Soaking In a New Decade

June 6, 2011

Turning thirty years old is a watershed moment in life, rich with symbolism. The roaring twenties are left behind, and a more wise and mature epoch of living is entered. The frivolities of youth have by now been replaced by adult worries and concerns. To mark this somber occasion, I decided to attend an appropriately solemn event...I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to join the biggest water-fight in the world!

In Southeast Asia, the traditional New Year (known as "Songkran" in Thailand) falls in mid-April and customarily has carried great religious significance. While this still holds true, in many places the holiday has evolved into a rollicking, water-throwing celebration of gargantuan proportions. And nowhere is this more the case than in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. For several days, open water-warfare spills into the streets, and it's nearly impossible to get through the day with dry clothes. Pedestrians, motorbikes, rickshaws, and transport-pickups are all targeted with impunity. 

I traveled to the party with an international group of friends living in Bangkok, and we arrived in Chiang Mai the day before the madness of Songkran began. The first step was to arm ourselves by visiting one of the plethora of street stalls selling cheap Chinese-made water-guns. We then headed deeper into the city, and I was in awe (and completely soaked) by the time we reached the epicenter. Strangers doused strangers and were promptly doused in return. Buckets of water were thrown from revelers riding in the beds of pickup trucks. Loud, raucous music blasted from bars and giant music stages, where gunners manning water turrets soaked the crowd with a continuous stream of water. All of this combined to create a festive atmosphere nearly rivaling the craziest Carnaval celebrations in Brazil. 

April is the hottest time of year in this boiling region, so getting splashed with water can be a relief from the high temperatures. However, when I saw street vendors selling huge blocks of ice, I got concerned. Getting a freezing cold bucket of water thrown on you goes a little beyond refreshing! The first time that I got hit with icy liquid I nearly screamed in agony. Many people around were not only soaked but visibly shivering! In addition, Chiang Mai's old city is completely surrounded by moats, so everyone has access to an endless supply of free, if not exactly clean, ammunition.

The pictures that I am showing here hardly reflect the true heights of pandemonium that are reached on the drenched streets of Chiang Mai. You see, when things got really crazy, my camera stayed safely secured in my dry bag. In any case, I did manage to capture this short video which gives a tiny taste of what its like to be standing near the heart of Songkran celebrations.

You might think that such playful festivities would only appeal to young people. But Songkran manages to bring out the kid in everyone. I saw quite a few elders patiently waiting on the side of the street next to a giant container of ice-cold water, delighting in tossing copious amounts on those unfortunate souls who passed by. But there is no denying that Songkran is a special holiday for the children. As a young kid, I used to eagerly count down the days until Halloween. But had I grown up in Chiang Mai and had Songkran to look forward to, that feeling of anticipation would have been increased a thousand-fold!

A young and prepared "First Timer"

Songkran in Chiang Mai is very popular with foreigners. The Thai people generously welcome us (and reserve a "little extra" water just for us). While I enjoyed joining the party with my international friends, when the opportunity came to experience it with some locals, I jumped at the chance. My new Thai friends stopped by to get me and I hopped into the back of their pickup truck, prepared for battle. It was quite a hilarious spectacle to cruise around and engage in skirmishes with passengers riding in other trucks! Because we couldn't move freely, we were left ever more vulnerable to being targeted. Quite a few times I'd have my back to one side of the road, only to be unexpectedly doused with ice water from behind! By the end of the day, my body felt as if I'd been standing in cold pouring rain for hours.


The conclusion of Songkran came as somewhat of a relief for many in Chiang Mai. They could once again move about in the city without fear of getting drenched by a stranger. Traffic in the center was alleviated, stores reopened, and life returned to normal. And now that the fun had ended, perhaps I could step back and reflect more deeply on reaching such an important age milestone. Maybe I was now ready to fully embrace all of those adult worries and concerns that being a thirty-something supposedly implies...or maybe not. After all, if grandparents can become kids again when a giant water-fight rolls into town, there's no reason that I have to pretend that I've completely and irrevocably grown up. Now, let me think...where did I put my water-gun...