Home Sweet Home
Surin in the southeast of Thailand to Chiang Mai in the north covers a great expanse of the country. After an hour drive to Buriram through a countryside of dry, brown rice fields, I boarded the overnight bus headed for Chiang Mai. Generally, I filled the 12 hour journey with a movie and writing on my tablet until my battery went low and an attempt to sleep. Despite the comfort of the bus seats, I struggled to sleep. The cold blast of air from the air conditioning didn’t help either. At least as dawn broke I was able to look out the window at the lush green scenery in the hills outside of Chiang Mai. Weary, yet happy to be in Chiang Mai, I was greeted at CM Blue House with a warm and jovial greeting.
Being in Chiang Mai is truly like being home. After a few awkward moments where my motorbike and I were getting to know each other, I was off and running. Just in case you were wondering, black motorbike seats tend to heat up quickly which tends to feel like you are searing a little more skin off each time you sit on the bike. Chiang Mai traffic was worse than I have ever seen it, with everyone arriving for Songkran. For once it seemed like cars outnumbered the motorbikes. Even with the increased traffic, motorbikes still enjoy their high standing in the traffic pecking order.
My first few days were mostly spent seeing my friends, which mostly involved eating food. The first night was a hot pot meal with Chet and Mix. Chet and Mix were in charge of ordering since everything was in Thai. Two types of broth to cook meat and vegetables in as well as a hot plate to grill food. The funniest item was the Angry Bird sausage. The one that got stuck to the side of the pot, halfway in the broth, really looked angry! An incredible amount of food combined with wonderful conversation made for a terrific evening. The next day was lunch with Yaweav at a hip place that is popular with the college students. After lunch we went to a wonderful ice cream place that had some fun art. The next day was dinner with Lek followed by a trip to her favorite place for dessert, dao tuung. Dao tuung is an interesting mix of jellies, fruit, beans and corn, covered with a scoop of ice with longan juice played on top. It was really quite yummy!
The rest of my time has been filled with typical day-to-day events. Shopping for necessities, getting bit by some type of bug, trip to the pharmacy for ointment for said bite, working out and some massage training. Despite a lack of a true itinerary, my days have seemed to pass quickly and I somehow have reached the end of another week according to the calendar.
Stopping to Smell the Flowers
Ratchaphruek park, also known as the Royal Flora garden, was established to host the 2006 Chiang Mai floral exhibition. The exhibition featured 30 international gardens and several corporate sponsored gardens displaying flora specific to the countries. Granted, dry season on the hottest day my entire week in Chiang Mai might have not been the ideal day to go to a flower garden. But still I went since I had never been and I needed something to do. Plus it gave me a chance to get out and ride around.
The orchid display was beautiful. So many different colors and shapes of orchids, plus shade and cool. The international gardens were interesting. Despite the lack of actual flowers, each garden contained statuary representative of that country that made it worth walking around. I’m sure it would even be better in cool season.
Finding relief from the hot sun during my 3 hour visit posed a bit of a challenge. Some respite from the heat was found in the mist from the sprinklers watering the landscape. Bug World and the Lanna style house also offered some shade. The greatest relief from the heat was found in the appropriately named Shaded Paradise. Filled with plants and flowers found under the canopy of the rainforests mixed with interesting statuary made it easy to spend a great deal of time walking around.
As one of the few, if not the only, caucasian farang (foreigner) in the park, I ended up being the subject of a couple of photo opportunities. As I was looking at the Buddha images, including one for Songkran, a hospitality employee encouraged me to pour water on the image for good luck. He took a picture of me pouring the water. Then I ran onto him again along with the group of performers dressed in traditional Thai outfits looking utterly gorgeous with their red dresses, matching umbrellas, and beautiful hair and makeup. He insisted that I have my picture taken with the group, which involved about 3 people taking pictures with an assortment of cameras.
Let the Water Festival (Fight) Begin
Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year, also known as the Water Festival. The name Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word “sangkranata” which means to move or change. At the root, Songkran is a religious holiday although today the religious origins are largely overlooked. Water is poured on Buddha images for cleansing and good luck. Sand is brought to the temples, as a way to return all the sand that is taken on your shoes from each visit throughout the year. The sand is made into giant chedi shaped sand castles and decorated with colorful flags. And many Thai use this time to clean their homes and make resolutions to do good deeds during the coming year. Water is poured on friends and family to represent cleansing and baby powder is smeared on faces to represent the fresh and good smell after a cleansing.
Chiang Mai has become one of the prominent locations to celebrate Songkran for Thai and tourists. If you don’t want to be completely drenched by buckets of water and super soaker squirt guns, do not leave your guest house or hotel! Monks are pretty much the only people exempt from soaking. While there are some “rules” followed by Thais, these rules are unfortunately widely disregarded by tourists. Some of the rules include not hitting people in the eyes with water, motorbikes are generally exempt or only the lower body or passenger are targeted, young babies or small children should only have watered sprinkled on them, and after sundown is understood to be a general ceasefire. Songkran lasts several days, and according to locals it seems to last longer each year. This year Songkran started on the 12th.
The 13th was my main day for experiencing Songkran. Navigating the city by motorbike took some special skills and was a solid test of my knowledge of Chiang Mai streets. My friend Alison and I ventured out to some temples in the morning before the craziness really started. Even on back roads it was impossible to not get drenched. On one street, a mischievous official walked out into the road and signaled us to slow down so he could pour water down our backs. Kids with their large buckets of water or hoses meant a lot of splashing. And every time we got splashed or sprayed, Alison would giggle. Trying to get back to our guest house took some serious motorbike skills to negotiate the near standstill traffic and also completed our drenching.
Armed with squirt guns, we dove into the full festivities by walking around the south and west sides of the moat where there were significantly less tourists. Watching water fly everywhere and kids swimming in the moat (either willingly or having been pushed), listening to the booming music being played by cars and on stages that had been constructed overnight, enjoying the brightly colored shirts, and shrieking every time ice water was used made it a truly wonderful afternoon.
Truly I enjoyed being part of such a crazy and wonderful all out celebration. All around the moat people were filled with happiness and carefree frivolity. Young children giggling as they squirted you with their squirt guns that were occasionally bigger than them. Teens pouring water on your shoulder or down your back. Adults encouraging children to spray people or helping with the drenching. Trucks full of families and large buckets of water circulating through the traffic finding as many people as possible to drench. The warm water was fine, the ice water was always a shock.
In the same way it is hard to not be drawn to the images of a natural disaster, we decided to head toward Thae Pae gate to see the carnage there. Thae Pae gate is where the main concentration of foreigners celebrate. We never made it there (thankfully).
One of the key events of Songkran is the parade of the Buddha images from each of the temples. On our way toward Thae Pae gate, we found the parade. Hundreds of people lining the street armed with water infused with tamarind, other spices and flower pedals or bags of pedals to throw. Each image was preceded by a procession of women and men dressed in traditional Thai outfits carrying offerings and flags, and a band. Everyone in the parade was drenched with water. As each image came by, water would fly from every direction. Despite the religious nature of the parade, it was not without festivity in any way. One woman came up and poured us each a shot of Hong Thong, a blended spirits drink. Another woman grabbed my hand and danced me away for a bit.
From Hot to Cold
One of the ways to escape the craziness of Songkran, is to go have a picnic and go bamboo rafting in the hills outside of the city. Lek invited Alison and I to go with her and some friends to Mae Wang, a small river about 40 km from town. Driving up, each little town had at least one or two groups armed with buckets. Alison and I were happy to be inside the truck, as all the people in the people in the back were drenched by the time we reached Mae Wang and our picnic site.
All along the river are bamboo salas, open bamboo platforms with a roof to block the sun, right over the river. The river is shallow (or as the Thai would say, not deep), coming up to maybe my thighs. After eating, most of the younger folks (Lek, App, Alison, Nee and I) got in the river for some fun splashing and playing. Not sure how long we played in the river, apparently it was long enough for me to start getting hypothermia, or at least for my skin to start turning pale even though I only felt a little chilled.
Bamboo rafting was fun. The bamboo rafts are constructed of 8 – 20 foot long, 4 inch diameter stalks of bamboo, lashed together with a length of rubber (a piece of an old tire) and a thin bamboo cross bar. Two people steer (or attempt to steer) the raft down the river using bamboo poles. Traffic jams of other rafts and rocks posed the greatest obstacles. Some of the collisions were quite jarring.
Most the “rapids” we went through were class 1, more just a spot of extra stones and a faster current. Calling these areas rapids is like calling a speed bump a hill. One of the more challenging spots was a narrow rapid that required precise navigation to get through. Felt like being in a large truck negotiating a narrow alley. App and Lek did great getting us through. And then we collided with another raft at the end of it.
The most fun was all the splashing between rafts and greetings of happy new year. As we approached, you would hear “farang, farang”, which usually elicited extra splashing. Not sure if there is some significance of splashing a foreigner for Songkran or if it was just a fun way to welcome us to Thailand.
Not wanting to get the seats all wet inside the truck, Alison and I joined the group in the back of the truck for the ride back. I was already cold and the wind and being drenched with more water didn’t help. By the time we got back to Lek’s friends place, I am pretty sure I was close to having full on hypothermia. Never was I so grateful for the heat of the city, a warm shower and a hot bowl of noodle soup.