Songkhran Splashing

As mentioned in my previous entry, last weekend was the Songkhran holiday or Thai new year’s. This actually isn’t an exclusively Thai event; it is celebrated under different names across of swath of countries in Southeast Asia.

Every year there is an outpouring of nostalgia for the “traditional” forms of celebration – bathing the Buddha statues and gently pouring water on the hands of others as a new year’s blessing. The Bangkok Post disabused readers of these sentimental longings by printing a selection of archival pictures, showing rough-and-tumble water play dating back to the 1950s at least.

This picture, taken just in front of my condominium complex, shows a fairly typical Songkhran scene:


People set up small outposts in front of their houses with buckets of water, hoses, water guns, or a combination thereof. There is usually music blaring loudly, snacks, and alcohol. People dance around and splash each other and other passers by.

There are also pickup trucks loaded with revelers, usually with a large bucket of water in the back. Sometimes large blocks of ice float in the water, adding a special thrill to the experience. There is usually most loud music and, frequently, alcohol. The trucks drive around the neighborhoods so the passengers can engage in water wars with the people partying in front of their houses.

This is all done in the spirit of good fun, although sometimes it isn’t as fun for those who want to pass by without a soaking. Many revelers take aim at passing motorbikes, leading to accidents as the drivers try to avoid a soaking and lose control, crashing. In some areas of town or on some smaller roads, the caravan of pickup trucks brings traffic to a crawl. And of course with the alcohol, the water, and the number of people dancing about in the back of a pickup truck, there are unfortunate falls.

I won’t be the grumpy farang who complains about the Songkhran celebrations, though. They are what they are. Hopefully, over time, greater awareness will be paid to safer ways to celebrate and the high rate of accidents and deaths over this period will diminish. In the meantime, though, this is undeniably a part of the Thailand experience.


The Great Bangkok Songkran Bare Breast Debacle

Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year’s festival, a three-day holiday held each April at the height of the hot season.  The meaning of Songkran has been subject to much debate and over the past many years it has evolved into something much different than it originally was.  This year, however, Bangkok was caught up in a great Songkran scandal that, according to several local pundits, revealed the hypocrisy with which we choose to view “culture” and what is “appropriate”.

At its roots, Songkran is something of a harvest festival, a time of cleaning up after one year and getting ready for the next rice-planting season, which will begin when the rainy season arrives shortly after the peak of hot season.  Water has always played an important part in the Songkran celebration, and traditionally the holiday was celebrated by performing the “rot naam” (pouring of water) ceremony. 

Songkran 3

In this picture I took three years ago, school children dressed in traditional Thai outfits pour water over the hands of their elders.  This is a way of showing respect and blessing them. 


In fact, this same ceremony is performed when a couple is married, as in this example from my Thai teacher’s wedding this past December.

Songkran 3

In addition to pouring water on the hands of elders, there is a religious aspect to the Songkran celebrations, where you pour water on the hands of monks and also over Buddha images, washing and blessing them.

Songkran 4

So those are the traditional celebrations of Songkran.  Given that Thailand is a hot, tropical country it is no surprise that along the way some amount of splashing about with the water also happened.  So Songkran started to get a reputation as being “the water festival” and was thus stylized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.  A little bit of playful, good natured splashing for the youngsters to engage in, if you will.


Somewhere along the way, though, it evolved into something more: a water war with roving mercenaries with pump-action water guns.  This picture above is typical – families or young people fill up large tubs in the back of a pickup truck with water (usually with some blocks of ice in them) then drive around the city looking for revelers in other trucks or playing by the side of the road.  An impromptu water fight ensues.

Often, though, it isn’t just the revelers who are involved.  Anyone on the street – including those who are not interested in playing – are targeted with ice cold water.  A favorite target is passing motorcycle drivers and as you might imagine, there are any number of accidents in which motorcyclists lose control and crash after being splashed unexpectedly.

Songkran 5

In some sections of the city the celebrations turn into chaos, the streets shut down with people splashing each other with water and smearing each other with talcum powder.  Needless to say, the partying is fueled by substantial quantities of alcohol.

Which leads us to this year’s scandal.  Let me start by making clear that, while I don’t particularly enjoy the mess that Songkran has become, I also don’t have a bone to pick with it.  I either get out of town during the holidays or stay indoors to avoid unwanted splashing.

Songkran 1

The scandal began when video clips appeared showing a trio of young women – reportedly ages 13, 14, and 16 – dancing topless on a vehicle along Silom Road.  Worth noting is that Silom Road is adjacent to one of the more famous red light districts in Bangkok where you can find things much more racy than this.

Songkran 2

As you might imagine, there was a big fuss over this nudity and there were no shortage of pundits and officials tripping over themselves to proclaim what an insult to Thailand and Thai culture this was.  In a statement, Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat said, “the clip has negatively affected the image of Thai culture and that all parties involved with such behaviour should be punished, while asking police to give importance to this issue, for it destroys the country’s reputation.” (emphasis mine)

The girls surrendered to the police, were made to publicly apologize, and were fined 500 baht (about US$16) each, and released.

As for the hypocrisy that was pointed out by several observers?  Well, that comes in two parts.  The first is the “oh, that’s too damn funny” part.  Reportedly, at the time of this whole scandal, if you went to the website for the Thailand Ministry of Culture, the following art was displayed on the page banner:

Songkran 7

The picture shows some young Thai girls dancing topless in what looks like a water festival, right?  This was quickly picked up on by the denizens of the internet who hooted and hollered, posting and tweeting about how the Ministry of Culture was both promoting and punishing topless Thai teens at the same time.

Songkran 8

In no time at all – as one observer pointed out, on a Sunday, nonetheless! – the nubile nipples were replaced with this classical Thai picture which, if you look closely, also has some bare breasts displayed in it.

Several other commentators pointed out that the impromptu redecorating of the Ministry of Culture’s website wasn’t the real hypocrisy, though.  They explained that the real hypocrisy is that Thai society has long treated women and girls poorly.  The sex industry here, the vast majority of which serves Thai men, not tourists, is founded on the treatment of women as sex objects.  Young women and girls are sold into sexual slavery and rape is often not reported or, when reported, the women are treated as the guilty party for bringing shame on their family by not keeping quiet.

Now, I want to make clear that I’m not singling out Thai culture for its hypocritical treatment of women.  I’m just reporting on the controversy that erupted here.  Plus, hypocritcal treatment of women is something that is too common almost everywhere in the world.  But as a number of cooler-headed commentators pointed out about this event, the trio of topless girls aren’t the cause of the problem.  They are the symptom of larger societal attitudes that need to be discussed and addressed.  I wonder if this event will provide a catalyst for that discussion to begin?


The End of Songkhran 2008

Thank you for your patience in waiting for this final post about Songkhran 2008.  While I didn’t resolve my video issue, I went back and started the project from scratch and was able to complete it before receiving any video card errors.  As such, it is much less complex and much less polished than my original project, but it still conveys the different ways I saw Songkhran celebrated this year.

Songkhran is celebrated in many different ways, from the traditional to the contemporary, from the docile to the daring, and it all forms an interesting view into different aspects of Thai culture.

P1060043 Songkhran is the Thai New Year, celebrated at the end of the rice harvest season and as we head into the hottest time of the year.  It is a time to pay respect to your elders and to wash away the grudges and transgressions of the year past and move into the next year with a cleansed heart.

What started out as gently dabbing scented water on the hands and faces of your elders and washing Buddha statues evolved into something more.  Songkhran came to more closely resemble another Thai word, songkhram, or “all out war”.

In some sections of Khrungthep, especially Khao San and Silom Roads, hundreds of thousands of people converge for the mother of all water fights.  Armed with “super soaker” pump action water guns and barrels of water with large blocks of ice in them, the alcohol-fueled revelry is ninety parts fun, nine parts mischief and one part malice.

These water sports do have their gentler side.  While we were in Phrachuap Khiri Khan province we drove around the country roads to see how things were playing out.  Small groups were celebrating alongside the roads, music playing, armed with water.  Other groups rode in the back of pickup trucks, usually with 50-gallon drums of ice cold water.  As the groups passed each other there was splashing of water and usually some smearing of a talcum powder-like paste on each-others’ faces. 

Below: An crowded stretch of street on the outskirts of Khrungthep gave revelers a space to slowly drive around the block and splash each other with the water.  This mostly appeared to be all in good fun although plenty of participants were sitting about, looking dazed and confused and a little weary of it all.


Most of what we observed was pretty playful and lighthearted.  The water was splashed with bowls, buckets and hoses, but the talcum powder was just lightly dabbed.  All in all, not an unpleasant way to spend a warm afternoon.

But we also saw the darker side of the celebrations.  At one narrow section in the road just after a curve, there was a large gathering of young people (some thirty people, mostly men) dancing to the music and clearly very, very drunk.  Several were staggering about.  The group would stop traffic in both directions and have their water fights but took it to an extreme.  Some young women in a passing motorbike received a little more than just a dabbing of powder in what looked more like a group grope.

P1060162 Cars were not only splashed but were smeared with the talcum powder as traffic was blocked for several minutes at a time.

The police barely escaped from the mess as a patrol truck came by and the young men blocked it, wai‘ing to the officer and asking for permission to “decorate” the truck.  He kept waving “no” and inching forward, eventually passing by, left.

We were caught up in the mess as heading back to the resort, the good natured fun started to sour a bit when the young men pounded on the car as we kept inching forward.  We didn’t want to stop and let them decorate our car and they didn’t like our being poor sports.  The doors were locked so we were probably safe, but it occurred to me that this wasn’t Songkhran as the tourism authority intended it!

P1060168 We returned to the resort safely – I should point out that there’s no reason to think we were actually in any danger – but that experience had taken some of the fun out of the afternoon.  There is a point where too much alcohol can deflate the fun in almost any event.

Right: The car after being smeared by talcum powder.  The other side had received powder that was blood red.  Thankfully, we got by without too much powder.

During our drive home on Monday, we passed a lot of other Songkhran partiers.  The police were enforcing a ban on the splashing of water along highways and major arterial streets, so travel back to the city was safe.  Once we entered the larger metropolitan area we encountered traffic wherever groups of revelers were gathered, as pictured above.

P1060207 Again, most of it was fun and safe, although we kept seeing sights that looked really dangerous.

Take the group traveling in the truck on the left. They were going along the road at about 80 kph (50 mph) and the guy at the back is splashing himself with water from the barrel, not hanging on to anything and not being held onto by anyone. 

All it would take is a bump in the road, a swerve or sudden acceleration and he could be thrown from the back of the truck.

Farang are known for thinking too much but it seems that a little more safety would be a good thing, especially considering that the fatality rate during Songkhran is double the average.  We concluded the 2008 festivities with 368 deaths and 4,803 reported injuries on the road.  The estimate is that road deaths in Thailand cost the equivalent of something like 2.5% of GDP.  What a waste!

Anyhow, we returned home safely and had a good time on the trip.  I keep thinking, one of these years I’ll go down and party on Khao San road for Songkhran.  But I realize that the fun wouldn’t last very long and I’m not the type to fuel my fun with excessive amount of alcohol.  Maybe I’m just an old fogey now!

In either case, looking ahead to Songkhran 2009 I think a nice two-week vacation outside the Kingdom would be fun.


At Sailom Resort

P1060138 We arrived safely in Bang Saphan mid-afternoon on Saturday, tired from the drive but glad it didn’t take longer.  We found the resort easily enough; Bang Saphan is really not much more than a fishing village so it didn’t take much searching to find it!

Sailom Resort appears to be maybe a year old.  The facilities are in very good condition but the trees and bushes haven’t really filled in.  In a few years, it will be much nicer and the landscaping will be more lush and there will be a little more shade.  Right now, the direct sun is very… direct.

There are very beautiful flowers throughout the grounds, though, such as the one pictured to the right.  It is hard to believe that this is real, the colors are so vivid!


The resort is composed of individual cottages, actually very reasonably sized so that a couple has plenty of room inside the cottage as well as a nice porch out front.  Half the cottages face the pool and the others are around the corner with a view of the Gulf of Thailand.

Below: Looking across the pool towards the Gulf.


A road separates the resort from the beach, and that stretch of beach is not really public.  There is a fence although there are so many gaps you could easily access it.  Also, like many of the beaches on this side of the Gulf, it is not really pretty.  Plus, unlike Hua Hin or Cha-Am, there are no services provided: no umbrellas, no vendors, etc.

The upside is that you can really enjoy you beach undisturbed.  There was another stretch nearby that we drove to, probably about 4 km long with white sand, scattered driftwood, and not a single person anywhere.  Except for Tawn, of course!


Tawn spent much of the two days sleeping and I spent much of it reading.  There is only so much sleeping I can do.  We also did a lot of eating.

Tawn’s friend Tui recommended a restaurant on the beach.  “It doesn’t look like much,” he said, “but the food is quite good.”


He wasn’t kidding.  The shack really looked pretty run-down (above) and the the girls working were listless.  But we enjoyed some lovely crab friend rice and gang som plaa, fried fish with greens in a tamarind paste broth, below.


We did some exploring and encountered the local Songkhran celebrations.  I shot a good amount of video footage and have been editing it together to share with you, but am receiving video card errors when using Adobe Premiere Elements.  If anyone knows anything about video cards on laptops and what I can do about these errors, please send me a message!

I’ll wait another day or so to share the pictures and (hopefully) video footage.

Along the way we passed a lot of beaches where the fishing fleets drop off their catches.  There are rows and rows of tarpaulin across the street on which thousands of sardines are dried in the sun.  We stopped so I could take a picture.  I asked the workers, in Thai, if I could take a picture and they just stared at me like I had landed from the moon.  Either they weren’t Thai or a farang asking to take a picture of their work is just the strangest thing they have ever encountered.


We had dinner at a second restaurant nearby the first. This one looked a little nicer, prices were a bit higher, and so were our expectations.  Sadly, they were not met.  The grilled prawns arrived looking a little small but tasting fresh… until we got past the few on the top of the plate only to discover that the ones at the bottom had been frozen previously.  Tawn complained to the waitress and she claimed no knowledge of that.  “Oh, they were delivered from our vendor this morning.” she said.  Yeah, straight from his deep freezer.

Just from the color in the picture below you can tell they aren’t the same!


The grilled squid, which the waitress especially recommended, was not very fresh, either.  When squid is really fresh, it is quite tender and is really a pleasure to eat.  After chewing one piece for a minute without it getting any closer to being ready to swallow, I gave up.


After two nights at the resort, we packed our bags and got an early start back to Khrungthep.  There really wasn’t much else to do in Bang Saphan and as Songkhran isn’t a recognized holiday for my US employer, I had to get back to work.  Thankfully, since there were still two days left in the holiday, traffic was really light on the road.  We made it back to Khrungthep in very reasonable time.

Along the way we made a number of interesting stops.  There was one point where all alongside the highway there were fruit vendors, kind of a nonstop line several hundred meters long.  Everyone was selling watermelon.  We bought two, one red and one yellow.  Can you imagine the carnage if a vehicle lost control and smashed into the stands?


P1060188 One of the prides of Thailand are the clean, modern petrol stations.  We pulled into one that looked quite new, had several restaurants, a nice coffee shop that could give Starbucks a run for its money, vendors, a children’s play area, etc. 

They also had an antique pump on display, everything written in Thai except for the manufacturer’s name: Avery Hardoll.  If you need a vintage petrol pump, there is a company in the UK that will sell you one, completely restored.  Just what you need for your birthday, right?

As we approached Samut Songkhram, site of the big construction on the roadway, we heeded the advice of a sign and opted for a detour that took us on a wide circle to the west of Khrungthep and then in on surface streets.  It added about 50 km to the route, but we were able to explore some unfamiliar territory and traffic was light so it was okay.

Along the way, we discovered a new location for the Cabbages and Condoms resort/restaurant chain.  Operated by the non-profit Population and Community Development Association (PDA), these restaurants and resorts not only provide employment to local communities, they serve as the source of much of the funding for the PDA’s programs in population control, HIV/AIDS education, poverty reduction, microcredit, etc.  Tawn’s father is one of the executives of the organization, so we like to support them.

The restaurant in Ratchaburi province has been open only four months and when we arrived we were the only guests there.  Of course, we did stop quite early for lunch.


The food was really tasty: asparagus stir-fried with shrimp, Northeaster style larb salad made with tofu instead of pork, and a fish curry that has thin strips of fragrant kaffir lime leaves sprinkled on top.  Aroy maak!




Afterwards, we performed the traditional Songkhran ritual of bathing the Buddha images (conveniently placed outside the front door) with lustral water and a fragrant powder.


The most amazing thing about the entire trip is that Tawn didn’t use hair products the whole time!  And he still looked so handsome!


We were back home by mid-afternoon, leaving us plenty of time to rest and then try and watch a movie.  Sadly, the showtimes on the internet were incorrect so all we were able to do was visit the cinema lobby and talk with a friendly cashier.  Not quite as much fun as watching a movie, really.


The Drive to Bang Saphan

Bang Saphan We started our drive to Bang Saphan on Saturday morning at 7:00.  The start of a 5-day weekend, we knew that there would be plenty of company on the roads and had steeled our nerves, laying in a basket of snacks and packing the iPod charger.

Located 385 kilometers south of Khrungthep, Bang Saphan is at the southern end of Prachuap Khiri Khan province, the same one in which Hua Hin is located.  Another further south and we’d officially leave Central Thailand and be in the South.

The road was two lanes in each direction, and generally in good condition.  Except for a little spot of construction.  Well, two little spots of construction, each about 10 km long and one of which involved one whole side of the road being shut down and all the traffic had to share the other side.

As you can imagine, traffic was a teensy bit heavy.

What would normally be about a four-and-a-half hour trip stretched to about seven, plus an hour for lunch and breaks.

Still, it could have been worse.  Tawn was expecting ten hours.

Along the way we saw all sorts of crazy things on the road:


Above: Not sure if this is a pickup truck or a spare axle being carried along…  Below: Most everyone drove a pickup truck and in addition to the five or six or seven people squeezed into the cab, it was common to see two or three or seven sitting in the bed of the truck.  In the hot sun for hours and hours.



Above: During Songkhran people like to splash your car (and you) with water and a talcum-like power.  This clever driver preemptively covered his entire car with a pair of big eyes on the front and wear windscreens providing (some) visibility.  Below: As we got further from the city, we started seeing signs of country life such as a truck of cattle and a huge stack of hay.  No, the hay was not directly in front of the cattle, although that would have been funny.



Below: At one long traffic jam, we noticed this building alongside the road that appears to have been taken over by ivy.


Finally, a reminder that Songkhran is the most dangerous period on Thai roads.  In the five days from Friday to Tuesday, there were 3,537 road accidents, 3,992 injuries, and 276 deaths.  While there has been a big increase in enforcement efforts in the past few years, this number has remained very high and, sadly, so many of the deaths are alcohol-related.  More about that in my next post.



Day before Songkhran

P1050856 Back from our Songkhran getaway, I’ll give you the first of two entries, this one dating from last Friday. 

Roka’s best friend Stacy arrived on Thursday from Portland, Oregon.  About a month ago Roka asked if I’d take Stacy sightseeing, since Friday would be the one day when Roka was still working and would be unable to show Stacy around.  I agreed and met up with Stacy at lunchtime.

Also, in a bit of serendipity, I met up with another friend who is visiting from Phoenix, back after an eighteen month absence.  The three of us had lunch before Marc headed off to run errands and Stacy and I caught the canal taxi into the old city.

It was hot and sunny on Rattanakosin Island but with a stiff breeze.  The air was unusually clear, not only for this normally smog-choked city but also when considering that a landfill fire had been burning for five days in an adjacent province southeast of the city.

To take advantage of the clear air, we headed to Wat Saket, also known as “Golden Mount”.  This is the highest geographic point in the city, a man-made hill and the only hill in Khrungthep.  The current chedi dates to the reign of King Rama V, who enshrined a Buddha relic belonging to the royal family there in 1877.

Right: View of Wat Saket from San Saeb canal.

In the temple grounds at the base of the hill  there was a Songkhran festival underway, a display of traditional new year’s activities.  Students from a nearby school were wearing traditional outfits, pouring jasmine-scented water over the hands of their elders, washing Buddha images, and playing jump rope and other games.

P1060043 A reporter and cameraman from channel 7 news was on the scene, filming the water blessings.  As I stepped behind the cameraman to try and get the same shot, the reporter said to him, in Thai, “Why don’t you move for that farang behind you.”  To which I repled, “mai pben rai” – no worries!

As soon as she realized that I understood Thai, she decided that she would interview me.  Camera rolling, Stacy and I participated in the water blessing ceremony, pouring water on the hands of the seated elders and wai‘ing them.  Then the reporter asked me a series of questions about why I was interested in these traditional ceremonies and what I though about Thai culture.  I stumbled my way through the short interview, amusing everyone as I went along.  Tawn will be checking with his media clipping service to see if I made the evening news or not.


After making our media appearance, we climbed the double-helix staircases to take in the view.  The breezes were very cooling at the top of the 100-meter tall hill.  Standing in the shade, all of my sweat dried up.  While not nearly as impressive as the view from the top of the Banyan Tree or Baiyoke 2, there was still a nice view of the old city.  Below, my telephoto lens is maxed out to take this picture of the residence portion of the Grand Palace.


We enjoyed the view for a while, took some pictures, and watched as the temple assistants strung strings around the chedi so people could attach bills as part of a special collection for charity.  Temple bells, prayers written on the copper clappers, chimed in the wind with a hundred different voices.


Staying in the shade as much as possible, we walked down Ratchadamnoen Avenue (the Champs Elysees of Khrungthep) past the Iron Pagoda, Democracy Monument, and October 1973 memorial, before catching a taxi to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

P1060080 Since it was already late in the afternoon, the crowds of tourists had gone and monks and laypeople were busy setting up the temple grounds for the Songkhran festivities. 

A pair of novices, aged about eighteen and ten, took a break from shoveling sand to shore up the poles holding the fluttering flags and were making sand sculptures. 

“What are you making?” I asked.  The older one traced a pair of eyes and patted a nose, answering, “The Lord Buddha”.  The younger one smiled as he worked on his mis-shappen hill.  “A chedi!” he responded, confident that his claim could not be disproven.

We continued on, visting the main statue hall where the 46-meter long Buddha in repose never fails to amaze, his serene expression inducing a similar response in most visitors. 

Dwarfed at his side, an artisan made repairs, carefully adding leaves of gold.  Working at no particular hurry, he added one small square after another to the Buddha’s right thigh.

Ignoring the touts and vendors outside the temple, we walked to the nearby pier and jumped aboard the next river taxi.  Dozens of tourists, afraid of missing their stop, stayed crowded at the rear of the boat.  We pushed forward towards the bow, where the crowds were thinner and the breeze more enjoyable.

We eventually made our way back to my condo for a quick chance to freshen up, and to give Stacy an opportunity to meet Tawn.  Then we were on our way via motorcycle taxi to meet Roka, Ken, Markus and Vic at a nearby Thai restaurant.  The motorcycle taxi was a bit of a cheap thrill for Stacy.

P1060083 P1060084

It made for a very pleasant end to the afternoon.  Unfortunately, Tawn did not join because he had dinner with his school friends.  After I finished dinner with my friends, I walked 100 meters down the street to the Chinese restaurant where Tawn was eating.  Their food was just arriving so I stayed and visited, although did not eat.  Pim had brought her daughter Tara with her, who was enjoying playing with her Uncle Tawn, below.