Songkran in Ayutthaya and Bangkok

It may be paranoia writing, but on the air-conditioned afternoon bus from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya, I realized that my morning’s exploration of temple ruins had left me with a film of evaporated sweat, and a slight but unpleasant odor. The lady next to me didn’t seem to appreciate this. I am actively working on not caring about such issues.

After a six-hour ride I was the only one to get off at Ayuttahya, the bus continuing on to Bangkok, and instead of a bus terminal, I was let off on the side of the highway a few kilometers from the town center. I must note, once again, the infuriating affairs of hiring transport in Thailand. When you don’t want a tuk-tuk, you are inevitably going to be approached by someone offering you a tour of the city or x-rated ping-pong show for a very good price. When you are half a block away from your accommodations you are accosted by scooter-taxis, offering to take you wherever you need to go. However, when you are in actual need of transport, especially when stranded, the drivers get coy and pretend to ignore you when you don’t agree to their quote. Despite my best efforts to negotiate a price, the scooter-taxi driver wouldn’t budge from his exorbitant 100 Baht fee, all for taking me and my overweight pack on a deathride on the highway.

Luckily, I managed to persuade a very nice couple to let me ride in the back of their pickup the six kilometers into town, refusing payment upon dropping me off. Easily finding a guest house for the night, I was struck at the eery quiet in the streets. Most shops were closed, and the streets lacked the nightlife typical of Thai towns. The city was gearing up for Songkran, Thailand’s multi-day New Year’s celebration.

Waking up the following morning I had an agenda consisting of seeing the vast and manicured ruins of this former Thai capital city. Camera in hand, and everything in my pack wrapped in plastic bags, I set out to brave the commencing celebrations. Songkran, as I understand it, originally was a New Year’s celebration where families would gather and pay respect to one another with blessings of water. Likewise, holy Buddha statues often get taken out of town wats and paraded through the streets to let people wash them.

Today, Songkran is much more of a party, in Chiang Mai lasting almost a week this year. In Ayutthaya I was quickly drenched by mobs of bandit children, commanding the streets, Rambo style, wielding plastic water guns seemingly too big for their small frames. Groups of teenagers pack pickup trucks and crawl the streets, engaging in a country-wide water fight. My guest house even ran hoses that pumped water from the adjacent river to soak passers-by. Add to all of this the tradition of patting strangers’ faces with paste, and the celebration quickly becomes a messy, wet affair.

I did manage to snap a few pictures of the ruins and other historical stuff — thankfully these grounds were off-limits to drenching. But the day was mostly spent getting into the spirit of things. In 95 degree heat, the water is refreshing; and once you let go of western trepidation about getting wet, it is really quite fun. There are floats, beauty pageants, masks, street food and alcohol: really all you could ask for on New Year’s.

After several good soakings and a filling meal, I decided to head down to Bangkok a day early, having seen as much as I reasonably could. Waiting for a train, I met a Anglo-Estonian couple whom I’d recognized from up in Chiang Mai — I’d seen them in costume, riding double-decker bicycles. Apparently, they’ve been traveling the region, playing old jazz tunes on guitars and saxophone. We even got to pass the time with an impromptu Capoeira game.

Arriving in Bangkok, and hoping to run into the musical couple later, I headed out into every agoraphobe’s nightmare: Songkran celebration on Kao San road. I had convinced myself to book a hotel in backpacker central, to experience things from a different perspective than my last stay in BKK. Little did I know at the time that this is Songkran central. Multiple streets filled with young revelers, where nobody is safe from a soak.

I invite you to look at some of the pictures of the crowds, and picture me among twice as many people, trying to navigate like flotsam in a nearly-frozen sea, wearing a giant backpack, trying hard to be zen about the experience. At a snail’s pace, going from waterbucket fight to street rock concert (if only I’d known the words the songs, I’d have moshed, too), some internal GPS-radar-compass thing kicked in. I took an alley shortcut, went around the bend, and lo and behold, found the hotel. I’ve never been more proud of myself.

Able to settle into more comfortable clothes, I soon joined the party, ice-cold water in hand, seeking revenge on any sniper who dared shoot first. Three days into it, I had enough of the whole thing about 2 days ago; but Songkran is actually a lot of fun. One simply has to resign oneself to being soaked and dirty for a while. Not a bad way to end my time here in Thailand.

Tomorrow morning I fly to Cambodia to meet up with an old friend, whose only warnings have been to expect a very different world from Thailand. I eagerly anticipate culture shock.

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