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The Songkran water festival wouldn’t exactly fly back in DC.

Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

You see … it used to be that I had a fairly stable nonprofit desk job in Washington, DC, pumping out random columns for Ducts about all the workings within the beltway. Well … that was last year.

Now I have this constantly on-the-go teaching job in Thailand, pumping out random columns for Ducts about all the workings within the Land of Smiles.

Why? Well … I made the decision last fall that I had to get away from the soulless bureaucracies of DC and back to Asia and/or specifically Thailand, where I had spent some time as a Peace Corps volunteer. Along came GlobalQuest, a semester-long educational program based in Thailand, and my ticket was effectively punched. For eight months out of this year, I will travel throughout Thailand with two groups of anywhere up to 12 high school seniors and two other teachers, helping to uncover the mysteries of Southeast Asia (a.k.a. Thailand and Laos).

So… back to Songkran.

April is the hottest month in Thailand (imagine DC in August), and the three days from April 13-15th are considered a national holiday and the traditional Thai New Year. Songkran apparently signifies the moment in which the sun leaves Pisces to be in Aries, thus starting another zodiacal cycle.

I read that in a book.

One hundred years ago, this meant that you would go to the local temple, bless your elders by pouring water gently over their hands, and enjoy a relaxing day with family. If you really wanted to celebrate the New Year, you could also let an animal go free (releasing a bird from a cage into the sky or a fish from a fish tank into the local waters) in order to set in motion a whole round of good Karma. You are setting something free, and opening a new life for the creature. In the pantheon of good merit-making, it’s one of the big things you can do.

Things have gotten a bit wilder in today’s Thailand … I’ve seen three Songkran holidays here (two as a volunteer and now one as a post-volunteer). You still can go to the temple, you can still bless your elders, still enjoy a relaxing day with your family (or friends), and, if you’re feeling low on Karma, still release wildlife. It’s the "pouring water over people to bless them" part that’s morphed just a bit. Now it’s "feel free to engage in an all-out waterfight for five days."

The Thais do this part extremely well. So much so that you can count on being soaked for at least five days straight during this period in April if you so much as take one step out of your bungalow/guest house/hotel. Implements that are legal include hoses, pails, 55-gallon drums filled with water (usually in the back of trucks), super soakers, water guns, and all kinds of colored powder. Actually, there’s very little that’s illegal.

Songkran is a bit different from the other widely known Thai holiday, Loy Krathong, which is held during the first full moon in November. Loy Krathong involves going to the local river, pond, lake, and releasing a small floating candle out into the water. It’s a very gentle, thoughtful holiday. Comparing Loy Krathong to Songkran is a bit like comparing an all-night kegger at Delta House to tea and scones at the British Council.

In 1995, I spent Songkran on Ko Lanta Island in southern Thailand, and saw one day of furious water fighting (when some other tourists came over and threw water at me). In 1996, I traveled up north to Mae Hong Son (on the border with Burma), and got a real taste of the holiday: three or four days of solid water fighting.

This year, our group traveled into the north, into Chiang Mai, for almost the whole month of April, and got more of the "real deal." Chiang Mai is the biggest city in the north and if you truly, truly, truly want to celebrate Songkran in Thailand, Chiang Mai is the place to be -- it’s a bit like traveling to New York’s Times Square for New Year’s Eve in the U.S. It is the only time of the year when Bangkok becomes a ghost town, because everybody has returned to the countryside to be with their families. Or Chiang Mai.

Now, in order to provide the average ducts reader with a comprehensive overview of the holiday, I present the following day-by-day breakdown of 2001 Songkran:

April 11th - The first taste of this year’s Songkran comes two days before the "official" holiday, on April 11th, when I walk along the road to get my afternoon coffee at a local café. Some enterprising youths with two fifty-five gallon drums of water, in the back of a pickup truck, drive by and throw several pails of water on me. Immediately after, some guy with a hose nails me, as he yells "farang, farang (foreigner)." Let the games begin. I sneak back to the guest house using a back road.

April 12th - I have a day off from teaching and wander into town to get some things done. On the way, I get hit with several hoses, a super-soaker, and a half-dozen mobile water trucks (with the 55-gallon drums). Luckily, I have planned ahead and have wrapped everything vital with plastic bags. I have also broken out the swimsuit and one of my least favorite t-shirts. My lunchtime hamburger takes a little longer than usual, as most of the staff are out throwing water at people.

I also notice that the ice trucks are beginning to make their rounds. For a few Baht, you can throw a chunk of ice the size of the Titanic into your 55-gallon water drum, and get the water down to a reasonable 0 degrees Celsius (for that critical edge over the lukewarm water throwers). I buy a super soaker on the way to the aforementioned hamburger (if you can’t beat them, join them), and borrow from people’s 55-gallon drums as they dump pails of water on me. It’s all very cathartic. As I make my way back to the guesthouse, I run into all kinds of public drunkenness. They are among the most vocal and exuberant of the water throwers.

At night, the group goes to see an international drum festival and dancers. The nights are the only time people don’t throw water. The kids are inside, and the drunken singing water throwers have passed out by then. The drummers are excellent — smaller Thai versions of Taiko drummers full of energy and precision; I even get to see some of the Miss Songkran 2001 pageant.

April 13th — Ahhhh, the first true day of Songkran. Time to get really serious with the water throwing. The group heads out to the main road in Chiang Mai, where everybody and their brother has lined up, and the 55-gallon barrel water trucks are crawling through. It takes about an hour to make our way along to the main plaza, and it’s basically like walking through a car wash. The water throwing techniques range from the gentle touch of the old women (who deposit a tiny bit of water on you as they say Happy New Year) to the slurring sots who peg your earhole with a full blast of ice cold water from their super soakers.

We make it through just in time to see the parade of Buddhist floats through Thae Phae Gate. (Chiang Mai is a square, walled city, with four main gates in each direction. Thae Phae is located on the east side of the city). Thai police have to move several rowdies down from above the gate before this — it’s not good to have one’s feet higher than the Buddha image.

April 14th — I opt out of a return trip into Chiang Mai (the students have gone to see sand castles at one of the temples -- the theory being that you have carried sand away in your shoes all year and should take it back to the temple and make something beautiful out of it). Instead, I concentrate on avoiding the 10-year-old (armed with my super soaker) who is running rampant on the bungalow grounds. It seems I’ve left my super soaker outside my door, and he’s taken full advantage of it with our van driver. Eventually, we join forces, and head out to the front gate, where we splash any and all who come by, especially the motorcycle drivers and the open-air Tuk-Tuk three-wheeled motorcycle taxis. People are becoming quite excellent in their water throwing techniques … the fine honed style after several days of practice … they can get large amounts of water through the smallest cracks in car windows, and cover large distances.

At night, one of the teachers and I head into the main Northern Thai festival in the city (which has set up just outside Thae Phae Gate). Unfortunately, I miss the Thai band Loso’s performance. I love the band Loso … but as I walk through the market, I see one police officer giving directions home to some drunken foreigner on a motorcycle, and a lanky, bespectacled Chiang Maier in full cowboy outfit singing a mix of Willie Nelson’s "On the Road Again" and Thai ballads. Who needs Loso when you have this entertainment?

April 15th — The final official day of the Thai New Year. I go to one of the main temples in town to gain merit for the New Year. I pick a fortune while I’m there, and it contains the following line in Thai — "you will fail at everything you do." So much for good thoughts during the New Year. I go back to the guesthouse and join some students at the gate. We have a few last throws at passing trucks and then call it quits in the late afternoon. Some of the trucks stop to give us a really good soaking in return. I’m beginning to feel a little tickle in the back of my throat towards the evening. Where has all that water been coming from? Who knows? Rivers, local lakes, sewer systems … it’s always kind of hard to tell and best not to really think about it … if someone wanted to spread the plague, Songkran would be an ideal way to do it … mmmmm … bacteria-y. Must have been the bad fortune reading. That’s why I’m sick.

April 16th — Songkran is over and Chiang Mai begrudgingly goes back to work. Shops begin opening all along the street. In some ways, the city has been a ghost town, as people have roamed the streets with water throwing paraphernalia. As I walk out in the morning, one last truck full of students tries to get me (they’re probably on their way back to Bangkok), but they miss with their water throws. They are the last shots of the holiday. The games are over.

Later in the day, I catch a front-page article in the Bangkok Post newspaper. Close to 700 people have died during the holiday and over 50,000 have been injured, due to motor vehicle accidents and random fights that have broken out during water throwing. Most of the accidents are because of drunk drivers.

Almost 700 dead, and 50,000 injured -- that’s more killed than in some wars. I remember the drunken foreigner on the motorcycle and wonder if he was one of these. A somber post-party statistic for the nation to ponder, in the wake of the biggest yearly waterfight in the world.

I have all these things and others (Willie Nelson songs, Ms. Songkran, sand castles, 55-gallon water trucks roaring down the street, a random tickle in my throat) to consider as I dry off, and pack my super soaker for another year.

Songkran has come and gone, and the cycle of life continues in Thailand.

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DUCTS summer issue 2001
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