“Holy Crap! That’s an elephant!”
Setting down my cutlery and contorting my body around Tony’s to gaze out onto Nong Khai’s main street, I confirmed that his assessment of the situation was indeed correct. There, amidst the trundling tuk tuks and zippy motorbikes, a mid-sized pachyderm plodded down the street while roadside vendors and diners alike stopped and stared. Its mahout (handler) strode alongside it, soliciting donations from the crowd of bystanders, comprised equally of agog and nonplussed locals.
As a testament to just how long we have been in Asia, both of us watched the beautiful creature amble through traffic for a good 10 or 15 seconds before I remarked that we should probably take a picture or two. Asia or not, urban elephants aren’t exactly a run-of-the-mill occurrence, and even though for us this wasn’t exactly new, I recognized that for most people, this would be a pretty exciting moment. After snapping a few photos and lamenting how scared and stressed the little elephant must be due to all the traffic around it, we each had a bit of a laugh at how, for those first few moments, this elephant sighting actually had not seemed all that bizarre or notable.
I share this story with you to give you a sense of how much we have adapted to life in Asia, how our new normal is, many times, anything but. I want to tell you that for the past 21 months I have woken up and gazed on the world with wonderment, dazzled by the exotic mysteries that each day brings my way, but the truth is that sometimes Tony & I get a bit blasé about how extraordinary our life currently is. I mean, when an elephant walking through a night market not 10 meters from my dinner plate is treated like just another night in Thailand, it’s hard to imagine what might shake us out of our complacency and truly startle or surprise us.
I suppose that if there is any downside to our frequent visits to Thailand, it is this: that we now feel so comfortable there that we take a lot of what used to astound us as the status quo. As perpetual wanderers, there is always some element of relief that suffuses us when we return to a place we have already been, a little patch of the familiar in the terrain of the foreign. For us, Bangkok in particular (and Thailand in general) is one of those places that certainly feels more familiar than not. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we know all of its secrets, because we have only explored a smidgen of what it has to offer, but every time we return to Bangkok I’m excited to be back in a city that I love, happy to get the chance to explore a little bit more of it, and largely confident that I know what (and just how much chaos) to expect.
But, prior to our most recent visit, we had never visited Bangkok during Songkran, the Thai New Year. Just when I thought I had the city nailed down, all it took was a national celebration to show me just how much there is to learn about Bangkok, Thailand, and even about myself.
The Thais follow a different calendar than we do, and their new year falls smack dab in the middle of April. Traditionally, Songkran is a time of purification, with families marking the occasion by washing Buddha statues and altars in a symbolic gesture of washing away the previous year’s bad luck. People are also often the recipients of this cleansing so that they can face the new year fresh and with luck on their side. With time, however, this act has evolved into a nationwide water fight and has become an event that most long-term travelers in Asia yearn to witness and participate in.
But not us. Whereas many people go out of their way to experience Songkran, we stumbled into it quite accidentally and probably would have gone out of our way to avoid it if we could have. Grumps that we sometimes are, Songkran seemed like just another national annoyance that would make travel difficult (or downright dangerous—each year, hundreds of people are injured or killed due to rowdy carelessness and, tragically, drunk driving during Songkran). Undoubtedly restaurants and shops would close, hotel prices would soar, and we just didn’t relish the idea of being doused with water whenever we wanted to explore our surroundings or forage for food. When we realized that being in Thailand for this holiday was inescapable, we decided to spend it in Bangkok, where we hoped that the festivities would be a tad less disruptive. Some cities, like Chiang Mai, celebrate Songkran for a full week; in contrast, Bangkok only observes the holiday for three days.
We went into Songkran resigned and expecting the worst, only to have it completely surprise us. Not only did it turn out to be exceedingly fun, but it actually revealed a side of Thailand to us that we had never before observed. One thing that we’ve noticed during our travels is that although Thai people are unfailingly polite to foreigners, in many places they are so used to travelers that it can be difficult to move beyond a superficial friendliness with the locals. Everyone is nice and helpful, but rarely do they initiate contact or express any real curiosity about us. We’ve never had a Thai person strike up a conversation with us (unless you count the scammers outside the grand palace), and unlike in neighboring countries, even when traveling through the less visited areas, Thai kids have never chased us down the street wildly waving at us while bellowing hello at the top of their lungs. Thais know that foreigners fuel their economy and that it makes good sense for them to make sure we feel welcome and happy, but we’ve always secretly felt that they’re happiest being left to their own devices. One traveler we recently met astutely compared the Thais to the Japanese, in that they will always be unimpeachably cordial to you, but there is a real barrier to overcome if you want to reach the inner sanctum of true friendship.
During Songkran, all the barriers came crashing down and I think it was this, more so even than the many buckets of water that we had tossed on us, that made the celebration so refreshing. For the first time ever, locals were approaching us, eyes alight with excitement and happiness painted broadly across their faces as they called out Sawasdee Pee Mai (Happy New Year) and then proceeded to smear talcum powder paste across our cheeks and foreheads and then soak us with a hose or a pour a bucket of water down the backs of our shirts. There was such a hum of happiness in the air, and you could tell that as much fun as the Thais were having drenching one another, their glee soared to new heights when they got to pounce upon a foreigner. One guy who drenched us outside of our hotel, followed up by offering us a glass of whiskey so that we could drink to the new year together. He was a little tipsy to be sure, but for the most part, people in Bangkok seemed to be drunk on happiness for the three days of Songkran.
Shrieks of laughter and pure euphoria echoed down the streets as the normally reserved Thais cut well and truly loose. The entire city was transformed, and I wondered if the restaurant, hotel and transport staff hated their lives while people walked around the city smeared with paste and dripping wet. But when we returned to our hotel on the first day, utterly bedraggled, the only response we received at reception was muffled giggles as they took in our sorry appearance as we trudged off to our room. To my eternal surprise, shoppers would enter malls and commuters would jump onto the metro toting mini super soakers, sopping wet, and no one batted an eye. A reminder of my western sensibilities, I kept thinking about how his kind of chaos would NEVER fly back home; even security guards took to dancing in the streets, music blaring, water whipping about wildly. It was a real sight to behold and exhilarating to be a part of.
Despite our doubts, it was actually amazingly fun to channel our inner 10-year-olds and run amok with a water gun in hand. Given Thailand’s blistering temperatures, the spritzes and spraying (and sometimes outright buckets of water), were actually a keen relief from the heat. In the days following Songkran, we found ourselves a bit disappointed that it was no longer appropriate to walk about completely drenched. True story: On the first day of Songkran, I was feeling grouchy and cross because all of the places I wanted to eat were closed (story of our life when we’re in Bangkok, actually…) and it was impossibly hot out. And then we turned a corner and I got slammed with a bucketful of cold water. Normally this would be the icing on a horrible cake (Does such a cake exist? Fruit cake? Black forest cake?), but instead, I immediately felt better. In fact, I actually began to laugh! Hopefully Tony doesn’t take this to mean that from now on whenever I start to get snippy that he should take to spraying me with a squirt bottle as one does when trying to train cats…
For the most part I felt that the emotions behind Songkran were benevolent, respectful, and all in good fun. Unfortunately, not everyone is pure of heart and approaches these things with the right spirit—I initially believed that one could be a “conscientious objector” to Songkran, and that if you made it clear that you did not wish to participate, that the locals would respect that. However, although I think many people were happiest when tourists were clearly into the experience and willing to engage, we certainly encountered people who seemed to take extra glee in targeting people who might rather have been bypassed. Although it’s excessively dangerous, we saw more than a few motorcyclists get absolutely pummeled with buckets of water to the face as they rode by, and certain people definitely got the most satisfaction in pursuing targets who tried to hide or avoid them. I want to say that if you were dressed up or obviously had an expensive camera or electronics on your person that people would respect your space, but I’m not sure that’s true. On some level, if you’re out on the street, you’re fair game.
Which is why, when we decided to actively enter the fray on days two and three (now armed with our own water gun!), we did so with our camera safely ensconced in the underwater housing we normally use when diving and our cellphone & money placed in a waterproof neck pouch that vendors on every corner were selling for 20B (~60¢); everything else was left safe and dry in our hotel room. We made our way down to Silom road, which had pretty much been completely closed off to all but foot traffic. What we found was the wettest, wildest street party we’ve ever experienced.
It was utter insanity. It was also so much fun. Everywhere you looked, people were smiling and having the times of their lives.
(With the exception of this one little kid, who shot Tony with his water gun and when Tony retaliated, shrieked with such indignation and outrage he may has well have been trying to summon the ghosts of his ancestors to his defense. He then focused a death glare to end all death glares on Tony and sprayed water at him unrelentingly, despite his mother’s best efforts to get him to lighten up or focus on someone else. He was pissed and I think his mom had better keep an eye on him in the years to come…)
This wasn’t officially our celebration, and yet we never felt like we were merely being tolerated; anyone taking part was an honorary Thai. I’m not sure that Tony has ever been groped so much as he was during our time on Silom that day, as the Thais seemed to delight in having an excuse to touch someone who was so tall and so white. In our own way, we reveled in having such candid, unreserved access to the locals. We had intended to observe the proceedings from the relative safety of the skytrain overpass that runs above the road, but there’s no doubt that we had way more fun in the midst of the madness. For someone who hates teeming crowds as much as I do, that says a lot, and it was a good lesson that I should continue to push myself to try new things—even when I suspect I might hate them—because I’ll never know for sure unless I give them a shot.
In the past two years, I think we have celebrated the new year approximately six times, and without a doubt, Songkran was the best of the bunch. The final day of festivities also happened to fall on the seventh anniversary of our first date. As a couple, we’ve engaged in many battles over the years, but this one we faced as a team, and was certainly the most fun. Pushing ourselves out of the crowd at Silom, gasping for breath amidst our laughter and the icy rivulets that rained down on us, we took a moment to acknowledge just how far we had come, from those first uncertain cups of coffee (only to find that neither of us even likes coffee!) to having survived a great water fight in the middle of Bangkok. Seven years ago, it was impossible to envision where our lives would take us, separately or together, but I’m confident neither of us ever anticipated we would find ourselves here. I’ve often said that things somehow have a way of working out exactly as they should, often better than you ever dreamed and this was certainly proof of that. Even though four days prior, we both would have done anything we could have in order to avoid Songkran, it turned out to be not just one of our best travel memories to date, but a fabulous way to celebrate our anniversary as well, certainly better than any fancy dinner enjoyed in years past. Life on the road and life together certainly keeps us on our toes, but our time celebrating Songkran was a great reminder to never be complacent about what we have built together. It isn’t always elephants or water wars, but it’s always when we least expect it that we have the greatest potential to be surprised.