to shield them from the sun. (Pale is the aesthetic pinnacle of loveliness in Thailand – in the local language “cow”, as in Michael Jackson was cow mak mak)
It is very hard, virtually impossible, for me to hear through background or surrounding sound. All conversations are canceled. In this blaring festive environment I was instantly deaf, which didn’t matter because I never know what anyone says anyhow. Happily, pantomime is well suited to pandemonium.
I noticed a natural selection which delineated the drunks from the social drinkers and abstainers.
• The drunks huddled in the middle of the road fervidly releasing their animas. One could say their gyrations were suggestive. Uh! Uh! NO!! They were implicit demonstrations of personal prowess.
• The social drinkers flitted from water barrel to water barrel in a committed attempt to fill the sky with rain; perhaps hoping to cool down the hard core.
• The non drinkers found a nice spot in the shade, gawked and waited for the launch of the cavalcade.
I was gawking until I was given a bucket. Heh! Heh! Heh! Heh!
Mostly I sparred with the kids, but also targeted anyone who looked serious or young women that giggled. Ponra eventually took my bucket away. She said direct blasts to the face were inappropriate. She was even against a strong shot to the chest which would splash upward achieving the same blinded breathless effect.
It was at that time that she coached me on the particulars.
From days of old, three parts have come down: First: Get the targets attention and in an almost apologetic manner make them aware you will be soaking them. Next: Once acknowledgement is accomplished, meekly approach and apply a few hands full before dumping the whole bucket. The cupped palm splashing is the blessing. Step 3 has two aspects. A co-conspirator very politely comes forward slightly crouched with palms open and respectfully applies scented oil to the cheeks. The next helper would approach in a similar manner and apply powder. Or visa versa. The powder and scent are a form of apology for the excessive final pour.
However, the passage of time, interpretations of various generations and perhaps some Western influence has opened a Pandora’s Box of techniques.
After Ponra took my toy away, I managed to get hold of a small plastic cup. It fit well into my shirt pocket. Usually everyone who got me filled the cup too. I found the horizontal swath gesture to be very good at getting the gangs, but still used the straight shot for individuals.
It wasn’t long before I was supplied with another bucket.
The water blessing flows both ways; blessed are the soaked, as are the soakers.
Many folks would gingerly approach and add water to my pail then wait for a cupful. I found the shoulder to shoulder sharing of a cascade into mutual napes very intimate and the powder applying extremely sensual. The difference between unabashed and suspended reservations was not lost in translation.
It was wonderful to be so approachable; not a space I historically inhabited often. Of course, receiving the adulation from throngs of comely young woman had to be balanced with welcoming young and middle aged men or Ponra might prompt me to limp along with broken toes. The equalizing fulcrum of that balance was the transvestite coalition; what an entertaining flock they were!
And remember Poo Jing ba? I was surprised she lasted as long as she did. Paramedics did dash in a couple of times to carry out three Energizer Bunnies, but she kept on boogying. Well, she did fall once in a while or tip over when she would jump on a man foolish enough to encroach on her bubble. At those times I would slide up next to a scrumptious teen and say, “Muhng!! (Watch) Cham Dai! (Remember) Mai duem mak mak! (Don’t drink too much.)”; and then pour a bit down their back and have my face freshened.
I was groped by too many middle aged woman to count and propositioned by several possible pros.
My favorite person of the whole parade dashed at me just near the end. She might have been three; she was barely knee high. She scurried up from behind; coming off the sidelines into the torrent. There was a repetitious cascade of squeaky sounds coming from her mouth. I interpreted them in the context of her doll sized two piece suite and hit her at diaphragm level with the dregs of my container.
She let out a satiated scream and all who witnessed cheered. I threw my bucket to the crowd, raised my arms, spread the first two fingers of both hands and followed my nose to that food I had smelt earlier.
Maybe I will rent a fire truck next year!
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