This time last year I was living in Chiang Mai creating some of my most magical travel memories ever. Why? Sensational Songkran that's why. Read on.
The skies are a scorching bright blue and the “hair dryer” effect hot hair is all engulfing from 8am til sun down. The water of the moat is running low and all along the waters edge, the blackened branches of the blossom trees droop with firebursts of bright orange flowers - as if the very tips of the twigs have burst into flames. The pavements are cracked, and the grasses dry. We are now entering the very hottest months in Thailand. All around Chiang Mai – the hillsides that ring the city are concealed in a dusty, smog. This is crop burning season and farmers are slashing and burning their fields which sends a thick low level blanket drifting into the city. Even the Thai people are fanning themselves and gesturing: "very very hot!" to me although of course, they still seem to manage step out in full length jeans and sweatshirts... Thank goodness its time for SongKran – Thai New Year wherein the entire city of Chiang Mai shuts down from 12th April to the 16th and the Thais embark on what can only be described as an enormous and brilliant water fight.
Water was used traditionally to purify the Buddhas that are found in temples and carried through the streets in procession. Then Thais would take the same water (seen as blessed) and gently cleanse each other with it. The processions still take place but the offering of a light scattering of water in the direction of one's neighbour has transformed into open backed jeeps crammed with Thai teenagers menacing water guns and barrels of iced water - and if they don't get you then the pavements flanked with cafe and restaurant owners wielding hosepipes and plastic buckets will. You simply cannot go out doors and hope to stay dry – particularly, it seems, if you are a game looking falang woman. There is only one thing to be done -and that is join in!
My friend Kat, a blonde 'n' bubbly (is there any other kind) Essex girl from back home is travelling Asia and is joining me to celebrate. I find a family by the moat who sell my a blue and yellow water pistol for 200B along with a little plastic waterproof purse to put my valuables in. I'm already drenched of course. The fact that I've been unarmed and completely bone armed and loadeddry has been to much temptation for the truck loads of Thais roving the streets.
“Sorreeee ladyyyyyy” smiles one Thai as he tips a bucket of ice water over my head.
Welcome to Songkran.
I meet up with Kat and although we try and hold our own with our pistols we are being fired at from all sides from men, woman, children and even grannies armed with make shift mop handles transformed into squirting guns; we've even had a hosepipe turned on us. There are stages set up with blaring music and falangs line the streets drinking beer in the midday sunshine and joining in the mayhem. We take to a side street and find a little bar filled with gnarly old western men and Thai women. It's a tad dubious, the women have teeth missing and are already three sheets to the wind – I have a feeling they are prostitutes. We grab a beer and one man grins at us ruddily:
“Byron bay has the most women per men in the world” he informs us – that's where he hails from...
“but there...i'm too old for them...”
Then he cheers up and with winking bloodshot eyes, leers... “But not here...”
Never mind – the bar is playing Rhianna and the prostitutes seem delighted to see us, anointing us with chalky white face paint and garlands of flowers. They are drinking a cloudy white liquid from a bucket and let us try some. It has a tangy lemony flavour. Apparently its rice whiskey made from sticky rice. We want to buy some – but I think it may be the equivalent of moonshine as someone i think of as "Mummy Prostitute" says she is not allowed to sell it. Eventually we talk her round and she sells us some for 70 Baht concealed in a beer bottle.
We stand on the kerb shooting water at the people that have the misfortune to wander down the road in front of us. Overall the etiquette seems to be that if you are from the same bar you are all on the same side – and just shoot at people across the road. Unless of course the action dies down a bit ...then, I discover, as I watch the prostitutes stuff one of the girls in a big box of ice water - you are fully within your rights to turn on your fellow man for entertainment value.
It's interesting watching peoples water gun technique. According to Kat I shoot at people with a deeply satisfied and smug grin on my face. One gangly guy slopes past then casually cocks his gun behind him and squirts someone on the top of the head – execution style. Men particularly seem to be taking this whole thing very very seriously!
We've both agreed we would rather drink this “purer” form of alchohol than some of the dodgy cheap Sangsom they sell in the shops. Problem is we have absolutely no idea what it is we are drinking. It tastes dangerously good though. I genuinely can't remember when I've ever had so much fun. I'm soaking wet, absolutely drunk, dancing on the streets and shooting at people with toy guns. Its fantastic. There is a brilliant atmosphere too. Every one is welcome to join in the entertainment and although people are eating and drinking throughout the day there never seems to be any violence or aggression – unlike an average night out in any British town.
Just before it gets dark, the skies cloud over and a wind picks up. Suddenly after days, even months of bone dry and roasting heat, the heavens open. Everyone screams and throws themselves out of the bars and onto the street . It's almost as if the Gods have been listening in; watching all the festivities; regarded all the processions and offerings made to them – and have finally answered our prayers. The shooting of water continues as we rush out and onto the road to stomp about and dance in the pouring rain. It's an incredible, magical moment. I'm taking part in one of the biggest, most totally impromptu, ecstatic, rain dances of all time.
Happy Thai New Year Everyone.