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Songkran, Splashing in the Thai New Year

Downtown Bangkok seen from our hotel window. Bangkok is called the Venice of South East Asia for its many canals.
Downtown Bangkok seen from our hotel window. Bangkok is called the Venice of South East Asia for its many canals.
Colin Leonard

Examiner allows us to go off topic on occasion, April 13 is the first day of the Thai New Year and ten years ago, my husband and I were in Bangkok with two Nova Scotian friends with deep ties to Thailand and we were joining in a city-wide water fight to joyously welcome in the New Year.

Grab a glass of Nova Scotia wine, Nova 7, might be a great choice as it's definitely a party wine, raise a toast to the Year of the Horse and join a celebration on the other side of the globe where the dayime temperatures hit 40 C

In Thailand, they recognize the same zodiac animals as the Chinese but the year of the Horse does not start in Thailand until Songkran, which takes place from April 13 -15. To mark the New Year, everyone cleans away last year’s dirt from the house. Then they go to the temple, where monks spiritually cleanse them with dippers of water splashed on their shoulders. This religious ritual turns into a nationwide street party when they take to the streets with bowls of talcum paste, gallons of water and large water pistols.

We were invited to attend Songkran with Thai friends, and so it was not the typical tourist experience. We arrived in Bangkok at midnight, after 32 hours in transit. After checking in at the Grand China Princess Hotel, we went out to explore Bangkok’s Chinatown. Because it is so hot during the day, many people prefer to be outside at night and the streets are crowded. At 3:00 a.m. we were being introduced to fiery Tom Yam soup while sitting on plastic crates at a sidewalk grill and silently congratulating ourselves for getting Twinrex Hepatitis A & B shots.

We had arrived a few days before Songkran to acclimatize to the intense heat and see the sights. Our first stop was the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and its magnificent compound filled with gilded and enameled buildings and statues of giant warriors, then on to the Grand Palace with its ornate throne room. We cooled down with basil seed ice cream, a palace specialty. We stopped at an air conditioned mall near the hotel and discovered a bevy of masseuses giving foot massages to weary shoppers. Dinner was at a waterside restaurant where large fans misted the diners to keep them cool.

The day before Songkran, we visited Vimanmek, the Teakwood Palace with its unique Thai and Victorian décor from the time when Anna Leonowens was a governess at the court of the King of Siam. Few people remember that she founded the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design after her exploits in Siam. The Thai people were insulted by her book and the recent movies and her name is never mentioned.

At an outdoor theatre on the grounds, we were entertained by Songkran dancers. Half were dressed as sheep representing the old year and the other half as monkeys for the new year. Predictably the sheep lost the battle and the Year of the Monkey came to power. Afterwards the audience was invited to dance with the performers, who streaked our faces with a paste of wet talcum powder and sprinkled us with water.

We dined at the hotel the night before Songkran as the streets in our area were packed with drunken revelers and not safe for tourists. In the morning, our friends took us to the temple for the traditional blessing of a water sprinkle and then we headed off to Khao San Road for the fun. Although it was still early in the day, food stands lined the street alongside vendors of water pistols and super soakers with barrels of water for refills.

Songkran is not a spectator sport, and staying dry is not an option. Smiling people saying “So sorry!” smeared paste on our faces, guys in the back of trucks hurled buckets of water at the crowds and laughing people kept drenching us with water guns. Feeling like kids let out of school for the summer, we armed ourselves with water pistols and joined the fun.

Because of the extreme heat, the water was refreshing, but after a few hours soaked to the skin and covered with paste, it was time to return to our hotel. We hailed a tuk tuk, (two wheeled carriages drawn by a motorcycle), and wove in and out of the stalled traffic. At a stoplight, we were sprayed by a group of Thai girls in another tuk tuk and we fired back. Shrieking with laughter, a movie-style tuk tuk chase ensued with a water gun battle through the streets all the way to our hotel. Our drivers had as much fun as we did!

We felt embarrassed going into our upscale hotel looking so wet and bedraggled but the smiling staff greeted us with “Sawardee pi mai!” (Happy New Year), adding “Thank you for playing with us!” And the very formal front desk clerk splashed us with a dipper of water for good luck.

Happy Songkran, to anyone who has ever shared this wonderful Thai experience Sawardee pi mai

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