Thailand Tripping


I froze at the sight of the weapon pointed directly at me. It was in the hands of the ten-year-old with a gleam in her eye. She let me have it. I shrieked; she shrieked, then we both burst into laughter. It was only a water gun, a massive water gun, as big as her and fully charged. And she kept her hand on the trigger.

I was at the Songkran festival in Chiang Mei, Thailand. I should have known something was afoot when I passed through arrivals at Bangkok airport and saw travellers with water guns strapped to their bags and backpacks. Yes, people actually do fly to Thailand to participate in the Songkran festival, or at least in the world’s biggest water fight.

Before I traveled to Chiang Mei and my soaking, I first spent a few days in Bangkok experiencing a city of around ten million people that manages to absorb and sustain ten million visitors a year. Only London, England welcomes more, but Bangkok, with its reputation for the exotic intact, offers a unique experience.

First morning in the city I hopped into a tuktuk, the ubiquitous three-wheeled cab powered by a motorcycle engine and a driver who cheerfully took on the challenge of beating the regular cabs to their destination. Tuktuks are artistically and/or garishly decorated, and when tossed into the mix with orange buses and a fleet of cabs painted either flamingo pink or banana yellow, I felt as though I was riding on the assembly line at a Smarties factory.

When my tuktuk balked at a narrow gap between a tanker truck and a bus, the space was taken by a pair of motorcycles, a family of three riding on one of them. Daredevil riders from a circus, on their day off, I thought to myself, except there were hundreds of them in the traffic stream, muscling out other vehicles for the pole position at stop lights. Many motorcycles operate as one passenger taxis, mainly used by local Thai people for fast, inexpensive transportation. Young women ride side-saddle, sitting demurely, with one hand on the seat handle. My driver informed me that wrapping their arms around the front rider, a stranger, would be flouting social convention. Nerves of steel indeed.

Thailand has a unique culture, due partly to it never having been colonised by Europeans. Seventy percent of the population is Buddist and has a non-confrontational approach to life, which must no doubt account for the noticeable, and welcome, lack of honking from cars.

I arrived safely at my destination, the Jim Thompson House and museum, which is set in a peaceful tropical garden filled with glorious orchids, which are almost as ubiquitous as dandelions in Thailand.  Here I learned the story of Thomson, the American ex-serviceman credited with revitalising the hand-made silk industry in Thailand.

In 1948 Thomson, with a partner, formed the Thai Silk Company. After Yul Brynner appeared on movie screens around the world in The King and I, with the cast in Thai silk, success was assured. No more army fatigues for Thomson. He built himself an elaborate house using traditional Thai buildings which he had dismantled and transported from elsewhere in the country. He then filled the gorgeous teak buildings with his collection of antiques and rare works of art, clearly enjoying his success.

It came to an end in 1967, however, when during a visit to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, Thomson mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. The legend lives on in the museum; one of Bangkok’s appealing attractions, a charming oasis in the city and a source for genuine Thai silk. After learning the legend I felt I couldn’t possibly leave without at least a silk handkerchief — okay, it was a silk shawl and it hit the souvenir jackpot on my return.

After the quiet serenity of the museum I visited The Royal Grand Palace, the most popular tourist destination in Bangkok. Just getting past the souvenir sellers and street food vendors outside the walled compound was enough of a challenge, but then tantalizing street food alone is another major attraction of the city. I snacked — the fresh coconut with a straw was too hard to resist.

Even the souvenir stuff, which I can normally resist, caught my attention. When Noel Coward wrote “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” he was hardly being fair, as tourists of every nationality were clamouring for fans and sun hats.

Inside, the 60 acres can easily accommodate thousands of visitors, leaving all of them, me included, awestruck at the sight of the unbelievable structures. The first King Rama began construction of the amazing complex in 1782 when he chose to build a new palace. Subsequent rulers didn’t hold back, adding over a hundred halls, residences and government buildings, each more ornate than the last. Although the King of Thailand (a constitutional monarchy) no longer lives full time at the Royal Palace, it is still used for many state functions, ceremonies and royal rituals, and is the spiritual center of the Thai kingdom.

Beside giant statues of mythological demons, families were posing for group shots, while I was trying hard to avoid having Uncle Alfred and the kids cluttering my images. Fortunately, the buildings tower over mere mortals and when gazing upwards to the mosaic walls, red tiled roofs, and gilt covered towers shimmering in the sun, I settled into a sense of wonder at it all.

The wonders continued. One of the buildings, Wat Phra Kaew, is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, and a large crowd was intent on seeing it. Since I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see something so important, I followed one of the groups and found myself at the entrance where each person was taking a turn to bless their companions by dipping a lotus flower into a large, bronze bowl of holy water then shaking it gently over their heads. I was blessed, too, a sign of things to come, then I returned the favour, unsure whether I was suitably qualified.

Before entering the temple, custom requires that footwear must be removed and I added mine to the pile. Inside, despite the mix of day trippers, devoted followers of Buddha, and security people cautioning anyone holding a camera about taking pictures, I could feel the serenity of a holy place. I took a moment and prayed, mostly that I would find my shoes again on the way out.

I left the opulence of the past and returned to the bustle of the city and of the present. Bangkok is renowned for its shopping and the Siam Paragon entertainment and shopping center exemplifies this. I slipped inside, partly to enjoy a little air conditioning, and found myself exploring six storeys of reasons why it is described as the Pride of Bangkok. All the renowned boutiques of the world are represented, and on the second floor, for those who desire a more refined mode of transport than the humble tuktuk, I discovered a showroom filled with Aston Martins, Bentleys and even Lamborghinis.

I couldn’t leave without making a purchase, and feeling relatively poor and obscure beside the car showroom, I picked up a magazine and left the rest for the rich and famous. I also passed up MacDonald’s on the ground floor where Ronald stood, his palms pressed together prayer-like, as in the Wei, the traditional Thai greeting. I opted instead for genuine Thai food on the street.

It’s impossible to avoid the amazing range of street food as friendly vendors line the sidewalks. They cook up everything that can possibly be cooked, turn it into a tantalizing gourmet meal — a little red chicken curry (panang gai) here, a little pad Thai there, and an endless supply of fresh fruit, all served with a ready smile that isn’t taught in a corporate training program. It can be a gamble, though, unless you’re a knowledgeable fan of Thai food. The level of sweet, sour, spicy, or deadly hot isn’t always conveyed as clearly as this tentative taster would prefer. My advice is to watch the line-ups and gauge the reactions.

My brief stay in Bangkok over, I took a one hour flight north to the historic walled city of Chiang Mei, the cultural heart of Thailand. It’s here that I encountered the Songkran festival in full swing. Songkran falls in mid April during the hottest time of the year and marks the start of the Thai New Year. It’s celebrated with as much intensity as our New Year, except it lasts for a week in Chiang Mei. There’s a daily parade, but not really a parade in the sense of standing and watching it pass by. Attend and you’re part of the parade, like it or not.

The festival originated with the blessing and ceremonial washing of statues of The Buddha, the water then captured and poured gently over the head or shoulders of the young and the hands of elders to bring good fortune. In addition to the water blessing, an even older tradition involves the smearing of a white paste on faces as a sign of protection, warding off evil spirits. It is to be left on until it eventually washes off of its own accord.

Before attending the parade, I took time to visit one of the many temples and watched dignitaries make speeches as a huge statue of Buddah was removed with great care from the temple in preparation for its place in the parade where it would be ritually bathed. It was a joyful atmosphere with flags and flowers, young men pounding taphons — the traditional Thai drum, young women performing elegant dances, more enticing food, and flowers in the form of garlands, worn by almost everyone present.

Within the temple grounds there was little water splashing. On the street, however, the festival of the past has evolved into the world’s biggest water fight. And yet it’s unfair to describe it as a fight when everyone is howling with laughter, the concept of non-confrontation joyfully set aside. As the parade passes by, participants and watchers merge in one glorious deluge of water, squirted, pailed, splashed, and hosed, ensuring all present are thoroughly soaked. The only limitations are no splashing of neighbouring stores and no splashing indoors. It’s relatively safe to venture out after the sun has gone down, but set foot outdoors anywhere in daytime and some wily child with pail and a water source will drench you, whether you’re walking, riding a bike, or riding in a tuktuk.

The only advice is to buy a pail and join in — after carefully storing passports and wallets in plastic bags — double bagged. I took a risk using a camera to capture the festival, but by tuning up my spidey sense and carrying a large plastic bag, I managed to avoid direct hits. My first real encounter occurred when I found myself in a high noon situation squared off against the ten-year-old — she had the monster water gun and I only had my camera. I got the camera into the bag okay, but she gleefully blessed me thoroughly. From then on it was a squishy and squelchy, but hilarious afternoon.

Amazing Thailand — truly amazing.

First published June 2011 Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury 

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