Sun, 09 Mar 2003

Songkran water festival offers buckets of fun

Jason Volker, Contributor, Bangkok, Thailand

All that stands between us and the World Heritage-listed Ayuthaya Historical Park is a lengthy boulevard lined with thousands of drenched revelers packing bazooka-sized waterpistols, overflowing buckets, homemade squirters, hoses, sprinklers and a surplus of plump water balloons.

Oh, and let's not forget the powdery colored paste being lavishly smeared on the faces of all gauntlet-runners.

Quick tourist huddle and the consensus is "It's 40 degrees Celsius, we've come all this way, we're in a holiday humor, what the heck ... charge!"

This laughter-laden liquid mayhem, a three-day, nationwide water-fight celebrated each April at the height of a sizzling summer, is Thailand's biggest and most exuberant display of sanook -- that almighty word in the local lexicon that translates as 'fun'.

The Songkran Water Festival has been delighting the jolly folk of Siam for hundreds of years. Timed to coincide with the new rice planting season and the sun's movement from the zodiac Aries to Taurus, this oh-so-eagerly anticipated event is especially significant because it also marks the traditional Thai New Year.

Water, symbolizing cleansing and renewal, thus becomes immensely useful during this festive season: Not only does it help keep you cool under that fierce fireball above, but it can also wash away the transgressions of the outgoing year. The fact that you can throw it at others to hilarious effect is an additional perk.

Slosh, slosh, squelch, squelch. We at last scurry into the relative sanctuary of the Historical Park, and a hasty headcount of my fellow sopping-wet, clown-faced travelers confirms we all made it, and we all loved it. Of course we look ridiculous, but everyone looks ridiculous - that's part of the great sanook of Songkran.

Inside the stunning Mongkhon Bophit Temple, I learn the festival also has a more refined side that perfectly balances its frivolous exterior. The devout crowd bows before a giant bronze Buddha, at 17-meters one of Thailand's largest, praying for a happy New Year. The pious sprinkle jasmine-scented holy water over golden icons and pin bank notes to a bulging "money tree" earmarked to assist in the upkeep of this 600-year-old shrine.

Strolling through the nearby ruins of Phra Si Sanphet Temple, former palace of Ayuthaya's omnipotent rulers (the medieval Kingdom of Ayuthaya encompassed all of present-day Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and included pockets of Myanmar, Vietnam and China), we discover another charming Songkran tradition.

Whistling workers carry river sand to the monastery to build mini pagodas festooned with bright streamers and flower petals, an ancient custom designed to raise temple grounds and the spirits of all involved.

Having soaked up the cultural atmosphere within the Historical Park, it's now once again time to soak up titanic quantities of H2O as we make the wacky dash back to the carpark.

But this time we get clever. Hitching a ride on a pair of amiable elephants lumbering visitors around the park, we regally plod above the soggy pandemonium surging at street level. Sure we take some sniper squirtgun fire, sure we catch some ricochet hose spray, sure we cop the odd bucketful square on, but hey, we're riding on elephants here, nothing fazes elephant-back riders!

It's a little past high noon at the elephant corral when our second tourist huddle hatches a plan of mouthwatering "fun potential" (as I'm traveling with a group of Thai friends, all our plans tend to be of the mouthwatering "fun potential" variety).

Here's the gist of it: We'll muster up a posse, we'll arm ourselves with the latest in waterpistol weaponry, we'll lasso a pick-up truck, we'll herd into the back of it, and like the rest of the city's population, we'll cruise the streets saturating anything that moves.

A few phone calls to friends-of-friends later and we're set -- posse, pistols, pick-up. We rendezvous with Nok, the fastest pick-up driver in the Wild East, who introduces us to his gang. Our posse is now nine-strong: Nok, Jow, O, Air, Nong, Bird, Ya, Kai and myself, J (Thais are big on nicknames).

We load the truck with supplies: a huge tub of water for refills, Super Soakers and pump-action hoses, buckets, bowls, water balloons and a wicked amount of colored powder.

Heading back to the carnival epicenter, the Historical Park (or as we dub it, The Hysterical Park), we are bang in the middle of a laugh-a-minute, take-no-prisoners water battle of sidesplitting proportions.

Beaming revelers cramming the sidewalks cheerfully douse the passing motorcade. Squadrons of scooters, cars and pick-ups return waterfire with impish abandon. Slippery youths scuttle among the slow-moving vehicles smudging wet powder on anything in reach -- preferably the rosy cheeks of fetchingly drenched maidens.

All this skylarking intensifies at traffic lights where camps of water-warriors wait in eager ambush. As we roll to a halt at a red light the air is awash with flying water. No one is excluded from this deluge of mirth, even traffic police fill the sights of especially mischievous squirtguns.

Never before have I seen such enthusiastic splashing, spraying, squirting and smearing -- never before have I had so much fun.

Happy New Year, Thai style.