We were in Laos for the first half of April 2016. When we mentioned to people we’d met that we’d be traveling to Thailand next, many murmured that we would be there just in time for Thai New Year. They mentioned the celebrations involved spraying water, and that they would be centered in Chiang Mai, our destination for the dates of the festival. We didn’t think much of it. What follows here is a day by day account of the surreal events that occurred upon our arrival in Thailand.
We arrived in Chiang Mai in the morning, having taken a night bus from Vientiane, Laos. After settling in to our hotel in the Old City, we left to take a walk through the area, foolishly thinking we could stroll and get a lay of the land. We walked for probably ten minutes, unassuming, before a Thai lady threw a cup of water on us from the door of her travel shop. As soon as she did, she took pity on us and pulled us in for a hug. We were disoriented by the whole thing, but she knew what we were in for. As we continued walking, bands of primarily foreigners (Chiang Mai is a big foreigner enclave) were armed with water guns, attacking us every few blocks. There were a fair amount of vendors selling water guns of all shapes, sizes, and cartoon characters, and after about an hour of walking around unarmed, fully soaked, we realized that if we couldn’t avoid ’em, we’d better join ’em.
We used our guns mostly for defense and retaliation that day. I quickly realized that cheaping out on the gun was the wrong move. My little Doraemon was nothing compared to the super soakers that were roaming the streets. That night we ate dinner and went to bed wondering what the next day would hold.
Day 2: 4/13/2016
At 7am, we set off for Dumbo Elephant Spa, about two hours outside of the city, to feed and play with rescued elephants. We figured we’d be in the middle of nowhere and wouldn’t have to worry about the water wars, but we were mistaken. As I held on to a bar on the ceiling of our bumpy tuk-tuk, zipping through the countryside, families threw buckets of water on us from their roadside homes and shops. We showed up at the sanctuary wet. On the drive back, there were twice as many water-throwers pummeling our open-air vehicle, and our driver thought it was funny to slow down to make sure everyone got drenched.
Back in the square of the Old City, there were parties in the streets, and twice as many people lining the sidewalks with water guns and buckets as there had been the day before. I mean, lining EVERY street. The reality that we would not be able to do anything in Chiang Mai except water fight was setting in. We walked a couple blocks and, by then completely soaked, gave in to a party at a bar with live music and dancing outside. We drank and sprayed and dumped and dripped. It was impossible to even fill up a water gun at one of the large plastic trash cans filled with ice without having a bucket of freezing water dumped over my head. The thing to remember was that it was all done in the spirit of the new year. Each squirt was another person saying “Happy New Year!” I realized I had to EMBRACE IT. That was the only way out alive.
We eventually left the party and only made it a few blocks further before we needed to fill up. There was a group of Thai people partying out of their storefront, and stopping to fill up turned into being put into headlocks and having whiskey poured down our throats by a large Thai man while the crowd counted. Let’s just say, the night ended around 10pm after I had a swimming race across the canal and we all passed out with our clothing on, to wake up the next day with varying levels of memory. One perk to being around for this holiday is that we got to interact with local Thai people, as well as the other foreigners, much more than we otherwise would have.
Day 3: 4/14/2016
The next day we decided we’d just hide in the hotel room all day. We aren’t curmudgeons, but being perpetually pummeled with water for days gets tiresome. Like, seriously. Hungover, we left the house around 7am, before the melee would begin, and took one of the red trucks (Rot daang) to McDonalds for breakfast. Don’t judge us – we’d been in Asia for over a year at this point, and sometimes you just need a good old fashioned American breakfast. Plus, we needed to get it fast so we could bring it back to the hotel while we were still dry. Stalls and tents were setting up along the streets as we scurried back to our dry hotel room.
We managed to stay in the hotel watching movies until about 3pm, but we were getting antsy and hungry. While we were in the north we wanted to try Kao Soi, their specialty. Slowly and reluctantly we put on the outfits we’d designated for getting soaked and strapped on our water guns. The party had increased exponentially in size. Soaking wet within a few steps, we walked toward the restaurant and, since it would be a somewhat long walk, stopped for a snack on the street. There was no mercy. Even as we ate, dirty canal water splashed into our cup of corn. I had foolishly assumed some things would be off limits, but nobody was paying attention. That’s why you need a waterproof pouch for your cell phone if you want to use it, and that’s why they sell them on every street corner.
This time, there were stages set up all along the streets for miles and miles. EDM music was blasting from DJ booths and women in skimpy outfits were spraying the crowd with hoses. Traffic was clogged with lanes full of trucks carrying families and water buckets in the back. On day three, it took me much longer to embrace the insanity. It was when we came upon a foam party with a giant inflatable water slide and carnival games that I finally gave in. That was a good time.
Completely drenched, soapy from the foam, and somewhat full of street food, we arrived at the restaurant and ate our delicious Kao Soi, freezing cold in our soaked clothing. On the walk back we stopped a few times to dance with the locals in front of the stages. When we returned, the man from the front desk was standing outside, somehow completely dry, aiming his super soaker at passersby.
Day 4: 4/14/2016
We said goodbye to beautiful Chiang Mai, feeling like we had barely seen it at all, and set off for the airport to fly to Bangkok. We couldn’t help feeling a little relieved that we would not be spending the final day of Songkran in ground zero. The celebration would still be happening in the capital city, but it sounded like it was avoidable. It was and it wasn’t.
As we drove to our hotel from the Bangkok airport, we didn’t see a single soul with a water gun or bucket. Phew! We checked in to D Varee Diva Bally Hotel on Sukhumvit, got settled in, and then headed out to lunch. Wouldn’t you know, the staff was now standing outside the doors with buckets and water guns, soaking my entire backside as I ran past them. When we got back to the hotel, they were still there and soaked us again.
For dinner we went to the extremely cool Rot Fai Market Ratchada, where we managed to stay mostly dry. There were only a few groups of drunken 20 somethings spraying people, and one ninja sniper who followed us until we told him off. Afterwards, we walked through Soi Cowboy where a mistress came out of her establishment, took our water bottle without a word, and used it to fill up her water gun. She proceeded to squirt the crotch of every man walking by.
Since that night was the culmination of the New Year celebrations, we saved the touristy Khaosan Road for another night and headed to Royal City Avenue to party it up with the locals. The streets were completely packed with soaking wet Thai people wielding their weapons of New Year’s glee. There was not another foreigner in sight, and we had left our water guns in Chiang Mai. We made our way through the crowd to the clubs and snuck in a back door at Route 66, the major club in the area, to avoid paying a huge cover. We danced for a while and then walked out into the street, which had been gated off. There was water up to our ankles, with vomit and cheeseburgers floating by. There were large plastic barrels, once filled with water for refilling, now almost empty. Tables were set up to create a plaza effect, and as we moved through them, we were stopped by many enthusiastic and wasted Thai people who were excited to speak with us – the perks of being the only foreigners around. It was fun being around the celebratory energy in this nightlife mecca, especially since we knew this was the end. We walked all the way back to our hotel and went to bed, knowing we’d made it through.
Day 5: 4/15/2016
It was over. It was really really over. What a huge relief it was to walk through the streets safely and soundly, carrying our phones outside of plastic bags and wearing shoes that were not meant to get wet. Still, we would miss the excuse to commingle with the locals and the joy and excitement buzzing in the streets. Would I do it again? It’s hard to say. I would like to go back to Chiang Mai and actually be able to see the sights, but then again, maybe I’d be missing the true soul of the city.
Written by Evy Bround