Monday, April 13, 2015

Sonkran, or the largest wet t-shirt contest in the world

Sonkran crowd at Chiang Mai's Tha Phae Gate
I should have seen the ambush ahead of time and taken evasive action, but then it was already too late. They hit me full-on, right in the face and the entire chest. And they let out a devilish scream of laughter. What else could I do but laugh as well?

Welcome to Sonkran.

This is the time of year when it is the hottest, but rain relief is just around the corner. It's also the beginning of the lunar New Year, and so the Thais celebrate for three days. Since this year's Sonkran falls on a Monday through Wednesday, the madness started on Sunday. Coming to think of it, I saw the first buckets of water and water machine guns on Saturday afternoon.
Sonkran is all about soaking others as well as getting soaked. Stu had told me well ahead of time that I simply couldn't miss this festival of water, and now that I'm in the middle of it I totally agree. On my Sunday morning ride north along the river Ping I had sensed a feeling of excitement, especially among the children. I saw them sitting by the side of the road, playing with their water guns and filling buckets and large jars from hoses that their parents had extended to the curb. Adults also behaved differently in that there was less business and busyness than usual. Streets were being swept, flags were placed along the road, and more than one guy sat with a beer in hand waiting for things to happen.
"Riding shotgun" takes on a different meaning
The first ambushes happened on the way back into town, and by the time I reached the shop I was totally wet—not from sweat but buckets of water. After checking in with Stu and Mong I went back to the apartment to change out of my riding gear and into baggies and a light shirt. By the time I made it back to the shop I was totally wet again—Sonkran by now had started in earnest. On the ring road around the old town square, traffic was completely gridlocked. Pick-up trucks carried 50-gallon drums with water in the back, and shrieking adults and children were busy filling buckets and whatever other receptacles there were and then dumping them into and onto the car, tuk-tuk, bicycle, or pedestrian that happened to be within reach. Mayhem, plain and simple.
Even the little monks-in-training were having devilish fun
A few of those scoundrels use ice water for added effect. The first time I took one of those buckets I really gasped! The water guns are serious business, and they're being sold everywhere, together with plastic buckets, trashcans (to hold more water), and waterproof neck pouches so that one's money doesn't get soaked.
Free ammo
While starting to chronicle all of this on Sunday afternoon, a big thunderstorm opened the floodgates over Chiang Mai, soaking everyone. I doubt that this will—excuse the pun—damp anyone's enthusiasm. Sonkran hasn't even started yet, and everyone is grinning ear to ear.
Sunday's downpour simply added water
This was Sunday. On Monday, the first official day of Sonkran, the city became a madhouse. It is not possible to get any wetter by jumping into a pool than by simply getting out into the streets. I had carefully sealed by wallet and camera in Ziploc bags before venturing out, and the inside of the bags was the only dry spot anywhere near me. Taking photos was quite difficult—I had to watch my back (lest a bucket of water be dumped over my head) and keep an eye out for streams of water coming from water guns, hoses, buckets, and ladles while quickly unzipping the bag, taking the camera out, and taking the shot, and then resealing it again. Next time I go to Sonkran I will make sure I have a waterproof camera!
Go-go dancers from the rear ...
... and the front
The streets were totally clogged with people and vehicles. Water was standing in the streets. Hoses continued to fill those big drums that people had placed on the sidewalks; those in trucks used buckets to scoop water out of the moat to refill the trashcans, kiddie pools, or barrels that they had in the bed. Vendors sold huge blocks of ice to chill the water. Street battles erupted between slowly passing vehicles and those on the sidewalk. Marauding "fighters," armed with water bazookas and extra plastic water tanks slung to their backs, moved through the crowd, spraying anybody in sight. Plastic goggles kept their eyes dry. Five-gallon buckets of water were dumped into rickshaws and tuk-tuks—nothing was sacred.
Everybody was smiling and screaming with laughter. I have never seen anything like this before, ever. It is my understanding that the now-popular (for-profit) color runs in the US are based on Sonkran, but it is hard to imagine that people could have as much fun as this! The craziness lasted all day, and I drifted around the city for much of it. At one point I took a respite and went for the double-whammy two-hour massage (first Thai, then oil). Then it was back into the crowd, smiling even more than before. Life is good.
Nothing like wet Lady Boys!
Not only is this a festival of water, but it also is an occasion to dance and eat and drink. Stages with dancers (high-energy disco stuff) with huge sound systems were set up in various places, and the crowd simply gyrated along. Vendors were hawking the usual Thai delicacies that one can buy for a quarter or so, and the bars along the ring road around the old town were totally packed with  revelers. I can't believe how many farang there are in Chiang Mai, and how many of them are good-looking babes! Ah, to be young again!
Lovely farang street fighter
Stu, Mong, his German friend Andy (who had arrived from China in the afternoon), and I closed down the afternoon and evening with water-dousing, a nice meal, and Belgian beers in a rooftop bar in the old town. And even up there, the water games continued!
I'm putting the finishing touches on this update while sitting in the Chiang Mai airport, waiting for my Nok Air flight to Bangkok. I am sure things will be crazy there as well. Two more days of Sonkran are still ahead of us. I hope the country doesn't run out of water!
Confiscated water guns at the CNX security check-point
A short PS after my arrival in Bangkok:  I counted at least a dozen checked-baggage water guns on our luggage belt! Oh my!


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