Songkran is the multi-day New Years celebration in Thailand in which the locals and tourist take part in a country-wide water fight. Having any type of water shot from a gun or poured on you is a symbol of good luck. When asked why they do it exactly, Thai people will simply say: because it's fun. There is a lot to do with the Bhuddist calendar as well. This story occurred April 12, 2015, one day before Songkran…or so I thought.
I spent the previous few days in Pai, the small little hippy mountain town north of Chaing Mai I like to call the Santa Cruz of Thailand. I can’t possibly recommend Pai enough. If you travel the north of Thailand, Pai absolutely must be on your itinerary. We stayed at a place called Circus School, where travelers from around the world go to practice, learn, or show off their skills in anything from juggling, fire dancing, music, etc. and really let their freak flags fly. Our “private room” was simply a bamboo and straw hut with a bed and mosquito net. It was awesome.
Jamming in our hippie hut in Pai, Thailand.
After exploring Pai by motorbike, seeing waterfall after waterfall and elephant after elephant on the sides of the roads, it was time to head back to Chiang Mai. I was warned I should head back early because it is extremely dangerous to drive on the roads during Songkran. In fact, the year before in 2014, there were 248 deaths on Thailand’s roads during Songkran. The celebration is generally about 5 days, so that is almost 50 deaths a day! That is actually down from previous years. Scared, I decided to follow the advice to leave early before I was run down by some drunk Thai dudes in a truck trying to splash me with a bucket of good luck water.
What they don’t quite tell you, is that Songkran REALLY starts early. A hippie dude named Tim that tended the bar at the Circus School did warn me that I might get wet a few days before Songkran. This turned out to be a gross underestimation. With my helmet on and my day bag containing all my most valuable possessions on my back, I took to the extremely windy roads of Pai back to Chiang Mai solo. The mountain roads are so windy, the road from Pai to Chiang Mai is famous for having a total of 762 turns. I’m already in dangerous territory as I am no pro motorbike rider, and I was driving on the opposite side of the road that I am used to as an American. The first half hour or so of the ride was relaxing, with the sun on my back and the fresh smell of the trees in my nose. Then I saw the children in the distance.
Going a safe 35 km/h, the innocent looking children with huge smiles on their faces all ran into the middle of the road and BAM! Splashed me with buckets of water (did you think I hit them??). Nearly blinded and tires starting to get slippery, I could only laugh and spit the horrible river water out of my mouth as I prepared myself for more. These kids meant business. Utterly defenseless, I could only close my eyes and look away as kid after kid hit me with squirt guns, hoses, buckets, and water balloons. I had to slow down as much as possible so I wouldn’t run them over or crash my bike, but this only made me more vulnerable to longer water attacks. Every now and then, drunk Thai guys in cars and trucks would swerve around me and hit me with buckets of water and drive away while laughing their asses off. I was laughing for the most part too, because how was this situation my current reality? Only in Thailand. The one time I didn’t laugh was when I finally made it out of the mountains and on to the freeway. I was going about 80 km/h when some prick threw a bucket of water at me and knocked my sunglasses off. I was going so fast the water physically hurt and blinded me for a few seconds.
You might be wondering now, “Why the hell would I put my life in so much danger??” Well, a few reasons. Chiang Mai is where the biggest Songkran celebration takes place and I wasn’t going to miss that. Plus I rented a motorbike that I had to return that day in order to get my passport back. Okay those are all horrible reasons. I kind of just wanted a crazy adventure and hoped for the best. Luckily I’m here to tell the story, and it only gets more stressful from here.
Images from the next day when I finally got to play. Images courtesy of Margaret Quigley.
Four hours and 100 km later, I finally made it back to Chiang Mai, but it was not the Chiang Mai I recognized from a few days before. Even though it was one day before Songkran, the entire city was flooded with people. The Old City is a square surrounded by four main streets, all of which were jam packed with vehicles, drunk locals, and tourists. Inside the city looked like Woodstock ‘69 and was far more chaotic. Every single person had water guns that I would have killed to have owned as a kid. Shops had large trashcans with hoses running in them for people to refill their ammo. Water was being sprayed on everyone. Absolutely no one was spared. “Fuck me” I whispered to myself. On top of all this, I was lost. My plan was to use a map to find where to return my motorbike to get my passport back, but that map was now paper maché. I had to find the return spot by driving around and asking a few locals. The problem with that was, you couldn’t go more than 3 or 4 km/r because the streets were turning into rivers. Hundreds of people were in the streets and my bike might as well have been floating instead of rolling.
Eager to join the festivities and ditch my motorbike, I headed on to the main festival streets to get it overwith. From the moment I was on the main road, there was not one second where I wasn’t being hit with water in some way. The cars and trucks around me were getting me, the tourists were literally walking up to me and spraying me in my eyes, the tuk tuk drivers were even getting me! I wasn’t singled out either. All people on motorbikes got it really bad, next came the poor souls that decided to get into the red truck cabs. If you were dry and coming out of your hotel, you were the biggest target of all.
So there I was, drenched, blinded by water, unable to join the fun, completely lost, needing my passport back, and stuck riding a motorbike that might as well have been a boat because the streets were so wet. I would probably say this was the most stressful acute situation I’ve ever been in in my life. But again, I could only laugh about it. I thought about how I should have been in an office back home instead had I not decided to take this trip, and I knew I’d rather be right where I was right then. After a whole hour of driving around the city walls, looking as hard as I could for the place to return my motorbike, I finally saw it…way on the opposite side of the street in the epicenter of the chaos! The worst thing was, I just rode down that street but I was so distracted I didn’t even see the place as I went right by it. It took 15 minutes of being shot from every direction with water to go down that street. I had to do it AGAIN!
After returning my bike and getting my passport back, I made it back to Deejai Hostel where Marika and I safely left our large backpacks for the few days we were in Pai. She took a cab back from Pai (smarter than me) but hadn’t arrived yet. It was my mission to move our backpacks to another hostel called SoHo and check in because Deejay was booked up. I was exhausted and decided to take a nap first. When I woke up it was actually raining. I thought it was ironic that it rained during a water festival, but also thought it was the perfect time to make my move. It was late in the afternoon and what was the point of shooting people with water if it was already raining right??
I threw our heavy packs into a truck cab and negotiated a nice price for the driver to take me to SoHo. In Chiang Mai, the truck cabs pick up multiple people along the way and take everyone to different places. It is a cool way to meet people but also kind of inconvenient. A nice young girl from the UK hopped into the cab I was in with her big travel backpack as well. She was to be dropped off first. The closer we got to her hostel the more I realized we were going into enemy territory naked. The festival had only gotten bigger. We were in exactly the most targeted type of vehicle. Tourists and locals started jumping into our truck to splash us. The plastic windows around us flung open and buckets of water poured in. My backpack, her backpack, and poor innocent Marika’s backpack was completely soaked. At this point the laughter died down and I was kind of over it. I had a dangerous day and was sick of being helpless and wet. Finally the driver told the English girl to get out and that her hostel was a couple blocks away. Confused, she got out in the middle of the pandemonium and was bombarded by splashing tourists as the driver drove away laughing his ass off. He tricked her. I watched her get enough water poured on her to drown as she faded in the distance. I begged the driver not to do the same to me. I even laughed and told him it was a good joke. When it was my turn to get out, he again pointed in a direction and told me my hostel was up the road. He drove away without taking my money as tourists surrounded me saying “We’ve got another one!!” Clearly they had been waiting for me, doing this all day. I will admit it was the funniest joke ever, even if it was on me.
I quickly jumped into another tuk tuk and demanded that the driver take me to my hostel and to not play a trick on me. He seemed nice enough. He drove me all the way back across town by Deejai Hostel where I started. The entire way I was being shot with water and gave up on trying to save our bags. It turns out my driver was genuinely lost and had to ask his friend for directions. It also turns out that I really was right by SoHo when the last driver pranked me. So my new driver took me all the way back for a final round of being rained on sideways.
The next day I made it a point to join the celebration with a vengeance. Every person I sprayed I imagined were people that got me the day before. Then I realized how fun it really was to shoot bikers, tourists in truck cabs, and especially dry people. The rest of Songkran is a story in itself I will write about one day. The main highlight was meeting a couple from the UK, Darro and Jade, that got in a truck cab with us. A local person in the cab wanted to go to the airport, and we wanted to go to a bar close by. Instead of going to the bar first, the driver took us all the way to the airport, where Darro proceeded to shoot the airport security guards with his water gun! Just imagine doing that in America. Jail! I never got their info, so Darro and Jade, if you’re out there, say hi!