Saturday, 16 April 2011

Wet and wild! Songkran festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Note lethal Hello Kitty spray gun
Imagine more loud shirts than a convention group in Waikiki. Imagine several rock bands belting it out on stages right next to and across from each other. Imagine your hottest summer's day. Imagine the booziest concert or festival you ever attended. Imagine the funnest New Year's Eve party you ever went to. And now imagine all of those things combined in one place, for three days non-stop.

That gives you an idea of Songkran in Chiang Mai, where the Thai New Year festival is celebrated longer and louder than elsewhere.

And still we haven't come to the best part: the water.

Guns 'R Us
Ambushes are set up along every highway, street, side alley. Garden hoses, buckets of water, water pistols. Did I say water pistols? I meant Rambo-style shoulder mounted spray guns. Loaded either with murky water from the historical moat, or with iced water that chills the very blood in your veins on instant contact. Followed by a cheery call of 'Sawatdee pii mai' - happy new year.

People on motorbikes are wood-ducks at a shooting range. Easy targets. Blasted with impunity. Open-backed red song-taew trucks are also fair game ... passengers huddled in the back are a captive audience for a dousing. Woe betide the driver who stops to pick up passengers or stops at a red light. Before he knows it, his truck is carrying 10,000 litres of excess liquid and his passengers are swimming for their lives.

And then there are the pick-up trucks. They cruise with malicious intent, loaded to the gunwhales with about 30 eager family and friends sardined in the back (this is a game for the whole family, after all, including grandma), plus barrels of water, blocks of ice, crates and crates of beer. The term 'drive by' was coined for this. Any vehicle they pass cops a spray. And any roadside groups are openly contested by pulling over and going toe-to-toe with them.

At traffic lights, two pick-ups side by side is like a series of point-blank broadsides in the battle of Trafalgar, jing jing.

Best of all, is the spirit of all of this. Shrieks of laughter, begrudging acknowledgement of a good shot scored, whoops and hollers, dancing in the street. And everywhere, great big shit-eating grins as people slop about completely soaked from head-to-toe. (The world's largest inadvertent wet T-shirt contest is a nice by-product of all of this!)

Feels like a beach party.
So don't bring your best suit and leather brogues -- you'll be over-dressed wearing crocs. But do bring your sense of humour. Especially as a foreigner, you are worth double points every time.

The moat of Chiang Mai serves as party central ... an endless ammunition dump of water to be tapped. So every car, tuk tuk, pick-up truck, and taxi in town heads here, like a drunken moth to a psychedelic lava lamp. A circuit of the walled city that would normally take, oh, 10-15 minutes suddenly -- rather, not suddenly at all -- takes you more like 3-4 hours.Like a lumbering bumper-to-bumper float parade.

People clamber on and off vehicles, re-supplying, re-loading, getting in cheeky revenge splashes for an earlier exchange down the road.

Of course water and electricity mix ...
Where bands are set up, fire engine-like high pressure guns are mounted on cherry pickers and douse at regular intervals the willing audience, traffic cops, and all cars and bikes trying to edge their way through the milling throngs.

I've been to all kinds of crazy festivals in the world, including the Hong Kong Rugby 7s which was previously my high-water mark, but Songkran wins by a mile. Or a smile.

So book your ticket today for Songkran April 2012, Don't forget to reserve your pick-up truck. Oh, and pack your wetsuit.

Question: where was the most fun place you celebrated Songkran?

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