The Water War on Thailand
The year was 2555. Makeshift combat vehicles growled down the narrow streets of Khao Sok, armed with plastic weapons and an unending supply of ammunition. I watched as people scrambled to arm themselves for impending war, and I knew there was no way my comrade and I were going to escape the country without joining the fight.
It was the beginning of a five-day civil war in Thailand – a war where everybody is a soldier fighting for the same cause: a clean slate.
Songkran, as the Thai New Year is called, occurs each April, exact dates dependent on the Lunar Calendar. What started as a few drops of fragrant water (used to sprinkle on Buddha as a way to symbolically wash away all prior wrongdoings and welcome the New Year with a fresh start) has evolved into what is known today as a nationwide water war.
My friend Nicole and I received our first splash as as we left Khao Sok National Park in the southern part of the country. Tong, owner of the wooden, outhouse-like hut we slept in the previous night for a mere $3 (USD), escorted us to the bus stop.
“Today Songkran Day One,” he said. “You get wet. I give you ride.”
People lined the only paved road, holding bazookas and hoses, buckets and barrels full of water, aimed at every car, motorbike and pedestrian passing by. Pickups cruised back and forth, their beds full of like-minded, weapon-ready locals, and we thanked Tong for the enclosed ride.
He dropped us at the entrance to the village at an intersection with the main highway. He pointed to a manmade, wooden bench leaned up against a tree, barely sturdy enough to hold both our weight.
“There bus stop,” he said. “Maybe no come today.”
I smiled at the reality of his words and turned to Nicole. “Welcome to Thailand.”
I had been living in Northeast Thailand for six months teaching English and saving enough money to travel the rest of the country. Nicole joined me for four weeks as a way to clear her mind while both of us figured out what our next steps would be in life’s big adventure.
She was bouncing on several fences, tottering mostly between pursuing her love of jewelry design, and following the path her life was already on toward a career as a bartender/waitress. I was battling the decision to attend graduate school, or to continue teaching abroad. We were both living without a plan, bouncing from one thing to the next, and our indecisive, unpredictable characters fit in perfectly with Thai culture.
“Nothing happens on time here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s telling the truth,” I told her. “Here, the bus driver might have just decided to give himself a holiday.”
“What happens if we don’t catch our train,” she asked, not really worried, just curious. Our train was in Surat Thani – two hours away – and our tickets held the last two beds on any northbound train during one of the most traveled holidays in Southeast Asia.
“Eh, we’ll get there,” I assured her. “Things always seem to work out how they should. It’s one of the many reasons I love this place.”
After an hour, our bus still hadn’t come. I walked across the highway to a roadside store and bought supplies: a water bottle and a pork-filled bun for myself, and a bag of seaweed-flavored Lays for Nicole. In my broken Thai, I told the woman where we wanted to go, and she repeated the man before. “Mai bus wa-nee.” No bus today.
Khao Sok is too small for taxi service, so we began to hitchhike, waving at the cars like a local would flag down a cab – our arms extended toward the ground, flipping our wrists, fingers down in what Americans would call a flamboyant gesture. After about three cars passed without eye contact, we heard the woman across the street hollering and pointing.
A local family in a small Toyota pickup was on its way to Surat Thani, and willing to give us a lift. We eagerly unhooked our backpacks and hopped in the rusty bed as the six of them crammed into the cab.
“Thai people are so nice,” Nicole exclaimed. “I would never do this in The States!”
Off we sped, and with my back against the window, I pointed to a jaw-dropping view of karst landscape jutting from the lush ground and into the bluebird sky on either side of the road.
Looking forward, the scene was not as inviting. The countryside was of the same picturesque quality, but hovering above were large black clouds threatening to open their hatches and unleash water bombs – Mother Nature’s idea of celebrating. I had seen it rain in Thailand before and I knew it would be no friendly squirt of a gun.
The driver pulled over and his wife stepped out. “It rains,” she said in Thai, gesturing for her children to switch us places, an extremely kind offer which we adamantly declined. We had already taken enough advantage of this kind family, and knew that when the clouds decided to fire, it would be our payment to take the beating with pride.
We pushed on, enduring the pummel of the downpour, heads down and lying over our backpacks to protect our few belongings. At first we laughed at the irony, but soon we were sitting in a puddle of water, every inch of ourselves sopping wet.
“It will stop soon,” I shouted over the noise of the roadway and the storm. “It never lasts long.”
Sure enough, just before we approached town, the sun returned and we began to dry. We sat on the side of the truck bed and checked the time. Relief washed over us once we knew we would catch our train with time to spare.
“It’s so hot now!” Nicole said at the stoplight. “We’ll be dry before…”
A bucket of water soaked her back. The pickup next to us was full of giggling children, and one of them hollered, “Choke dee!” Good luck.
We became hysterical with laughter as we began to understand what the next four days would bring, and we knew we needed to be armed. We would buy water guns as soon as we arrived in Bangkok, we decided, and then the real fight would begin. It’s not often one gets to be an active part of a foreign celebration, and I was certain my love for Thailand would only grow with each passing day of its greatest holiday.
Songkran is a chance to be a kid again, to play a soldier in a friendly fight, and to forget all the worries that often encompass our thoughts. It’s a war with no losers, and in the Land of Smiles, there really is no war more sensible than one fought with well wishes and water – a combat that allows each participating soldier the chance to start anew.
At the train station, we offered unaccepted money and wai’d (a traditional Thai greeting in which one places both hands, palms together, near her chest and bows toward the elder in front of her) in a low bend to express our sincerest gratitude.
“Sooksan whan bee mai,” I said. Happy New Year.
As our train pulled away, Nicole wrapped her arms around me in a tight embrace and I knew she was the most supportive comrade to have in any war, with myself or otherwise. As I squeezed her tiny frame back, I was certain she felt the same about me.
We sat back to watch the mountains fade into rice fields, lost in thoughts of personal war and peace. Contentment washed through us with the realization that we have the control to shape our lives, however we please, after Songkran would drain us of every ounce of worry and provide us with what we so desperately needed - a fresh outlook on life.
“I think we lost that battle,” Nicole said, looking down at her soaked shorts and back up with the assurance of any general trying to instill confidence in his troops. “But there’s no doubt we’ll get the next one.”
Where to Celebrate Songkran:
BANGKOK – Get yourself to the Silom district, conveniently located just off the BTS train, and purchase everything you need there. Several blocks on both sides of the road are shut down and lined with tables selling water guns, water bottles, dry packs and other necessities to allow for a safe celebration. Locals orderly walk down one side of the road and back up the other, squirting anyone who looks deserving. Don’t forget to bring your smile.
CHIANG MAI – The mote encircling Old Town in this famous city is quite possibly THE destination for celebrating Songkran. Thousands of people swarm to the banks of the water with buckets tied to rope so they can conveniently dip them into the murky stream and splash passersby. Several stages are set up with bands and disc jockeys playing crowd favorites, and dance parties spring up in the middle of the streets on a whim.
KHAO SOK – It will undoubtedly be a more personable experience with the locals if you spend the holiday in a small village (there are many like Khao Sok), but plan on staying there to prevent a bus catastrophe like ours.
If you plan to travel during the holiday, don’t get stuck in a small village like we did. It can be fun to experience the holiday in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai (the 20-hour train ride certainly doesn’t halt the celebrating!), but make sure you purchase your tickets at least two weeks in advance and get to the city a few days early to prevent problems with the unreliable bus service.
Also, buy a water gun, a waterproof camera and a waterproof pouch for your valuables. Even if you don’t plan to participate, there’s no guarantee you won’t get wet.
Since the writing of this article, Nicole returned home, rented a jewelry studio and started a business. Her beautiful designs can be purchased at her site, Crow & Stone.
The author decided to postpone graduate school for another year, and is currently writing from Thailand, where she teaches English at a university and tells her stories at MissAdventure.
Jessica J. Hill, the Teach Abroad Editor for Wandering Educators, is an Oregon native currently working in Thailand. She writes about traveling, teaching abroad, and coming home at http://www.missadventuretravel.com/
Feature photo courtesy of flickr creative commons: flickr.com/photos/cm_john/8513549098/
Jessica and Nicole photo courtesy of Michael Binder