Phoenix, Arizona, United States
After Northern Vietnam, I made a return trip to Thailand to see Tam, my Thai girlfriend, and to experience Songkran, the Thai new year festival, in her home region of Isan.
Morocco to Switzerland
In my very first week in Bangkok, I met a local who invited me to a street concert and charity fundraiser put on by the Apache Motorcycle Club (photos). I had not come to Southeast Asia in search of biker gangs named after American Indian tribes. But I had absorbed enough critical theory to be suspicious of my own ideas of the authentic — temples, Buddhas, rice fields, native garb — and I was grateful to be offered a window into how real, actual Thai people lived their real, actual lives. Bangkokians dressing up in leather vests and riding motorbikes and playing electric guitars to raise money for a good cause is at least as authentic as Americans dressing up like Japanese anime characters at Comicon.
Nevertheless, it would probably not have occurred to me to visit the Swiss Sheep Farm in Cha-an (photos) or to stay at a Moroccan-themed hotel in Hua Hin (photos), a beach town on the Gulf of Thailand that’s a popular getaway from Bangkok. I would probably have visited some more temples and stayed somewhere Thai-themed. But Tam’s whole life is Thai-themed, and she needed one more night of teak walls and pad thai about as much as my American readers need to visit a suburban mall and eat french fries. So instead we lived like Thai people, which is to say that we did exotically un-Thai things with our leisure time.
And then we got up early for the sunrise over the beach, and to my surprise, here in this resort town, monks were walking along the sand, collecting alms in silver bowls, much as they do more famously in Luang Prabang. We were still in Thailand, and it still had the power to surprise and delight.
Pardon me while I powder your nose (photos)
All across Eurasia and its offshoots, people gather together in autumn festivals of light, where the atmosphere is sacred and familial: Christmas, Diwali. And then, come spring, they go nuts: Carnival, Mardi Gras, Holi. In Thailand, these seasonal holidays are Loi Krathong and Songkran, the Thai new year, celebrated when the temperatures soar but the rains haven’t yet come.
To celebrate Songkran, Tam and I headed to the rapidly developing town of Khon Kaen, the biggest city and home of the largest university in the rapidly developing northeastern Isan region. Long a backwater full of rice farmers who speak a dialect closer to Lao than Bangkok Thai, Isan has been going through a tech boom, and stylish new malls have sprung up along the wide avenues in the center of town.
Little of what goes on during Songkran in Khon Kaen feels especially traditional. People wear bright flower print shirts and plastic goggles and waterproof pouches for their cell phones, and they tote bulbous water guns as they navigate the crowded streets from one amplified dance party to another. The main things you do are shoot water guns at each other, dump water on each other with buckets, point hoses at each other, wipe each other’s faces with talcum powder, and dance to very loud music. The water play is a sane response to the crazy-making heat — it was over 40 degrees every day we were there — and also a kind of plea to the gods for a good rainy season. Thailand was in the midst of a long drought, and there were government calls to limit the water play, but they seemed to have little impact on what went on in Khon Kaen.
The talcum powder is a peculiar phenomenon. People walk up to you and gently wipe it on your face, often while apologizing. In Thailand, you never just touch someone’s face like that, so it’s the violation of a taboo. Boys would reach out to touch pretty girls’ faces, teenagers would wipe talcum powder on patient police officers and soldiers, and lots of people seemed to want to touch a bearded foreign face. There was a gentleness and intimacy to it, a very Thai-feeling approach to the fleshly side of carnival.
During the days, when we weren’t indoors hiding from the heat, we walked around town to visit some of the many Buddhist temples. Maybe the most traditional part of Songkran in Khon Kaen is the washing of Buddha statues, everywhere from the town square to temples to the entrance of the biggest mall. At one temple, an impressive pulley system raised buckets of water from the ground to the top of a towering chedi, then dumped them out.
I joined in the washing, and at first I was just pouring cups of water right on each Buddha’s head. Someone gently pointed out that I should be pouring the water in the Buddha’s shoulder instead, and that made intuitive sense. This was, after all, a gesture of respect, not the ice bucket challenge.
But the real partying began when the sun began to sink. The main street was lined with stages set up by corporate sponsors, each one blasting the latest global techno hits from tall stacks of speakers, or presenting a local rock band, with much handing out of corporate swag. My favorite was the local high school kids playing pretty awesome ska at a stage set up by an organization promoting an alcohol-free Songkran. At one end of the road was the main stage. Each evening would start with some boring speeches by politicians. Then came an organized human wave up and down the main avenue, its progress videoed by swooping drones. The wave would climax in fireworks and the emergence of one of Thailand’s bigger rock bands.
Off the main street, there was an area set up for the old folks to dance their old dances, but even then, the music was electrified, and the feel was retro rather than traditional: rockin’ to the oldies, not performing the ancient folkways. The partying got looser and wilder on the streets that angled off the main plaza. Down the pub street, people drank, danced in dense packs under flowing hoses, and generally let loose, while pickup trucks with barrels of water and crowds of splashing revelers crawled along in the traffic.
At times, this could all get exhausting and overwhelming. Hot as it was, it was still rough getting cups of ice water tossed on us over and over. The crowds could become claustrophobic, the revelry taking on a menacing edge as hand after hand reached out to touch my cheeks. But that’s part of the point of a carnival. You want to feel like everything’s a little bit out of control. And for three days in Khon Kaen, in the wilting heat and the crazy wet, we danced in the streets and let the festival carry us with its wild energy.