Friday, April 16, 2010

If You're not Soaking Wet, You're Full of Sin

One of the few specific plans made before leaving the USA was to attend the Thai New Year festival in Chiang Mai. For Songkran people traditionally visit family, visit the Buddha, and ask for blessings; in actuality they spend most of the holiday week pouring buckets of water over the heads of westerners and (despite the many "Alcohol Free Festival!" signs threatening jail time) drinking. I'm not usually a big party in the streets kind of girl but I *AM* a water fight kind of girl. The ritual shower is supposed to remove all bad karma and after 3 days of soaking wet shorts and prune-y palms, my soul must be spotless for the first time since baptism.

The festival is technically only 3 days long but the water seems to start flowing in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai at least 3 days early, presumably so the natives could warm up their bucket throwing arm for challenging maneuvers like the "hooking water into the back of a passing pickup truck" or the "dousing to the face of a speeding motorbike driver." By the festival's official start on Monday everyone seemed to be in good form.

We arrived in Chiang Mai via a tuktuk that slowed to honk at each gaggle of Thai teens as if to say "Hey guys, Whities in the back! Get out the garden hose!" Our wet ride ended at the main gate into the old city of Chiang Mai leaving us to walk the water gauntlet to our guesthouse with our packs on our backs. Surprisingly, no one splashed us -- we must have oozed too much pathos.

On our first full day in town we decided to walk the around the entire Chiang Mai moat, which is lined on both sides with battalions of armed revelers. Starting near our guesthouse we picked up a couple of mini super soakers (so maybe just soakers?) to defend ourselves. Getting doused only really hurts for the first few bucketfulls -- after that, wet is wet and you can get no wetter. You can, however, get colder. The most ruthless hooligans fill their buckets with ice water so despite the 100 degree heat I believe I have frost bite of the backside. I also did spot one 5 year old ragamuffin perched against a tree, pants down, peeing in his bucket -- a scary prospect that I decided to believe was isolated strictly to this specific little devil.

Throwing buckets of water on girls is clearly the main form of flirting in Thailand. If you like a girl you go down to the river and fill a colorful plastic bucket with murky water and then use all of your upper body strength to propel a 90mph flying puddle in the direction of your crush's ass. My own ass has been blessed so many times that certainly it has no sin left on it and I may be married to 5 or 12 Thai men, it's hard to keep track.

It's difficult to articulate the insanity of this event, and it's hardly captured on film -- we would have better pictures but the streets seemed like a camera deathwish. I walked whole blocks completely blind, taking bucket after bucket to the face. Traffic stands still, the road begins to blend with the river, there's dancing and screaming girls and stand after stand of steamed buns, grilled corn, fried sausages and Chang beer. The lady boys come out in full makeup and heels soaking wet and looking more fabulous then the driest beauty queen. The festival really is embraced by all -- if only because there is no chance of going anywhere in town without your head being introduced to a waterfall. Even the Midwestern Mormon missionaries got involved, standing on the edge of the river in their dress shirt and tie bailing water onto the heads of Buddhists and probably calling it a Baptism. Most. Successful. Mission. EVER! It's loud and chaotic but all in good fun -- I don't think I looked up from a single dousing to see anything other than a grinning face.

There is one ugly side of Songkran: White on white crime. While the Thais are all about soaking with a smile, the trudge through backpacker-ville is a more violent affair. More high propulsion water guns, fewer buckets. More evil cackles, fewer slightly self conscious giggles. It might just be western culture -- Geoff and I joked that should this festival ever cross the globe and resurface in the USA it would take exactly 2 hours before someone (probably my brother) had hooked up a diesel engine to a hose and went all Water Festival X-Games. It might also be that I can hardly blame the locals for relishing in an opportunity for just a little payback against the tourists that seem to own many of their streets for the rest of the year. But what excuse do the whities have for pointing a stream of ice cold right in my eye?

This obviously is not how things have always been. Back in the day the water was sprinkled lightly from a little silver bowl. There were no water guns, no break dancing in the street, no pickup trucks full of kids. I'm sure many a Thai grandma can't stop complaining about how the kids have taken the Buddha out of Songkran. But isn't this the same Buddah who adores alters full of beer and oreos? The same Buddha who ate so many servings of curry that his belly overflows his loin cloth? I can't imagine he'd be completely opposed to the revelry. But I'm an atheist, you can't go by me.

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