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Songkran flags in Bangkok

"Sawasdee Pi Mai!!
Sawasdee Pi Mai!!"

We knew it would be tough going in, we just didn't know how tough. The area had a well deserved reputation with both locals and foreigners alike. It was a wide open, anything goes, densely populated and chaotic area - and word around town was that the action tonight would be even worse than usual. The shopkeepers and storeowners had braced themselves and prepared as best they could. Their best defense? Close up shop and clear out of the area, leaving only the huge metal doors, dropped and padlocked, exposed to the madness in the streets.

There are four of us, dressed for battle and ready for whatever they throw at us. We mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable onslaught from the well-armed and frenzied locals. Chances are good that they'd be overly trigger happy tonight - and we'd make easy and obvious targets. We move in and get as close to the periphery as we can before ditching our ride. I try not to think about our almost inescapable fate, but instead concentrate closely as John shouts out our battle plan over the nearby yelling and screaming. "I think it's best to go direct - right down the middle - hit 'em head on" he yells. "It's gonna get crazy, so if we get separated, we'll regroup at the Chart. It's about one kilometer from here, just the other side of the worst section. I have an inside connection there, a local, my girlfriend. She'll help us out. We can reload, there's good access to plenty of ammo. Any questions?"

Before I have a chance to say anything, Sean turns to me and says "Here Scott, think you can carry the launcher in? And why don't you take the bazooka too, you know, to hit 'em on the way. Hum, only problem is that you probably need both hands to fire it. Aw, you'll figure it out." He adds "Laura, why don't you take the pistol. John and I will both use the rifles." John chimes in, and with a pat on my back adds "It's gonna get messy, REAL messy. You sure you're both ready? O.K. then, LET'S GO!!"

With that, we charge head-on into Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration; on Khaosan Road, one of the wildest areas of Bangkok. In other parts of the city, and around the country, Songkran is somewhat of a mix between solemn ritual and riotous festival (leaning more towards solemn ritual), and is celebrated primarily through cleansing and bathing. Derived from Sanskrit, meaning an 'entrance', the gist of the holiday lies in the age-old practice of rites of renewal, and is such traditionally marked by respectfully bathing Buddha images and hands of elders with scented water. Merit making ceremonies, long temple processions, and beauty contests also round out the few days of official celebrations around the country.

But whatever the meaning and means of celebration the holiday holds in the rest of Thailand, on Khaosan Road, Songkran is clearly seen as the year's best excuse to party - and party hard. The Thai's love to party. So much so, that they even have a special word for it. 'Sanuk' - meaning everything that is fun, enjoyable, and gives a feeling of pleasure - is definitely the reason for the season on Khaosan Road, as loud music is pumped into the streets and hoards of Thai youth jam and cram their way into an already packed throng of celebrants. We jump in and begin pushing our way through the thick, slithering crowd, slowly sliding each foot forward as best we can, only a few inches at a time. Our wet, slippery bodies slink through the masses in this extremely intimate, full-contact contest of paste smearing and water dowsing. John was right, it is messy, REAL messy. We're constantly dowsed with water from cups, buckets, bottles, water cannons, and Super-Soakers; continually covered with handfuls of white and pink paste, gently smeared all over our heads and faces, always accompanied by a warm, friendly "Sawasdee Pi Mai", or 'Happy New Year' in Thai. My copper colored beard is an especially novel target, and thus gets an extra bit of rubbing with each passing smear. "Sawasdee Pi Mai" "Sawasdee Pi Mai" they each say with a smile as they rub and rub.

By the time we reach the Chart Restaurant and Guest House, all four of us are thoroughly soaked to the bone. Our wet clothes stick to us like a soppy (and heavy) second skin. Any exposed areas, especially on our faces, are covered with a layer of pale pigment - complete with smear pattern that's still evident like a fresh finger painting. Laura's hair is flat and dripping wet, and I sport a fist-sized pile of white clay powder clinging smack square-center on the top of my noggin. "Wow, that was really sumthin' else!" I say as I wring out the front of my T-shirt. "You think making it through that insanity makes us honorary citizens of Bangkok?" I ask Laura. Before she can answer, John pipes up with "first round's on me! Beer O.K. with everyone? Why don't you guys head to the bathrooms and fill up the Super-Soaker - we'll need it to fill the water balloons."

"Water balloons?" "Yeah, what'd ya think the giant rubber surgical tubing sling-shot's for?" Sean retorts. Following about 10 minutes of readying our baseball sized hydro-bombs, we're back out in the street, ready to spread a little water balloon Songkran cheer over the festive crowd. While each holding a looped end of the tubing, Sean and I lock one arm over our heads. John then pulls back and down on the balloon-laden basket, stretching the sling-shot about 6 feet to full tension. "Five! Four! Three! Two! One! FIRE!" And with that, a single small yellow projectile is launched along a gracefully sloping arch, high beyond the notice of the festive revelers; only to fall back towards the earth, but now following an opposite arch. And finally meeting its mark about 100 feet down the street, exploding on an unknown victim with a surprise filled 'splash'. John and Sean's new-fangled dowsing machine is an instant hit with the locals, who cheer us on with every launch.

A dry John, Laura, and Scott in front of some New Year temple flags in BangkokIt seems that we've really gotten the hang of this Songkran thing, successfully offering the crowd a little innocuous entertainment, and more importantly 'sanuk', during their New Year's holiday.

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Last modified: August 17, 1999    Photographs and text 1998 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.


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