This is the traditional Thai New Year, and I wanted to be in the middle of it.
A week before the end of our Cambridge summer school course Assumption announced that the scheduled four-day weekend (in celebration of Songkran) would be extended to five-days. The national government had just passed a law forbidding businesses to force their employees to come to work on the Tuesday following Songkran, so that people could travel home and spend more time with their families. Great for them but this spelled boredom for me, as my only form of non-school related entertainment (the beach) has been repeatedly cancelled by thunderstorms. To make things worse many of the foreign teachers were talking about the upcoming weekend like it would be hell on earth, warning Mike and I not to go outside during the festivities.
On Thursday, the last day of teaching before Songkran, we were informed that our classes would be cut short so that the students could attend a concert. Venomous warnings were given to the children by the Thai teachers regarding the use of water guns while in the assembly hall, although I noticed many of the students smirking at their remarks. Before the concert I went to pick-up my class after their scheduled break, only to find that most of them were now carrying plastic bowls with baggies of chalk balls and rose water.
As the students filled into the assembly hall, you could almost feel the air becoming thick with tension. I ran back to the ban falang
(foreigners house) to get my camera, and upon returning found out that the band was composed entirely of blind musicians.
After a few songs a huge box was passed around in which the students placed money before bowing and taking their seats. The generosity encouraged by Buddhism could only keep them settled for so long though, and soon I began to notice the occasional child covered in white.
As it turns out the chalk and rose water were to be mixed together in their plastic tubs and then the paste was spread on the closest person. I have yet to get a straight answer, but I believe that the paste signifies the bad kharma (sins) built up during the previous year.
Being the responsible teacher that we are, Mike and I tried to encourage our students to sit and be respectful of the performers. Our students soon realized that we were planning on sticking around for the festivities (by this time all the other foreign teachers had cleared out).
Tentatively Song, a girl from our Starters B class, tried to dot my face with the chalk paste, and when I reacted by smearing her face and hair with goo they all realized that we were fair game.
Within minutes we were covered in white. Fearing that the ensuing water fight would destroy my camera we decided to head home and clean-up. The real deal would come tomorrow.
Songkran originated from the annual washing of the buddhas. In order to cleanse the statues, as well as their kharma, people would pour water over the countless images. Over time the once sacred and peaceful event has evolved into a national water fight, which can continue on for days and days. Larger businesses close so the employees may return home to their families while smaller ones lock their doors for fear of being taken over by groups of drunken Thais or (even worse) being damaged by flying ice balls. Thais pack the streets with countless pickup trucks filled to the brim with the young, old and huge buckets of water. Those brave (?) enough to ride motor bikes either wear a poncho or a water gun, as they make for easy targets while weaving through traffic. Groups of people unwilling or unable to cruise the streets dot the sides, usually congregating near the water trucks parked every few blocks. Vendors walk up and down the streets and weave through backed-up traffic selling extra bags of powdered chalk, which will be used to make a paste that is respectfully spread on the faces and arms of anyone who looks too clean. Music blasts from every corner, alcohol is abundant, water and chalk fly through the air, and everyone has on their biggest smiles.