slice-of-thai.com Journal 4/8/99: Bangkok and Songkran: The Final Frontier

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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4/8/99

After some sleep, I visited an internet cafe for a few hours to write a bunch more journal entries. I found a nice little second story lace with aircon, junk food, and 20 computers!

I had lunch at an Indian restaurant near Khao San road called Gaylord. This place was absolutely amazing. Every dish had strong, delicious flavors that I had never experienced in any of the 1,000 Indian restaurants in the SF bay area. This was especially surprising to me because I had found food in Thailand more hot-pepper spicy but generally more bland in terms of other spices than the US. On my flight to Bangkok, I met a Thai-born man who ran a Thai restaurant chain in Chicago, and he too thought that in the US you can get much stronger and (to him) better spices than you can in Thailand. I asked the owner of Gaylord about this: apparently he travels to India periodically for his spices! It definitely shows.

By 9pm, I had given up on meeting my friends. I went to dinner and then went wandering down Khao San road to buy some pirated audio tapes. Unbelievably, one of my friends was walking down the road and the same time and we finally connected!

My friends had been travelling for 10 days and had abandoned posh hotels for guesthouses after only 1 day, so this narrowed the chances of contact down to about a 1 in 1,000. We set off to two markets seeking the perfect Thai dessert. We finally found some excellent sweet sticky rice with mango and that just made my evening.

4/9/99

Today I began my advance planning for songkran, the country-wide Thai new year festival beginning on the 13th. During this most excellent holiday, the entire country turns into one gigantic water fight! For three to seven days (depends on the city), everyone in the country writes off being dry and proceeds to completely soak everyone else at every opportunity. Apparently this festival has its roots in an ancient custom whereby Thai people pour water over the hands of their elders to show respect and ask for forgiveness for transgressions in the past year. But somehow, songkran has evolved into one day of prayer and respect-showing followed by a massive water adventure. Throughout every city, truckloads of Thai people roll around town with oil drums of water, greeted by families and business on the roadside with hoses, more buckets, and squirting devices of all size and shape. In addition to water, some cover the faces of others with white powder (flour, baking powder, chalk, baby powder, anything will do). Motorcylists, bus riders, pedestrians, tractor riders, and police are not exempt: the orange-robed monks are the only targets off-limits. I spent most of the day purchasing various items I'd need. More on that later.

My next mission was to take a longtail boat down one of the canals on the Thonburi (west, less-cityish) side of the Chao Praya river that cuts through greater Bangkok. There is an endless supply of costly boats catering to tourists and there is a water taxi, which the Thais take. I asked my friend the tuk-tuk driver, in Thai, to take me to a named pier where the taxi is. Instead, he took me to the tourist pier and told me it was the one I asked for. Another Thai boy followed me around for a while and, when I asked him where the taxi pier was, tried to sell me his overpriced tourist boat and then pointed me in the wrong direction. This process of deceit and misdirection continued for thirty minutes. So many people had lied to me today that I was beginning to steam, and I finally lost it in front of one of the touts. This of course was useless in Thailand but it felt good, and it gave me a much stronger respect for Thai people who can withstand the unbelievable mental stresses of Bangkok and retain a calm composure. I finally found a Thai lady at Tha Maharaj who acknowledged the scams going on, told me about some others I had missed, and told me where the real taxi was (probably).

I walked to the taxi pier and set off on a completely full longtail boat. Thai longtail boats are powered by gigantic engines suspended in mid-air, balanced at one end of a roughly 10 foot long pole that sticks into the water and ends in a propeller. While we plowed through the Chao Praya and down the canal, we would regularly spray water 8 to 10 feet into the air! We passed 6 or 7 beautiful riverside wats. We entered a very cool residential area, where every house was built over the river and had a small pier or stairway leading up from the water.

Khlong Bang Noi Canal: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Khlong Bang Noi Canal
Click here if image does not load automatically.

This is definitely a recommended trip out of the busy city center. One by one, the Thai passengers would signal to the driver, and in a well-practiced ritual the boat would pull up to their personal pier and they would jump off, greeted by their kids and dogs. Quite often we would see kids playing and adults bathing and washing clothes in the Khlong Bang Noi's green, murky waters. The boat was nearly empty when we reached Bang Yai, a small burb where some kids were playing a variant of the hackeysack-like takraw involving a small basket 20 feet in the air (see 3/15). The one other farang and I hung out here for a bit and took another longtail back. We also saw some smaller, brightly painted, hot-rod-like boats for hire. I guess these must be the tuk-tuks of the water.

I arrived back on land with little time before I was supposed to meet my friend Leonard to see a full three hours of Thai Kickboxing. Lumpini stadium was clear across town and it was peak rush hour. That left me with one choice: a motorcyle for hire. I climbed aboard one of the little green monsters with my token undersized helmet and my underaged driver and we set off on an adventure that would tax my sanity. Bangkok motorcyle drivers subsist on the tiny cracks that momentarily open up between vehicles in stop and go traffic. Sometimes taking multiple lanes at a time, they squeeze between cars, trucks and buses who have no chance of seeing them. They employ a similar technique on Bangkok's elevated freeways. Since the de facto traffic rule in Bangkok is "bigger is better," motorcyles are on the absolute bottom of the right-of-way stack, so cars and buses wouldn't stop or slow down even if they could see the motorcyles. Let's just say it was an interesting experience to have, once.

I somehow got to Lumpini alive and splurged for ringside seats at 1000B ($27), probably the most expensive attraction in Bangkok. Last time (around 2/20) I got the 2nd class seats at 440B ($11) and it was kind of hard to see the boxers. Thai boxing (muay Thai) is quite a ritualised event. At the beginning of each match, the boxers performed a dance on the court, stopping at each corner to make the appropriate prayer and certain to secure the blessing of their guru trainers. During each round, a small orchestra played bizarre music which slowly sped up; the boxers often pounced to this rhythm as they decided which of their opponent's weak spots to nail. The 2nd and 3rd class bleacher areas were completely filled with mad gambling Thais who waved in their bets with a complex system of hand signals. Fights seemed to break out in these areas on a regular basis, and a crew of uniformed police and army men stood ready for them at the exit.

The sport itself allows hits with boxing-glove-clad hands or feet, but the shoulders and knees do most of the useful work. The boxers typically locked onto each other fairly quickly and then beat at each other's abdominal organs with painful-sounding knee jabs until the ref separated them. I'm not sure what condition he was waiting for, perhaps just when the audience got bored. There were very few kicks at all, and certainly no cliche kung-fu kicks with long windups; such moves are selected out because your opponent has plenty of time to see them and react. There were head kicks though, and it was quite amazing how fast the boxers could move. Blood was drawn in only one round when a boxer scraped his opponent's head along the lines. There was one match with a knockout (in the first round, in the first thirty seconds!). It looked as if either the losing boxer was drunk or anaesthetized. Given the unimportance of rules and contracts in public Thai culture, it's highly possible that many of the matches were fixed, but we didn't really know.

The evening's entertainment started with the little kids (107 lbs) at 6:30 and progressed to the main event (130 lbs) and then the really heavy guys (146 lbs!). After the 7th of 8 rounds, nearly everyone left the stadium. This is because the 8th round is "international style" boxing (what we call boxing, punches only) and the Thais were not the least bit interested in it. It was kind of surreal watching these two players hit each other in the ring while the MC left, the camera crew and janitorial staff cleaned up, and their shoe squeaks echoed around the nearly empty room. One rumor says they introduced the international style rounds to help convince the Olympic committee to accept Thai boxing as an olympic sport!

4/10/99

Well into April, Bangkok had grown quite intolerably hot and humid. I was now exclusively using aircon taxis without the slightest regret. I had some more items to get for songkran and so I spent most of the day in an upscale shopping mall in Siam Square called Mah Boon Krong.

On the top floor of the mall there was a huge arcade. Most of the arcade games were loud, high-speed motorcyle and auto racing games. What, I wondered, did these people possibly need with such games when they could get the same experience on the city streets? I guess this must be where the kids learn to drive! There was also a room-sized virtual reality game with moving seats and head mounted displays for 80B ($2.16); it was totally empty. There were other virtual reality games, also abandoned. The Thai kids seemed to just go for the car/motorcycle games.

Right outside the arcade was a 50' square area set aside for a pretty neat sport/hobby called "model 4WD" (though this English name is not quite appropriate). Thai kids and dads would bring lightweight battery-powered racecars with overdriven DC motors and race them super-fast around a bunch of long, twisty, colorful plastic tracks. The plastic cars were about 3" wide and 4" long. There were loops, bridges and jumps, but most interesting were the simple tracks where the cars went so fast that you could not follow them with your eyes. Even the Thais kept a good distance from the track, for fear of derailments. One track was set up with a light-beam-triggered speed measuring mechanism and people competed for prizes. The cars had wheels going down and wheels going out. I suspect most of the force exerted on the cars was sideways as they slammed around each 90 degree bend. Each family brought their cars and replacement parts in a tackle box. They all seemed to have their own special tricks for speed (graphite, special batteries, ...). A row of vendors sold new gear and repaired crashed cars.

The number of sticker stores in Mah Boon Krong was astonishing. Kiosks all over the mall, crowded with hordes of young girls, took your picture and gave you back a 5"x6" sticker print with hundreds of tiny photographs of you with wacky colors. Many people described the Mah Boon Krong clientele to me as "rich Chinese Thai;" these girls seemed to spend all day purchasing stickers, jewelry and shoes. The mall's PA system occasionally spewed dorky, jingly advertising songs and the girls sung along. It reminded me of the Rodeo Drive crowd in LA, and perhaps also of the California valley girl stereotype. This is basically the only place I saw this in the whole country.

On the way back to my guesthouse I saw another first: a taxi with a computer dispatch system, and an honest-seeming taxi driver who actually cared about whether he could see his side mirror. Perhaps, I thought, I had caught a glimpse of a new breed of taxi that's going to take over the city. Nah, not a chance.

4/11/99

This morning I, and everyone else in Bangkok, headed to Hualampong train station. My goal was to return to Bpaak Choong, a fairly obscure little farming town, 4 hours northeast of Bangkok, from which I had visited Khao Yai national park at the beginning of my trip (2/22). The 2nd class train was completely booked, so I participated in the mad rush to buy a 3rd class ticket, and the subsequent mad rush to get a seat in the 3rd class train cars. While I waited for the train on the train platform, some grungy folks from Khorat flagged me down and wanted to know all about me. They talked about how they had come to Bangkok to work at some military job for a whole week and brought home only two hundred baht ($5.40). When the train pulled up they instructed me to "Run! Run Now!" and I lost them in the crowd. I miraculously managed to get a seat, or at least a third of one.

Because of the incredible demand on the train systems during songkran, all trains served both commuter and long-distance functions. Every seat was filled and the aisles were almost completely full. This, however, did not stop the ever-present food hawkers from constantly pushing and shoving their way down the aisle, waving the exact same bucket of goods in front of each person on the train every 30 minutes. Their repetitive sales chant continued at full yell volume for all four hours. Seeing as they sold relatively little, I wondered whether the mantra served some spiritual function to get us to buy.

Today there were many complete families on the train, something I did not see at other times in Thailand. The face of virtually every kid was covered with baby powder, and parents put more on as the ride went on. The children often had to pee, and as it was virtually impossible to get to the car with the bathroom (if there was one), parents engaged in various well-practiced, fairly sanitary ceremonies involving baggies or windows while the other riders looked on unsurprised. My guess is this is a yearly ritual for them. Some of these families were on their way to Surin, a 9 hour journey. Some, to Ubon Rachatani at 13 hours. Ouch.

I arrived, had dinner, and took Mr. Awt's rickety sawng teeo to meet my friend Nang, who is a jungle guide at the Khao Yai Garden Lodge where I stayed.

4/12/99

Finally it was time for songkran (see 4/9). Many farangs are unprepared for the event. Some farangs are surprised (and sometimes even offended!) when they get doused. Few farangs outside of Bangkok and Chiang Mai "play songkran" with Thai people. I had decided to take another approach and seek out the onslaught. In the US, I had done some river rafting where we did battle with with long, plunger-type squirters that can shoot 15-20'. While in Bangkok, I purchased five of these from a street vendor who had home brewed them out of PVC pipe and rubber stoppers. I also purchased other squirters, a tarp, rope, and I had a 2 meter wide, bilingual sign printed which said:

 ---------------------------
 |     sat nam farang      |  <-- (in Thai script)
 |                         |
 |  Squirt The Foreigner   |  <-- (in English)
 ---------------------------

Nang helped me rent one of the guesthouse's sawng teeos (pickup trucks with two rows of seats welded to the bed). I tied the sign to the truck, loaded in the squirters and two large buckets of water, grabbed four adventurous German tourists from my guesthouse and along with Nang and a driver we drove all around Bpaak Choong and Khao Yai squirting everyone in sight!

Squirt the Foreigner!: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Squirt the Foreigner!
Click here if image does not load automatically.

I wasn't quite sure how we would be received, but it turns out the locals were ecstatic. As we pulled up to any given crowd of Thais, they were confused at first, but as soon as they had read enough of the sign "sat nam far—" we doused them with our squirters and they loved it! On many occasions we drove by equally prepared crowds who got us back with hoses, buckets, dyed water, and in some cases icewater. We refilled our buckets three or four times, often from the hoses of crowds who had just doused us. As we drove off from each scene the adults would wave happily and the kids would chase after us with tiny squirt guns. The whole event was so fun and friendly that it was one of the main highlights of my trip.

4/13/99-4/15/99

The 13th being a day for prayer, the Thai proprietress of the Khao Yai Garden Lodge had layed out a large (40'x20') tarped area in front of the guesthouse and invited a group of 10-15 monks. The Garden Lodge staff and their families sat respectfully in a wai (prayer-like) posture as they listened to the monks chant for hours. The monks sat in a row connected by a cord which strung from each of their hands to the next. In front of each monk, the staff had placed a can of coke and a bottle of water with a straw. It looked a bit like product placement on the official's table at some olympic event. After the prayers, the Garden Lodge staff brought out a generous brunch for the monks. It is common to hold this sort of ceremony at major religious events, construction of new buildings, and other auspicious times. The host earns much merit by arranging the ceremony. The morning ceremony was quite dignified and orderly, except that the monks would occasionally reveal their annoyance with noise from a less than orderly ceremony happening thirty feet away at the roadside...

From morning until around 6pm on the 12th, 13th, and 14th, a crowd of mostly young Thai people from the guesthouse manned the hoses and two large oil drums of water. They would douse anything travelling down their road, which connects Bpaak Choong and Khao Yai. If there was nothing on the road, they would douse each other. A handful of other farangs and I joined in on the roadside celebrations. It was great fun. A pickup truck or flatbed cargo truck full of Thai people with oil drums of water, squirters, and buckets would pass by at least once every five minutes.

Thais Playing Songkran: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Thais Playing Songkran
Click here if image does not load automatically.

In the afternoon, the streetside Thais dragged out a big stereo and blasted Isaan (northeast Thai) music, to which they danced in the street when there were no vehicles. When motorcyles arrived, they would signal the drivers to slow down and stop, at which time driver and bike got a thorough washing (sometimes including shampoo!). Even the normally stern guesthouse proprietress would occasionally cut loose and participate (but not during the monk ceremony!). Sometimes we would do road trips 100-200 meters down the road to meet other groups of Thais. One time, a large cargo truck drove by with an elephant on board. The Thais went absolutely wild. They sprayed and chucked water 30 feet in the air, and the elephant was having the time of his life (all these people helping him to cool down in the hot sun!).

At some point during the day, bottles of Mekong or Sangthip whisky appeared, and many of the Thai men became completely drunk. It's unfortunate that drinking to oblivion, and the resulting high rate of auto and other accidents, are still a part of songkran. I'd say the drinking I saw during songkran is still not as bad as the typical American high school party or college fraternity scene, but for a society that seems so level-headed the rest of the time, it was a bit disappointing.

During these festivities, I also saw another first. One motorcyclist refused to slow down, and when an 18ish Thai boy from the guesthouse doused him anyway, the motorcyclist almost lost his balance, stopped, got off his bike, and started pacing over to us fuming like a Texan. The boy immediately ran away into the guesthouse at full speed. In a most un-Thai manner, the bike driver repeatedly yelled an unsympathetic sounding sentence which I should have written down (gotta get that slang vocabulary somehow!). This is the first time I had ever seen an angry Thai person. It was actually a bit relieving to see that it was possible. The majority of the streetside crowd was trying to ignore him. Eventually, the boy's father came out and made statements along the lines of "if you take offense at my boy you take offense at me." At times like these, I am told, the Thai family vigorously defends its own members. The boy was completely unprepared to deal with any kind of violent response. All of this made me wonder how Thai businesspeople will ever be able to thrive in cutthroat international business, when they are not even taught as children to handle someone throwing a tantrum.

Overall, these last few days in Bpaak Choong were the best part of my trip. I had seen so many things in the last few months that I no longer felt any pressure to move on, and I was healthy, and so for the first time I could get to know a particular group of people well. I had always felt awkward with most of the large Garden Lodge staff because of the language barrier, but after hanging out with them for a couple of nights, exchanging jokes with the few Thai and English words we had in common and filling in the rest with hand signals and props, it was more fun. Nang is fluent in English, so when I hung out with her I learned more about Thailand than I did from any tour book or travel experience.

On the night of the 15th, my plane for home leaving Bangkok at 7:15am the next morning, I missed the last scheduled bus out of Bpaak Choong and had a little adventure flagging down another. I caught a redeye bus around 11:00pm. They had run out of seats, but had thoughtfully brought along little plastic stools with which they completely filled the aisles. On Thailand's wide inter-city freeways there was stop and go traffic the entire way! It seemed like everyone had chosen tonight to return home from songkran. Around 3am, I arrived at the airport, where the drivers let me off in the middle of a gigantic freeway exchange (overpasses and underpasses) which was clearly not meant for pedestrians. It occurred to me that if this had happened at the beginning of my trip, I'd probably be pretty flustered and freaked out, but now it was just another adventure!

4/16/99

Having found no sleepable location in the entire airport, I decided to start my unavoidable push back to Pacific Standard Time and American culture by ordering up a Whopper. But Thailand had left its mark on me: I also had some jackfruit ice cream!

Sixteen hours of planes and more hours of sleep later, I was back in yuppie hell, University Avenue, Palo Alto, eating dinner with my friend Mike. Everything was strange: the lack of sewer smell everywhere, the fact that everyone was not staring at me and muttering 'farang,' the fact that I could understand table converstation at the restaurant, the chirpy, fake enthusiasm of the restaurant staff, the absolutely outrageous food prices, the drinking straws that didn't collapse when you sucked on them, the potable tap water, and yes, even the bathrooms.

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get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
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get books or almost anything
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