We saw it in the in-flight magazine first. We were landing in Bangkok during the biggest party of the year and had no idea. It offset the knowledge that we were also landing during the hottest time of the year, when the terms used in the same magazine to describe the heat were “crushing” and “intense.” Our first full day would be about finding Songkran, the Thai New Year’s celebrations.
We read that it involved a lot of water, and that if someone approaches to put chalk on your face it is an honor and meant to ward off evil in the coming year. There was also something about tying string around the wrist. The chalk was to be left on “until it washes off” and the strings until they “fall off of their own accord.” The water is for abundance, as the festival is in the hot season when the rice paddies dry out. Sort of like our new year’s celebration wrapped in with the renewal aspect of Easter’s pre-Christian pagan festivals.
The Thai call it “sanuk.” From what I understand it means fun, but not just in thinking of recreation or parties. In integrating fun into your life, play and work. This Songkran Festival is definitely sanuk.
We had a bit of trouble understanding where the party was. We read a couple of blogs and found information on the tourism Thailand website. The one park they mentioned was not on our maps or guidebook. It did say something about the Royal Palace, so we had a vague idea of where we might start looking, but not a clear plan. Not unusual; we often don’t have a plan.After being re-directed by some tuk tuk drivers and sent on a shakedown cruise (more later) we made it to the park where the tourism department showcased the traditions of Songkran. There were displays of crafts and foods, and some people with stilts. Hannah tried her hand (or feet) at walking on the bamboo poles, while I opted for a more contemplative washing of a statue of the Buddha. Someone told us the party was further “that way,” so we wandered on, arming ourselves with two small splurter type of squirt guns.
Several blocks later, just as the sunlight faded into dusk, we found the streets blocked off to cars and filled with soaked crowds. We’d entered the biggest water fight we’ve ever seen. There were not many non-Asian faces, and we were happy to find that we were included just the same. I guess because we were wielding water guns, soaked, and covered in chalk. And, laughing. Hands came from crowds and smeared wet chalk paste on our faces, mostly on our cheeks, but Marlie, being young, ended up with her entire head covered. This, of course washes off regularly in the flying water, some of it chilled with ice, to be replaced by another hand passing by. There was never any string being tied around wrists that we saw.
Laughter is good for the soul, what an abundance to start the new year with! As night closed in, the crowd involved fewer small children and more teens through college age kids. We imagined our girls dragging their gap year friends here in another decade or so. It was all good natured, happy celebration. It took us about an hour or so to make the two blocks to the other end of the party, buying bottles of water along the way to refill, and having Hannah’s water gun become a casualty of the party. We’d not thought we could manage to be cold here, but we all started to feel chilled.
We ate dinner from the food carts at the far end of the closed streets, and Marlie used up the water in her gun before we left. She’d regret that. We hired a tuk tuk, one of those three wheeled motorcycle cabs, to take us back to the sky train. The tuk tuks are open, with just a little roof, a bench seat behind the driver. They are also a continuation of the party. People riding in the other tuk tuks and standing on the street side still had water and we continued to get sprayed and splashed. We arrived at the skytrain station dripping.
We laughed and shivered in the air conditioned train, opting to stand so as not to soak the seats for the next people. A Thai woman who was getting off handed me a ring of flowers, a gift of celebration and hope for the coming year, I think it is a bracelet. It smells of sweet flowers, the tropics, and sanuk.