Chiang Mai: Songkran Sogginess

I left Tasmania and my darling Seth Todd, and flew for 24 stinking hours on a succession of Jetstar flights. Let it be known, Jetstar are low in cost but high in tedium; for hours unending I had nought to do but stare at the barren headrest before me. My requests for a free little glass of water were repeatedly declined, and in the end I had no choice but to splash out and numb myself with a little plastic wine bottle.

Leaving Australia felt fine, actually. It was quite exciting to be on the move again. Australia was a right laugh, Australia was a pain in the gonads. It was both, it oscillated wildly in my estimations for the entirety of my stay within it, and consequently upon blasting off into the air once more my only real emotion was a quiet sorrow that I wouldn’t be seeing blue skies for a while.

I changed planes in Kuala Lumpur airport yet again – an airport I have now visited three times and know the lay of remarkably well for somewhere that I have never deliberately visited – and flew on to Bangkok. The city has two airports. I was to fly into one and back out of the other – on to Chiang Mai. I changed airports on a free shuttle bus, arriving at Suvarnabhumi airport at around 8pm. My flight wasn’t until 6am next day, so I found myself nice bit of floor and lay down, buckling my two bags to my arms and draping my jacket over my face. I managed around 3 hours sleep and spend the rest of the evening lumbering around the airport in search of comfier quarters – alas.

I met Jeanne, Justine and Jeanne’s uncle, Philippe, at Chiang Mai airport. The soaring romance of Jeanne and I’s reunion was tarnished somewhat by the fact that they waited for me at the international arrivals gate rather than national, which meant that after five weeks away from my girl, I emerged through the arrivals gates beaming, to find nobody there. I wandered around for 30 minutes and eventually we just sort of bumped into each other and haphazardly lurched into a bewildered hug.

We giddily caught up in the car on the way to Philippe’s place. Philippe has lived in Chiang Mai for 35 years, and has a house just outside the city with Jeanne’s aunt, Jeaw. They were incredibly kind to us, and for the next week they chauffeured us around the area. We visited the blue and white temples of Chiang Rai, we scaled waterfalls in national parks, we ate at local restaurants on Jeaw’s recommendation, and I got an extremely bad haircut which left my head looking like a wide-crusted meat pie.

I was mortified to find that my hands were healing; goodbye, hard-earned farmyard callouses. Within only a week, all signs that I had ever worked on an orchard were gone. My hands were soft and pink once again, and I was distraught. I might just occasionally sandpaper them from now on to give them a little extra manliness. I grew fatter, too, on a daily regime of middling-exercise and vast three course meals. God, I was so tough and lean on the farm. How I miss it.

Songkran rolled around on the 13th of April. It’s the Buddhist New Year, and for three days the entire country transforms into a watery battleground. Everybody, young and old. takes to the streets armed with water pistols, garden hoses, buckets, oil drums, pots and pans – whatever can hold over 100ml of water is immediately weaponised and to fling water at anybody within a 50 metre radius.

We spent festival with Pipo, Jeanne’s cousin. He’s Jeaw’s son and he was born in Thailand, as local as they come. Jeanne, Justine and I  bought water guns and met up with Pipo and his friends in a scorching hot carpark in the morning of the first day of Songkran, where they were around 10 of us in total. The Thai gang was dressed for battle; bandannas and enormous super-soakers and a cooler filled to the brim with beers. Pipo’s friends had a huge white pickup truck with a gigantic speaker strapped to the roof the driver’s cab. The back of the pickup was open, and we all clambered on, squeezing to fit in alongside the booze and the enormous barrel of ice-cold water they’d hoisted aboard.

We drove out of the carpark and onto the main road, cruising along on our way into the old town of Chiang Mai – the prime spot for celebrations. I sat on the very back of the pickup facing backwards, my feet dangling down, inches above the boiling hot tarmac zipping past. I clinging onto whatever was nearby – I was already wet, and with each sudden acceleration could feel myself slipping further towards the edge, and, erm, a spectacularly violent death, I suppose. Weird, but after long enough in Asia you kind of grow accustomed to it.

The pickup reached the old town – a couple of walled-off couple  square kilometres in the centre of the city, surrounded by a picturesque river. It was chaos. The traffic was gridlocked, inching along at half a mile an hour, and everybody was soaked to the bone. Families were out and about in trucks of their own, kids whirred past on motorbikes with their passengers toting water pistols, SUVs wound down their windows to reveal giggling assassins’ lurking behind blacked-out glass. It was beautifully mad. This is how the locals spend Songkran – slowly circling the old town in a great, wet procession, drenching each other for merry hours on end.

Pipo’s mates were on excellent form. Our pickup was the loudest, the most heavily armed, the coolest we saw that day. Pipo and his friends leapt on and off the pickup at a moment’s notice, darting away into the hubbub of traffic and returning with snacks and drinks and great huge ice blocks to add to the water barrel – locals put the ice into it to chill the water, to make it even less pleasant when you get squirted – without the ice, the water is mostly just a relief from the heat of the sun. But the ice makes it gasp-inducingly painful. I suppose it’s just more funny and satisfying to hear somebody shriek in horror when you spray a great jet down the back of their t-shirt. He he.

We ballsed everything up around 5 hours into the day because Jeanne, Justine and I were all cross-legged busting for a piss – as I had been for most of the day, because my bladder is the size of a fucking cherry tomato – and for the umpteenth time we leapt off the pickup and ran away to find a public loo and a bite to eat (the Thai bunch don’t bother with all this – they just relieve themselves in their shorts; it’ll be drenched clean in 15 seconds).

We got a tad lost down a succession of sidestreets and, our minds blurred to the point of no return by the endless stream of alcohol, we all crashed and burned the minute we sat down in some lame backpacker bar for a quick snack. Jeanne decided she didn’t want to be wet anymore and wanted to stay put to avoid further splashing, and Justine decided she wanted to get back to our distant hostel post haste, and so the former set off walking at a glacial pace while the latter sped off at a march, with me in the middle trying to slow down a sozzled mardy Justine and drag a grumpy drunken Jeanne along behind, all the while having buckets of icy water dashed over my head.

We lost Pipo and his mates after that, but the day had been a roaring success, and as we walked home, I thought about the funny irony of the festival – a long time ago, my trip had begun with Holi festival in India, and in my being coated in the rainbow colours of a hundred thousand powder paints. Fourteen months later, one week before returning home, my trip was bookended by another religious festival: washing everything away.

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