Escaping Pattaya during Songkran.
by Kevin Cain
Having lived in Pattaya for a number of years April is a time of year that I have come to love and hate. The love part is easy, as I celebrate my birthday in April and for my whole life I have spent the day like an overexcited child. The hate part comes with the start of Songkran and the so called celebrations that accompany it in Pattaya.
Songkran is celebrated in Thailand and many parts of Southeast Asia as lunar New Year. Amongst the old traditions water is poured over Buddhist statues and it represents purification and the washing away of sins and bad luck. Also it is a sign of respect for younger people to pour water over the palms of their elders.
As time has progressed this gentle blessing has been replaced with an all out aqua war fought out on every street corner. The small pail of water has been usurped by high power jet guns that can soak an opponent at fifty paces.
OK, for most it is a fun day out where the combatants expect to get a good soaking and are not disappointed. Generally in most towns and cities across the kingdom a single or sometimes two days are set aside for the boisterous activities. One can put up with such behaviour one day a year but for some reason Pattaya takes Songkran to another level and it lasts nearly a whole week. This makes daily life an absolute nightmare, a trip to the shops or a stroll to the doctor’s is nigh on impossible and many of my Thai friends complain bitterly about getting to and from work. One year I walked into my bank on Beach Road at 9am and found the poor cashier soaked to the skin, this was a full three days before Pattaya’s official Songkran festival day !
Last year I thought it was time to get out of town and experience Songkran in two different towns just to see how they celebrated the festival in another part of the country. I drove up to Roi Et with three friends for the first Songkran day and then on to Kon Kaen for day two and three.
Roi Et had designated just a single day for the festivities and we drove about ten minutes out of town to a small village to sample the hospitality of one of my friend’s aunties. In typical Thai family tradition her house was crowded with relatives eating all manner of tasty treats and we were shown to a table to eat lunch.
So far not one beer had been drunk and there was no sign of any water being hoyed around. It was explained to us that a procession around the village would start at 2pm and the fun would start then.
There was an excited air of expectation of what was to come, but also a feeling more like a respect of what the day really stood for. The allotted time finally arrived and small buckets were handed out filled with water, then a whole entourage of aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and other assorted relatives all made their way to the starting point of the procession.
Things now were getting a little raucous and water was being sprayed everywhere with small groups playing loud Issan music on the back of trucks. Being the only ferang in the village (sounding very much like Little Britain) I was instantly drenched and covered in white chalk, but everybody was laughing and shaking hands.
The atmosphere was very different to that back in Pattaya, and one of my friends confided that the procession circled the four roads that surrounded the village and ended at the temple where a collection was being made to repair the roof.
The whole celebration lasted about six hours and by 8pm we were making our way back to auntie’s house to dry off and eat dinner. Beer and whisky adorned the table and we hungrily devoured the spicy Issan food and kept our alcohol levels topped up to laugh late into the night.
The following day we all woke rather late and for myself I definitely had a terrific thirst and a woolly head. I was glad that I was not driving and settled into being navigator for the trip to Khon Kaen. The first stop was a roadside Amazon to drink some strong black coffee and copious amounts of water.
We had booked ahead for two nights at the Kosa Hotel in the city centre and I was groggily excited about my return to the university town. I have a soft spot for Khon Kaen and have visited a few times before, so I was more than happy when it was suggested to continue our Songkran celebrations there.Khon Kaen had allocated an official two days holiday dedicated to Songkran and we would be partying for both. Unlike Pattaya, there is a designated area where the mayhem can take place and outside of it’s cordoned perimeters life went on as usual.
Luckily for our group the party area was just over the road from the hotel and we were eager to join in the loud festivities. Making our way across the road to the sounds of laughter and music we were not once sprayed with water.But turning the corner it was like a battle zone, the place was crowded and the party was in full swing. Water was everywhere and every manner of firing utensil was being used to dispense differing amounts of water over the drenched throng. The atmosphere was more like a fete or garden party; there were ducking stools, stalls and many water based games for kids.
Alcohol was banned from the war zone and everybody was having good clean fun (no pun intended) laughter was the main noise you could hear. After fighting our way through the mayhem and out of the party zone, we found many bars and restaurants open and serving food and drinks civilly.We made one such bar our base for the two days and popped in and out of the fray whenever the fancy took us. It also was a great meeting point for people catching up with us as well as ourselves.
Khon Kaen’s festivities were totally different than our time in Roi Et. But they were contained and there was definitely more of a family atmosphere than back in Pattaya. My friends and I, had for once thoroughly enjoyed Songkran and it was a joy to take part in the festivities. I think I will be taking to the road again to celebrate the lunar New Year and avoid the carnage that goes on relentlessly in Pattaya.