The Buddha really is taking a bath this time

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
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Trip End Jun 18, 2011


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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

As I explained in the previous blog entry, Thailand is currently getting ready to celebrate their new year: the festivities are called Songkran and involve a 3 day national holiday for everyone. The place we are currently living in is the northern city of Chiang Mai… which just so happens to be the biggest place in Thailand to celebrate Songkran! Traditionally Songkran involved a huge spring clean of everyone's houses and temples which includes washing all the statues of Buddha in holy water. In order to cleanse the Buddha statues from the local temples, the monks remove the statues and parade them through the town center during which people pour holy water over the statues. Now we have been in Thailand for almost two months and if there is one thing we have learnt about Thai people it is that they are extremely playful and love having fun, so it is no surprise that overtime this parade has turned into a giant nation-wide water fight. From these beginnings Songkran has now become one of Thailands biggest and most loved festivals and we were really looking forward to joining in.

Songkran doesn’t officially start until the 13th when all hell breaks loose and people just go crazy, however for the last few days we have seen people walking around with water pistols and there have been a few kids who have squirted us a little: the sense of anticipation was growing and people were starting to get quite antsy for the coming party. Every now and then you would see someone walking down the street soaked to the skin and you wondered how they had got so wet when the festival hadn’t even started yet. Chiang Mai is surrounded by a huge moat which has become the focal point for the water fight: people will line the street along the moat with buckets and throw bucket after bucket of water at each other and the passing traffic. Through the middle of the city runs a long highstreet which is lined with food stalls, this is also the street along which the Buddha parade runs. Yesterday we had to move accommodation and move closer to the center of town and we thought that because the festival hadn’t officially started yet we should be able to get from one guesthouse to another without getting too wet: oh how wrong we were! We jumped in the back of a tuk-tuk, covered our bags and belongings with waterproof bags and closed the windows: as we drove along a few people threw buckets of water at the tuk-tuk which just splashed the windows. As we got closer to the moat and town center more and more people were spraying the tuk-tuk with water but we stayed dry inside. The crowds of people outside were getting crazier and crazier and as we turned a corner the driver of the tuk-tuk rolled up his windows and put his hood up: considering that he was actually safe inside the drivers cab and we thought there was no way of him getting wet, this didn’t feel us with confidence. A few seconds later we realized that we had turned onto the road which runs next to the moat and before we could even say a word a bunch of people ran up to the back of our tuk-tuk and hurled four buckets of water inside! Within ten seconds of being on the moat-road we were soaked to the skin, our backpacks were dripping, all our belongings were drenched and the back of the tuk-tuk was flooded. The festival didn’t even start until the following day and already we were soaked. I have never seen such madness in all my life,  grown adults were shooting each other with water cannons, people were getting side-swiped on their mopeds by buckets of water and hosepipes. By the time we got to our new guesthouse we were drenched to the skin.

The following day was the official start of Songkran and the Buddha statue parade was due to start at about 2pm. We dressed in our soggy clothes from the previous day and headed out to the main highstreet, on the way we bought ourselves a big bucket and filled it from one of the huge vats of water which line the street. Once we had our bucket it took Tom all of ten seconds before he got into a water-fight with the local kids: he threw his single bucket at them and they bombarded him with half a dozen dustbins full of water and ice-cubes. Pretty soon the kids started to ease off and we thought we had got through the worst of it, when all of a sudden their 80 year old granny came hobbling out into the street with a hosepipe and practically pinned Tom against the wall with it. I have never seen a bunch of kids laugh so hard in my life and I was worried that granny’s false teeth might fall out because she was in hysterics too. When someone throws water at you during Songkran you CANNOT get upset or angry with them: it is meant as a blessing and conveys the persons best wishes to you for the coming year. In all honesty most Thai people don’t throw buckets of water at you, they will approach you slowly and then gently pour a cup of water over your shoulder, back or head and then smile and wai at you (bowing with hands in a prayer shape on your chest, as a sign of best wishes). It is normally the Thai teenagers and foreiegners how go crazy during Songkran and chuck buckets of water over your head… so it was quite funny to see Tom getting soaked by an elderly Thai lady!

 Once we had escaped from granny we made our way to the parade: all the Buddha statues from the local temples were paraded along the 2 kilometer highstreet by representatives of their temple. When a Buddha statue came along people would throw water at it and then rush to the bottom of the parade float to collect any dripping water: once the water has touched the statue it is considered holy, so people would try and collect as much of it as possible and then pour it over their family’s heads as a blessing. As well as the Buddha’s there were also dance troupes, musicians and people carrying banners or other objects from the temples that they wanted to be cleansed. At one stage we heard some very loud trumpet music and suddenly we saw a group of men escorting a donkey through the parade. The donkey was dressed in a lavish ornamental suit and on its back was sitting a teenage boy dressed in ceremonial clothes: he had a long golden robe, a towering golden spire on top of his head, full ceremonial make-up and a pair of sunglasses on. Both him and the donkey were soaked to the skin. The boy was shivering and getting bashed about all over the place because the donkey was going ape and despite the men trying to control it, the donkey was kicking and bucking all the way down the street. People from the crowd were going up to it and putting soggy money under its bridle and pouring water over its head. The trumpets were deafening and I just remember looking at the donkey and boy coming down the street and telling myself that this is one those moments when you really realize how far away from home you are.

The parade lasted for about 4 hours, we stayed until about 5pm by which time it was starting to get a bit chilly and we were drenched and shivery so we headed back to our accommodation. On the way we got into yet another water-fight with some guys who were using a water fountain at a hotel as their ammunition: after doing a double take we realized that we were fighting against the three young guys who we had met during our trip to the Bridge Over the River Kwai last month! We hardly recognized them because they had all got 'crazy’ new backpacker haircuts, including some bleached blonde dreadlocks, but once we realized it was them we had a fun time catching up with them and throwing water at the people passing by. Before we arrived in Chiang Mai many people had told us about the Songkran festival and tried to warn us of how crazy it is, but I have got to admit that no amount of advice could have prepared me for it. Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai is one of my most memorable experiences of the trip so far, it was an incredible festival and one which I will never, ever, forget. For the first time in quite a while, I am lost for words!




* Our camera would have got trashed in less than a minute if we had taken it out, so here are some photos of Songkran 2011 Chiang Mai, from the internet to give you an idea of what it was like.
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