Chapter 35: Soaked for Songkran

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Saturday, April 24, 2004

Friday I woke up vaguely depressed and not sure what to do with myself next. First order of business was switching hotels, so I moved into the D&D Inn, which features a nice roof-top pool and decent single rooms for 450Bt (expensive by Khao San standards, but I was spoiled by Aunt Kathy's pool). I took advantage of the pool for most of the afternoon... and most of the next two afternoons as well. On a side note, the D&D pool was full of topless girls! I've never seen so many naked breasts in person before (mostly due to the gay thing, natch')! Anyway, over the course of the weekend I also caught up on some online stuff, read a lot ("Harry Potter 3" mostly... cliched, but I'm hooked), ate some good Indian food, drank a little, and tried to decide my next destination.

Around this time things started to get weird in the Khao San area, due to the annual Songkran (Lunar New Year) Festival, which usually takes place for three days every April. This year, those three days were Tue/Wed/Thurs (13/14/15), so Monday and Friday were write-offs, and the celebration basically lasted 9 days starting on the 10th. Songkran is essentially an excuse for Thais to close their businesses, get really drunk, and run around throwing water on everyone. LOTS of water. I'm sure there's some "cleansing of the soul" significance to it or something, but mostly it's an escape from the scorching April heat and a good reason to party.

On Saturday morning the sidewalks of Khao San Road were lined with huge buckets of water & ice and bottles of water and small pails, and water guns were available for sale every few feet. Coca-Cola banners were hanging from every available inch of wire above the street, and tents and loudspeakers were set up gradually during the day. Around noon you could walk down the street and maybe only get blasted by a few kids with water pistols, but by 4pm the street was mobbed with throngs of people (half Thai / half backpackers) throwing and spraying water everywhere. It didn't matter if you were wearing an Armani suit and carrying an open laptop computer... you would get drenched in a matter of steps. The only alternatives are resigning yourself to getting wet and putting everything of value (camera, notebooks, etc) into plastic bags, or sitting in your hotel room. Oh, the pool was safe too (hence my weekend of tanning). The whole Songkran things is fun & refreshing & cute at first... but when you just need to walk down the street to grab some food and you can't do it without getting soaked from head to toe or getting a big wad of wet talc in the face, it gets very annoying. On the bright side, there are hundreds of cute shirtless backpacker guys running around with water guns squirting each other (I joined in), so in the end it's kind of a draw.

I decided on Monday that I'd leave Bangkok on Tuesday, so I spent Monday away from the chaos of the Khao San Songkran. I took a cab to the Northern Bus Station, stood around looking stupid for a few minutes, and then found the booth selling tickets north to Chiang Mai. I wasn't sure if that was a super-smart next destination, as Chiang Mai has the reputation for the craziest Songkran in the country, but nevertheless I bought one of the special 24-seat VIP bus seats for 9am the next morning. Not wanting to go back to Khao San just yet, I got on the Skytrain (above-ground subway) and rode down to the Sukhumvit street district, which has lots of shopping opportunities. I meandered around Bangkok for the rest of the day by foot, train, and ferry, and finally played "dodge the flying water" around Khao San and made it back to the hotel with a few dry spots left on my shirt.

Tuesday was a relatively comfortable bus day. The seat was great, the service was friendly, and the views were nice. The only thing that made the trip grating was the unfathomably obnoxious 3-4 year old child sitting with his mom & grandma (I guess) across the aisle from me. He screamed and shouted and babbled loudly and climbed all over the seats and poked other passengers... and his guardians did nothing! I couldn't believe it! They just completely ignored him, and I had to use every ounce of my willpower not to grab him and duct tape his arms, legs, and mouth (I KNEW there was a reason I packed the tape!). Instead I just put in earplugs. When the bus arrived in Chiang Mai at 7pm, I took a motorcycle taxi into the center of the city, found a room at Kristi Guesthouse, and had a good pizza dinner at La Villa Pizzeria.

Chiang Mai is a walled city surrounded by a moat, and during the day the streets along the moat are the scene of the Songkran frenzy. At night during the holiday, the area around the main gate and the major street leading into the city (Ratchadamnoen?) are pedestrian-only; the street is lined with vendors offering everything from massages to clothes to food, and the main plaza by the gate has a big stage set up. It reminded me of the WBRU Summer Concert Series, except there was a Thai cover band playing Linkin Park songs. Thankfully in Chiang Mai the water-throwing stops at sunset (unlike Khao San, where the insanity goes well into the night). I stopped at a vendor for a (strong) $1 margarita, sat down on a bench, and met some cute 22 year old London dude and two 19 year old girls (one Belgian, one American). The four of us hung out for a while at a place called the Rasta Cafe, which featured a hilarious Thai band (some members had afros) playing ska/reggae/whatever. I got tired by 1am and went to sleep.

I had some books to trade, so I walked around on Tuesday morning looking for a used bookshop, but they were of course all closed for Songkran. So I just got wet. The scene by the moat was insane: streets gridlocked with pick-up trucks full of Thais sitting in the back hurling buckets of water on other trucks and any pedestrians. Most of the internet places were closed also, so I decided to try the mall just outside the northwestern corner of the wall. The walk took about a half hour, and on the way I was joined by a 23 year old Thai guy named Pan who was home for the holiday visiting his parents. We walked and talked (as best we could, given his limited English and my utter lack of Thai) and got wetter, and eventually we found refuge in the mall.

Pan was obviously lonely and bored, and he asked if he could hang out with me all afternoon. I had no problem with that unless I could get online, in which case I explained that I needed to catch up and be alone. As it turns out, I found an internet place and bought a 4-hour time card there, so I thought we said "goodbye"... until one hour into my Travelpod update, I turned around, and Pan was sitting against the wall behind me, waiting there! I felt bad for him, but I was also confused, so I offered to go see a movie with him after a few more minutes online. He readily agreed, so we saw "Dawn of the Dead," which I thought was brilliant! It was in English, with Thai subtitles, which was kind of cool, and the theater was state-of-the-art. Of course, I nearly froze to death because I was still wet... but the movie was scary enough to take my mind off it. We had dinner at KFC afterwards, and then I officially said "bye" and sent him on his way so I could resume my online work. It's weird... I love hanging out with locals, but every once in a while one of them gets kind of clingy and hard to shake (I like my alone time, especially when there's no real conversation), and the language barrier makes it even more difficult. Pan was a nice guy, at least.

I stayed at the mall until closing, and then walked back to the big street party near my guesthouse. I had a delicious spicy green papaya salad made right in front of me at one food stall, and then tried durian ice cream. It was surprisingly good, given the horror stories I'd heard about how bad durian fruit smells. Maybe it's just the real fruit that reeks. I got brave after that and stopped by the fried insect vendor. I couldn't bring myself to try the giant cockroaches (too "Fear Factor" for me - and not in the good New Zealand way), but I purchased a bag of mealworms and a bag of grub-beetle-like things. Both tasted pretty decent - like fried chicken skin or something. Y'know, crispy & salty with a little "squish" to 'em.

Thursday I equipped my waterproof camera case and set out for the road along the moat around the outside of the city walls. I walked for hours between the pick-ups and in front of the shop vendors armed with hoses, all the while snapping photos and taking videos. The Thais were psyched at the opportunity to pose for shots and douse me with water... I'd often hear a shout of "farang!" one half-second before a bucketful of icy water landed on my back. It was a hot day, though, so I treated Chiang Mai like a giant water park and had a blast. Eventually I found the mall again, spent some more time online, bought some OTC valium for kicks, and picked up "Harry Potter 4." That night was pretty quiet; I bought a ticket for a minibus to the mountain town of Pai that would leave the next morning, so I checked out the street scene for a while and then crashed out.

P.S. - My next few entries should be rather exciting... I've been out trekking in the hills of Thailand, and I'm in Laos at the moment. The downside is that internet access has been hard to find (and awfully slow). I'm already a month-plus behind with e-mails, thanks to Myanmar, and it's not going to get better here... so if you're feeling generous with your online time and want to send some updates from home (even if I still haven't responded to your last e-mail yet) I'd be really grateful. Thanks, and I hope you're doing well wherever you are!
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