Monday, April 25, 2005

The Greatest Holiday

April 15, 2005
Don’t be jealous of the children of Thailand. Remind yourself they live in widespread poverty, remember how much you like Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. Don’t hate them because they have the greatest holiday in the history of the world and you don’t.

Songkran comes to Thailand at about this time each April to usher in the New Year. If you think fireworks, alcohol, Dick Clark, and freezing your ass off is a good formula, try this: a giant, all-inclusive, nationwide water fight. And it lasts three days.

Actually it can be more like a week. The official celebration was April 13-15 but on the evening of the 10th I was strolling through Chiang Mai with my video camera when I came upon ten kids (ages three to nine, I’d say). They were on the sidewalk between the mote and the main road and they had bucks on strings. They would dip their bucket into the mote, pull it back up full and dump it all out onto each other. Or, better yet, they’d wait for someone on a motorcycle to come by and hurl the water at them. Genius.

I walked a little further down the mote and found a bunch of older kids (ages nineteen to forty, I’d say) doing much the same thing with bigger buckets. They were foreigners mainly and all soaked to the bone. “That a waterproof camera?” one of them asked by way of warning.

After getting a few shots I put the camera down and was instantly soaked by some combination of bucket, hose, watergun. I grabbed a bucket and started dousing passing bikers. Some people would hold up their hands in a gesture of “No, please,” others would point to some precious cargo that shouldn’t be soiled, others just gave a mean glare. Most were doused anyway and few seemed to mind.

The next day our little game of splashing the passing motorists seemed pretty damn quaint. Chiang Mai had been transformed into some sort of 12-year-old’s waterpark fantasy. The streets were lined with people baring waterguns, buckets, hoses, buckets, waterguns, waterguns, waterguns. Everyone was wearing their bathing suits (though, notably, everyone was wearing a drenched t-shirt instead of going topless or with bikini top). At the mote, where the ten kids had doused each other the evening before, there were hundreds of dripping combatants. They poured full buckets down each other’s backs, then sprayed the on-rushing traffic. It was a mix of old and young, foreign and local, wet and wetter. Everyone was laughing and those of us who were doing this for the first time just kept shaking our heads and wondering how we’d stumbled upon something so delightfully, childishly fun.

What makes it impossible to remain dry in Chiang Mai (and many other parts of Thailand) during Songkran is how wet everyone else is. When you’ve been squirting and being squirted for hours there is a certain diminished return to getting your neighbor drenched for the 20th time. But when someone comes by with even a stitch of dry clothing that is a mark worth spending some water on.

The theater of the dry is a funny thing. Everyone has a reason they can’t get wet and they communicate this narrative with a series of pained, pleading expressions that change with the darkening of their clothes to a state of resignation. Only the police, the Buddha, and the very old remain at all dry.

You can’t complain because the water is washing away your sins in preparation for the New Year. Plus, everyone else is doing it.

In the evening you go home and wring out your clothes and leave them to dry. You take a shower and put on the only dry clothes you have left. You go to dinner and a few steps outside your guest house you’re soaked again and the perpetrators are laughing and carrying on as your face goes from pained to resigned. You eat dinner dripping and pay for it with waterlogged baht. Tomorrow you’ll scheme ways to hail a taxi without getting wet, or ask someone to get you a pancake from the stand across the street because you don’t want to risk it. You’ll feel like a prisoner in a warring city. Because you are. But it’s a lovely war in a lovely city and as you leave town on the first official day of the festival you can’t help but be a little jealous of the greatest Peter Pan holiday there ever was. You know that all the cranberry sauce and stuffed stockings you can imagine will never make you smile like squirting a watergun in Chiang Mai in the middle of April.


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