DM and MM's Thailand 2005 Trip Diary

Day 4 - Chiang Mai: Songkran

Wednesday, 13 April, 2005

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09:36

We are resting for a bit after getting up at 06:00 this morning for an early breakfast before catching the first parade of the Songkran festival.

At breakfast today they had fried fish pieces and sticky rice with coconut milk. Although intrigued by the array of spicy Thai food on offer, I couldn't stomach spicy food for breakfast so stuck to muesli - this time with yoghurt which made a very nice combination - and tried a couple of the fried sticky rices on a stick. They were mostly ricy, and not very sweet.

Then we headed out to Nawarat Bridge to observe the parade, which began at 07:00. We were surprised that the streets along the parade route were still carrying morning traffic and there appeared to be nobody waiting for the parade. A couple of lone photographers at Nawarat Bridge and a big empty VIP observation platform decorated with bunting were the only signs that anything at all might be happening.

Despite appearances, we saw the parade begin right on time, visible down the road parallel to the river from the bridge. It soon reached us and we noticed it wasn't nearly as grand or huge as we'd expected. Three pairs of young women walked in front carrying written banners, followed by a group of traditionally costumed women, some carrying silver urns and shaded by men with parasols. Behind them was a group of four men - a drummer, one with cymbals, and two with gongs of different sizes - beating out a march step. Last came a flotilla of young women in costume riding bicycles and carrying parasols in one hand. Balancing on the bikes one-handed at the slow speed they were riding was clearly difficult. We figured these must be the entrants in the "Pretty girls with umbrellas on bicycles competition" we had seen advertised as one of today's major events later in the day.

We walked along the parade route beside the parade, joined by groups of spectators along the way. About halfway to Tha Phae Gate, a group of children on small bicycles, most with training wheels, joined the parade near the front. Many were being helped along by parents as they rode clumsily. Then as we passed a wat, some older boys in monk's robes joined, with gongs and drums, producing a faster rhythm of marching music in competition with the four men further behind.

Eventually we reached Tha Phae Gate, which the parade went through, surrounded by a large crowd of people. The stage we saw being set up yesterday was occupied by a traditional music group playing Thai music. The area in front of it, rather than being filled with seating, was an expanse of reed matting on which people were sitting at low tables and eating breakfasts of spicy Thai foods and sticky rice, provided by a bewildering array of vendors who were cooking and selling all sorts of things. The sights and smells were amazing!

We watched the music give way to Thai dancing, followed by the Mayor of Chiang Mai presenting what seemed to be some sort of community service awards to a dozen or so individuals. He then gave a speech and officially opened Chiang Mai's Songkran festivities to cheering and a deafening roar of firecrackers that produced a pungent smoke drifting across the whole area. We were subjected to the full blast of noise and smoke, as they were being set off with evident glee by an old man just a few metres behind us.

We expected the pretty girls with umbrellas competition to come next, from the event timetable we had, and in fact we saw some of them walk backstage, but instead some men came out to play more music. As it was hot and we were footsore, we decided to peruse the food stalls instead of stand around waiting. Despite much of the food looking very good, we were both still full from our generous breakfasts, so didn't get anything.

We decided to walk slowly back to our hotel for a late morning rest before attending the major parade and water throwing events around lunchtime. On the way back, Michelle stopped at the shop where she bought some cotton scarves yesterday to pick up some more! The woman there remembered us from yesterday and was delighted to do more business.

After that, we almost managed to make it back to the hotel without getting wet (as the water throwing appeared not to begin very early in the day), but on the last street and only about 50 metres from the hotel we were thoroughly drenched by two children waiting in ambush for us by the side of the road.

10:45 Stop Press!

We were just relaxing lying down when there was a knock at the door of our hotel room. Opening it, I found two hotel staff with a birthday cake on a trolley - lit candles and all! After a moment of shock, we let them in and they proceeded to sing Happy Birthday for us.

We're not sure who is responsible, but figure it was probably arranged by someone at Michelle's work contacting the hotel.

15:47

Wet.

We got so wet.

It was immense fun though. We left the hotel just after 11:00 to go check out Warorot Market before heading to Nawarat Bridge again for the parade of the Buddhas.


Warorot Market
As it turned out, this market was very much one for the locals, with produce, pungent seafoods and other meats of all descriptions in various states of rawness or cookedness, and upper floors dedicated to cloths and clothing. The stalls were tightly packed and there was barely room to move between them. The floor was bare concrete, wet with melting ice from the food sections and various dripping tanks. There were pigs' heads, chunks of meat, cooked fish, dried fish, and many other varied meats, all the smells intermingling into one exotic and overpowering melange. Gutters in the floor sluiced the water away, and required a careful step.

Upstairs we browsed the clothing, seeing some rough cotton shirts that I liked. The clothing here was very much the sort of things the locals wore, rather than touristy T-shirts and such. We crossed over a bridge across the road to a similar market building, again with upper levels of clothes around an open lower floor containing in this case fruit, vegetables, and sweets of all descriptions.

We found some good looking shirts for me and after hesitant and skill-free haggling got the prices down a little, to 220 baht and 200 baht - cheap by our standards but probably insanely overpriced by theirs.

Then we had to get a move on as the main Songkran parade began soon. We found our way out of the rabbit warren of Warorot Market after I momentarily lost my sense of direction, but thankfully regained it quickly enough that we didn't take a wrong step. If we had gotten lost in there, I shudder to think how long it would have taken to navigate our way free.

We emerged on to a steamy street, hungry and thirsty. I found a woman selling skewers of meat at a street stall and indicated two items and the most interesting looking of the three different chili sauces she had in bowls in front of her. She grilled the skewers and gave them to me, dipped in the sauce, in a plastic bag. (All street vendor food seems to come in plastic bags - including soft drinks.) It turned out one was fish balls, and the other was chicken. The sauce was very hot and spicy, very nice. Michelle bough some sliced rockmelon (in a plastic bag) and we also got a bottle of water.

We'd prepared to get wet, taking only a minimum of stuff and our disposable waterproof cameras, but up to now had seen little water pouring and had avoided getting wet at all. This was about to change...

We reached Tha Phae Rd and turned east towards the Nawarat Bridge for the parade of Buddhas. This time it was a serious parade, with swarms of people and food vendors lining the streets, as well as people selling buckets and plastic bags full of water with flowers and saffron in them. Before long we were soaked by friendly Thais pouring buckets of water over us and spraying us with water guns. We stopped briefly by a water seller and bought a small bucket and plastic cup so we could join in the festivities.

We walked east towards the bridge and found the real parade, which although scheduled to start at 13:00 was not yet moving. When we got there where a large golden Buddha sat atop a float richly decorated with flowers and a golden throne, we found that apparently some official ceremonies needed to take place before the parade actually started moving. So we took the opportunity to wander the length of the bridge and see some more of the parade floats and marchers. And the water was flying everywhere.

Elephant head sculptures that lined the sides of the bridge were spraying water in towards the roadway from their trunks. People had swivelled the plant watering system nozzles to spray inwards as well. And people were using these to reload buckets as they threw them all over the assembled crowds of people.

The Buddha images were getting particular attention, being the religious focus of the celebration, with people tossing saffrom tinted water over the statues. The idea is to bathe the Buddhas, getting them spiritually clean for the beginning of the new year. There were also huge drums being beaten rythmically by teams of drummers, women and girls in traditional Thai costumes, flag bearers, and various other people lined up ready to march in the parade - and all soaking wet amidst the festivities. We simply stayed and watched the spectacle of a crowd going wild with spraying everyone they could with water. It was nice and cooling in the hot weather!

After a while we wandered back to the main stage area that we'd seen in the morning - this time occupied by people reading various announcements. Soon, a small procession of people - VIPs of some sort - emerged from the nearest property, which we later discovered was the Governor's residence. Everyone was throwing water over the VIPs, so I joined in, in all likelihood tossing a bucket of water over the Governor of Chiang Mai province! As he went to make speeches, we wandered off down Tha Phae Rd in the direction of the parade route, now thronging with expectant spectators.

21:48

We've just returned from our evening excursion - more on that later.

Back to the parade. We looked for food and water, finding the latter easily. Food was a bit more difficult as most of it was either skewered meat or fruit, and Michelle felt like something else. After a little walking we found a man with a motorcycle sidecar stall making rotis. We ordered a banana roti each - after waiting patiently for him to serve all the locals in the queue ahead of us. (Apparently it is common for Thais to serve any and all Thais first before serving foreigners. They consider it polite to treat their own countrymen with this privilege, and there's nothing for it but to be patient and wait your turn, as interrupting or butting in is considered uncouth. When in Rome...)

As we ate the rotis, which were delicious, we could see that the parade proper had begun. Since we were a little way down a side street, we were in the shade, out of the main crush of the crowd, and had a decent enough view of the proceedings, so we stayed there for some time watching the long procession of Buddhas, flagbearers, drum beaters, respected elder citizens, and so forth. I had been hoping for elephants, but none were to be seen.

We used up the last of our waterproof camera shots recording the parade. I got up close to the front of the crowd for a couple of shots and threw some water on a passing Buddha statue, but I got a funny look from one local when he saw the water in my bucket. I noticed that everyone but me had saffron in their water - I hope I didn't commit some sort of major gaffe!


Songkran Parade
The parade seemed endless; after one Buddha went by, a group of flagbearers would pass with a sign proclaiming the name of another wat in Chiang Mai, followed by what was presumably one of that wat's Buddhas. Since there are over 300 wats in Chiang Mai, we figured this parade could take some time! After about an hour of watching the revelries, we headed back to the hotel for a rest. Of course, by this time we had been thoroughly saturated with water several times over, and further water was added by friendly locals as we walked home.

We arrived in our hotel room literally dripping wet. Thankfully the hotel had been prepared with towels lid on the floor outside the lobby, and the staff merely smiled as we dripped our way across the lobby and up to our room. After wringing huge quantities of water from our clothes, we showered and dried ourselves off finally.

We amused ourselves in our room for a while by watching kids and adults alike right below our window using the hotel's fountain beside the driveway to supply an endless stream of buckets and water guns, used to assault any passing traffic with huge splashes of water. Some pickup trucks packed with teenagers on the back tray sowed down as they passed, so the passengers could return fire, supplied by a barrel of water on the truck - resulting in all-out water warfare for a few seconds before the traffic flowed again.

It looked so much fun that I decided to don my wet clothes again and go join in for a while. But first Michelle wanted me to go to the Night Bazaar building on Chang Klan Rd and buy a silver elephant brooch she had seen on Monday. She wasn't keen on venturing out herself again, after getting dry. So I wandered over there and successfully used enough Thai to bargain the price down from 490 baht to 320 baht. Feeling good about that, I returned to the hotel, but most of the water throwers had gone, leaving one young family there. After the two kids (a boy and girl, about 10 years old) welcomed me with a barrage of water gun fire which I returned with buckets of water tossed gently over them, we turned our attention to the passing traffic. We soaked several motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and especially the trucks full of youths who returned our fire with gusto. The traffic died down after a few minutes and I returned, dripping wet once more, to the room.

After a proper shower, I donned blissfully dry clothes. The water throwing appeared to be over for the evening and we decided to risk going out for dinner in dry clothes.

We walked around the corner to the Royal Princess Hotel, which Michelle wanted to check out for her work. We dined in its Garden Cafe; really just an indoor room in the hotel. I had náam phrík nùm - a northern Thai specialty which I later found out was made of ground eggplant and chilis. It came with a selection of cold vegetables, a boiled egg, and some fried pork rinds. I mixed it all up together with rice, only discovering later this evening when I looked it up in my guidebook that náam phrík nùm is meant to be a dipping sauce! Oh well, it tasted good - very hot but nicely flavourful. Michelle had a vegetable curry; it looked a bit like red curry. It was also very hot and spicy - it was difficult for me to tell which was hotter as my tastebuds were too shocked.

After paying with our first Amex use of the trip, we wandered over to the Anusarn Rd food market area for some night photos with the tripod and a repeat of last night's wonderful foot massage. Suitably massaged and relaxed, we picked up a green mango for dessert on our way back to the hotel.

We also stopped in the night market on Chang Klan Rd to buy two silk ties for Michelle's dad, bargaining the price down from 160 baht each to 170 baht for two!

Now back in our room it's getting on to 22:30 and the traffic noise outside is increasing if anything. Today is the first day of Songkran, but the last day of the Buddhist year. I suspect there may be major noise all night, with particular celebrations at midnight - although I'm not yet sure if they celebrate New Year in quite that way. I guess we'll find out soon...


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