musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Songkran’

Festival of Death

Thailand’s annual holiday of death and delight, otherwise known as the Songkran water festival, starts today. Songkran is officially a three-day holiday, but invariably stretches out to last nearly a full week when you factor in weekends and bank holidays. Songkran can be an especially fun and festive time with people — both locals and foreigners, many of them tourists — playfully squirting, throwing, and dumping water on one another out in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the “playful” antics can sometime escalate into mischievous or even cruel forms of water warfare. And then there is the powder that celebrants enjoy smearing and wiping over the body parts of anyone that orbits into their range. So no, it’s not always good-intentioned fun.

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I have very fond memories of Songkran, my first exposure to Thailand having occurred during a water festival 22 years ago. What an amazing sight: thousands of people riding around town in trucks and motorcycles all day throwing water and laughing and singing. But there is/was a downside to the happy vibe; some of those celebrants also consumed large quantities of alcohol, became shit-faced drunk, yet reasoned that they could still operate a motor vehicle and of course had an accident, maiming or killing themselves or some innocent bystander. Another happy holiday ending in tragedy.

Death and destruction have become synonymous with Songkran in Thailand. The headline of an article in yesterday’s Bangkok Post blared: Nine Killed in Fiery ‘Danger Day’ Smash. The only reason that this article didn’t make the front page was because the casualties (9 dead and 12 more injured, 4 of those in critical condition) were “only” Cambodians, and probably not deemed important enough for the editors to devote major page space. The Cambodians were travelling in a van that was taking them from Rayong to a border checkpoint in Chanthaburi when the van hit a tree and burst into flames. Most likely these Cambodians were migrant workers heading home to celebrate the holiday in their native country. Like Thailand, Cambodia (and also Myanmar and Laos) have similar water festivals in mid April. In fact, this is THE major holiday in every one of these countries.

I have a Cambodian friend who is working a construction job in Samut Prakarn, a province bordering Bangkok, so whenever I hear about accidents like this (not only vehicle crashes, but also when buildings collapse at construction sites, another sad but common occurrence), I worry about his safety. I always breathe a sigh of relief when he calls and checks in, his laughter assuring me that he’s fine. But with so much constant chaos and a lack of attention paid to safety over here, I’ll always remain worried. Hell, while I was in Myanmar last week, my Thai friend Thanayut was in a fairly major road accident. His car was pretty much totaled but thankfully all that he suffered were some bruises and cuts. It could have been much, much worse.

Like most foreigners who have lived in Thailand for many years, Songkran has lost most of its charm and appeal for me. And yet, I still enjoy the happy vibe that pervades during this time, not to mention the fact that traffic jams in Bangkok are almost non-existent for a full week. So, during this extended holiday, I’ll stay inside my bookshop and work as usual every day, open till close, thus avoiding most of the water craziness, taking taxis to and from work instead of walking or using motorcycle taxis.

Today’s update in the Bangkok Post: 102 Killed and 893 injured. How scary is that? And so, each day when I read the newspaper or check online, I’ll be horrified at the spiraling tally of road accidents and casualties. Have fun folks, but be very, very careful out there.

 

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Wet Wet Wet

It’s Songkran weekend here in Thailand, the annual water festival that’s held to celebrate the Thai New Year. Similar watery celebrations are also going on this week in the neighboring countries of Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The basic goal of them all: the wetter the better!

 

I attended my very first Songkran in Thailand exactly 20 years ago. I spent the festival days up in Chiang Mai that year, immersing myself in the water mayhem and Thai culture. I had a blast. One of the most enjoyable cultural festivals I had ever attended. I was hooked and returned for Songkran again the following year, and the year after, and again. In 1996 I finally moved here for good. I don’t go out and do it in the road like in the “old days,” but I still enjoy the Songkran spirit, celebrating it nowadays as more of an observer. It’s the biggest holiday of the year in Thailand and Thais are always in a happy, buoyant mood. And despite all the trucks and motorcycles you see on the streets, actively engaged in water warfare, there is still more to the holiday than squirting water at other people.

 

While I get a kick of Songkran, many foreign residents here seem to feel the opposite; they are annoyed — or even angered — by the constant water silliness, and do their best to either stay indoors or leave town during the holiday. But for those that do hang around town, Songkran week in Bangkok is blissful and peaceful. I won’t say that Bangkok is exactly a ghost town, but because so many locals and expats leave town, the streets are virtually free of traffic jams and the resultant chaos.  

The photos today are NOT from any Songkran celebrations, but were taken two weeks ago at Kbal Spean in Cambodia. My Cambodian friends were apparently eager to get a head start on the water festival and dashed in and out of the small waterfall at Kbal Spean for a good half hour. I hadn’t been to Kbal Spean in about six years, but it remains my favorite side trip in the Siem Reap area near Angkor. I always enjoy the trek up the mountain, climbing over huge rocks and boulders, being one with nature, and marveling at the rock carvings near the top — or at least the ones that haven’t been defaced or stolen by temple bandits. And that waterfall can make for a very welcome and refreshing break after the long, hard climb, especially in the toasty weather we have at this time of year.

 

Happy New Year — again — to you all!

 

Dancing in the Streets

After observing the misguided and destructive antics of both the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt political groups here in Thailand for the past two years, I often tell people that I think “no shirts” is a far better option. Apparently some revelers during the recent Songkran water festival put that idea to practice, touching off a firestorm of controversy in the process.

Yes, the biggest news event this past week was the three Thai teenage girls who were seen on Silom Road, briefly dancing topless during a spirited afternoon of Songkran celebrating. In these digital times, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that videos of the girls soon turned up online, sparkling howls of outrage, and more than a bit of admiration. Of course there was a predictable chorus of condemnation from the “respectable” sectors of Thai government and the mainstream media. The Ministry of Culture decided that a famous painting by Sompop Budtarad, depicting a group of Thai goddesses celebrating Songkran sans shirts, needed to be removed from their official website, as this work of art was obviously corrupting the youth of Thailand. Most of the columnists in the Bangkok Post weighed in on the issue, either saying that the topless performance was yet another indication of the decline of Thai society and the no-morals youth of today, or absurdly linking the girls’ stunt as an example of sexual exploitation and pedophilia. Huh? These people really do need to get out of their cubicles more often.

I’m puzzled by this bizarre reactionary attitude towards a bit of nudity. With such extreme levels of outrage, I thought I was back in the USA, the land of fundamentalist Christians — those tribes of hypocritical Jesus freaks who believe they have some sort of monopoly on morality and “family values” — rather than here in the tolerant environs of predominantly Buddhist Thailand. Of course I’m making the assumption that most of the negative reaction is coming from Buddhists, when in fact there are more than a few brain-washed Thai Christians living in the kingdom, ones who are obviously offended by bare skin. And yet these same moralists don’t seem bothered by the hordes of festival participants who were publically intoxicated, or driving vehicles under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.  

Personally, I thought the whole topless thing was a bit silly, nothing more than festival-inspired teenage kicks. Caught up in the heat — and the wetness — of the moment, these girls decided to let loose. And from talking to Thai friends, the disrobing on Silom was only one of several such incidents observed during this year’s Songkran. Local law enforcement dudes, however, decided such behavior was not to be condoned and acted swiftly, miraculously rounding up the culprits (two of them came in “voluntarily”) and parading them (with faces discretely shaded by hoods; hey, at least they know how to cover up something!) in front of the media’s cameras less than forty-eight hours later. What the girls did, claim the authorities, was an affront to traditional Thai values and culture, making it clear there would be zero tolerance on this issue. Each girl had to pay a fine.

A couple of letters to the editor in the Bangkok Post in recent days put things in perspective quite well. A gentleman named Roger Shuttleworth wrote:

“The furor over the airing of six pubescent little boobies … was laughable to say the least. Shocking? Barely. Distasteful? Perhaps. Damaging to Thailand’s image? I don’t think so! Shameful? Hardly. This was just a bit of innocent, ill-thought-out exhibitionism. Shameful is a government that can’t resolve the issues (bombings, killings, terrorism) in the South. Shameful are the politicians who are motivated by greed and graft. Shameful are the police who act randomly and extort at every opportunity. Shameful are the hi-so Thais who allow their children to race cars and ruin lives.”

Another letter writer, Richard Harvey, chimed in with:

“I wish to extend my heartfelt congratulations to the long-suffering Thai authorities. They take a lot of flak, but they have finally proven they have what it takes to get the job done. True, they cannot do anything about the terrorism in the South, or the drug trade, or the gem scams, or rich kids tearing through the streets of Bangkok like bats out of hell in their daddies’ cars, or other traffic violators, or enforcement of fire-safety laws, or the hordes of vendors encroaching on public areas. However, they lost no time in tracking down those three topless Songkran girls and teaching them the proper respect due to the law. I, for one, will sleep soundly at night knowing that I am no longer in danger of nubile young maidens exposing me to their naughty parts. Thank you, Thai authorities, for a job well done.”

Okay, that’s laying on the sarcasm a bit thick, but as noted, there are many more worrisome issues facing Thailand nowadays, yet based on the over-the-top reaction, you would think this festive bit of public exhibitionism was the most troubling issue in the country. Frankly, I would welcome MORE public nudity and dancing in the streets of Bangkok, and MORE attention paid to public safety (the hordes of speeding motorcycles on the sidewalks are my personal pet peeve) in the city, as well as the many pressing environmental, political, educational, and social problems that continue to beset the kingdom.

I’d also love to see less myopic reprimands and lectures by the Christian-funded NGOs and other delusional religious fanatics — Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims included — who have warped ideas of what is morally acceptable. Whenever incidents like this get “covered” in the media, it tends to bring the religious nuts out of the prayer group closet, babbling incessantly about the decline of morality in society.  Why is it that anything remotely pertaining to sex or nudity sends these sheltered puritans into spasms of outrage and revulsion? Sorry, but I’d much rather see youngsters dancing naked in the streets than see them racing motorcycles, shooting guns, robbing people, vandalizing buildings … or having some nut trying to convert them to a psychologically debilitating religion.

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