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April 14, 2005

Messy Thailand

    Riding in a taxi in Bangkok always feels like a little bit of luxury to me as it is stinking hot outside, while you’re crisp and cool in the back seat of the air-conditioned cab.  As we hauled our packs off the trolley, dragging them over the road to the first taxi in line, Jeremy swore yet again that things were going to have to change (meaning that he was going to throw out half the contents of his pack at the first opportunity.)  The taxi driver made a face as he picked up one of the packs to stow in the boot of the car.  We managed to fit both packs in the boot and the rest on the back seat with ourselves.
    “Where you go?”
    “Khao San Road”.  The central point for all farang (foreigners) in Bangkok, Khao San Road is a place where you can find a cheap room, eat your favourite food from home (no matter what nationality you are), buy a fake media pass, stock up on cheap silver jewellery and meet people from 30 different countries in an area about one kilometer square.  All farang roads in Bangkok lead to Khao San Road.
    “OK.  We take freeway, OK?”
    “Yes, Expressway OK.”  The Expressway was a toll road but well worth the extra 40 baht to save 45 minutes in traffic.
    The taxi took off and we sped toward the clusters of tall buildings scattered throughout Greater Bangkok.  One of the most striking things you notice when driving through Bangkok, in fact many parts of Thailand, is the jagged development of the cities.  The recession Thailand suffered in the 1990s has left many buildings standing unfinished as the developers/builders were unable to afford completion of the work.  At first it may appear that the city is run-down, but it’s not until you talk to some locals that you realize it is in fact unfinished development, which makes it particularly heartbreaking.  This visual display of shattered hopes and dreams reminds you of how tenuous life can be in Bangkok, fortunes can be lost or made, a stroke of luck could land you in one of the comfortable air-conditioned apartment buildings or sleeping in the muck of the slum directly beside it. 
    “Where you come from?”
    “America… and Australia.”
    “Oh!  America.  Australia.  Very good!”
    The taxi driver was obviously in the mood for a conversation.  “Very hot today?” I asked.
    “Yes, hot hot!”
    “Is it raining?” I asked, meaning “have the monsoons arrived?”
    “No, not much.  Only little rain.  Very hot Thailand now!” 
    He kept turning back to look at us as we sped along the freeway.
    “You come Thailand first time?”
    “No, not first time.  Actually, we met in Thailand before, on Ko Pha-Ngan.”
    “Oh, you met Thailand!  Very good!  How old you?”
    “Twenty-seven and twenty-eight” I answered for both of us in Thai.
    “Oh!  You very young.  I have daughter thirty-five.  Have one baby four months.  My daughter she work in Bangkok in ECC.  ECC computer.”
    Jeremy and I looked at each other in surprise, ECC was the same organization we were doing our CELTA certification with.
    “ECC!  We know ECC.  We are doing a course at ECC Siam Square in two weeks!”
    “ECC you know?  My daughter Katana Dechavilon big manager at ECC.  KATANA DECHAVILON.  Big Manager.  My son Bungen work ECC Rama 2.  BUNGEN.  Good work Bangkok.  Good money!”  He threw us a huge happy grin over his shoulder.  He was about the proudest dad in Bangkok at that moment.
    “Wow – maybe we will meet them?  We will be at ECC in Siam Square.”
    “Yes, ECC have many office all Thailand.  Siam Square, Chiang Mai, many many.  You teacher?”
    “We will be studying to become teachers.”
    “Teacher good money Thailand.  Very good.  KATANA.  You see Katana, you tell her you see father, Somchai me, SOMCHAI.  Father.”
        “Somchai!” we repeated after him, imagining the look on Katana’s face when we tell her her father gave us a lift from the airport.  It’s a small world even in Bangkok!
        “Katana now in New Zealand.  New Zealand.”
        “Oh, yeah, New Zealand!  On holiday?”
        “No, tour.  Tour.  Make tour with ECC.  Ten days New Zealand.  Come back Sunday.  New Zealand very cold.  Have snow.”
        We laughed hysterically, imagining Katana’s first experience with a white landscape.
        “Katana call me, New Zealand too cold!  Too much snow!  Must take hot water, put on car, put inside car, make car OK.”
        Jeremy and I were killing ourselves laughing, remembering all the drag of having to drive somewhere in Connecticut in winter.” 
        “How old are you?” we asked, amazed again by Thai youthful looks, considering he had a 4 month old grandson from a thirty-five year old daughter.
        “No!  You look younger!”
        “Thank-you!  I work before at customs but now I retire.  I not working I not happy.  So now I taxi driver!”  We laughed along, funny how some things are the same the world over.
        “And your wife?”
        “She stay home.  She have Katana baby, Katana in New Zealand.”
        “So you have a baby in the house again?  Does your wife like that?”
        “No!  No can sleep!!”  We all laughed together, enjoying common understanding of things that don’t change, no matter where you’re from.

        The taxi pulled up to the curb at the end of Khao San Road.  Somchai had warned us that he might not be able to get to Khao San Road due to the “big party” Songkran festival, the Thai lunar New Year.  Songkran, also known as the water festival, is held April 13-15 and the entire country shuts down basically to enjoy a three day waterfight.  Buddha images are “bathed” and monks and elders receive the respect of younger Thais by the sprinkling of water over their hands, while the rest of the population simply cools off and has some fun by throwing water at anyone and everyone.  No exceptions.
        We paid Somchai for the taxi ride and he wished us luck, then we piled our packs on our backs and turned into Khao San Road.  Flags and posters (mostly “Coca-Cola”) hung above the street like a parade route.  The road was wet and sloppy as though it had been raining.  Shelters from the sun were set up in the road, under which farang were laying lazily, water guns in hand.  It was only nine-thirty in the morning but it seemed as though most of the people on the street hadn’t yet been to bed.  Thai people stood in the shade, some watching people go by, others lazily squirting farang with their water guns.  We got the impression that something huge had been going on, and though it had reached a pause, it wasn’t yet finished.
        Very little had changed about Khao San Road.  The silver shops were still there, the restaurants with their tv screens already playing pirated copies of the latest Hollywood films.  Street vendors selling fresh fruit were setting up while those with huge woks over gas burners were switching their fare from omelettes on rice for the morning to thai noodles for the rest of the day.  It still looked the same and smelled the same, aside from the temporary festival additions, and it still held the title of both the best and the worst street in Bangkok. 
        Most importantly, however, was that the D&D Inn was standing right where I’d last seen it, a welcome sign to any traveler wanting a relatively well priced room with hot water, air conditioning, clean sheets and HBO.  We dragged ourselves in, checked into a room and spent a minute enjoying a closed door and air-conditioning. 
        We were both tired but too eager to explore Khao San Road to sleep.  We changed and headed back downstairs to get some snacks and see what had changed.  The orange juice vendor was still standing in the same spot as 3 years ago, selling the sweetest orange juice I have ever tasted.  Gulliver’s Travels was still on the corner, and the pad thai vendors smelled like a drug.
        I couldn’t resist my addiction to Khao San pad thai so we ordered a serve each from a lady who looked like she had just set up.
        “How do you say ‘Happy New Year’?” Jeremy asked.
        “Sawatdee bee mai” she smiled.
        “Sawatdee bee mai.”  We practiced the words, trying to commit them to memory.
        As she fried the noodles with loads of garlic, cabbage, bean sprouts and fish sauce the smell made me realize how much I had missed the Khao San pad thai.  I truly believe it is the best fast food in the world.  I piled my serving with crushed peanuts and chilli vinegar and tucked in with the two sticks we were given to use as chop-sticks. 
        I rolled my eyes at Jeremy.  “This is sooooo good!”
        He smiled at me and sprinkled chilli flakes over his.  The little thai lady interrupted him as she came out from behind her wok and faced him with a big smile on her face. 
        “Sorry…” she said in that way only Thais can, oh-so-apologetic when you know they oh-so-don’t mean it.  Before he could figure out what she was apologizing for, she tipped a bottle of ice cold water down his back, laughed, and returned to her position behind the noodles. 
        “Sawatdee bee mai!” she laughed at us.  We looked at each other.  It was ten o’clock in the morning and we had just been dunked by the sweetest little lady you’ve ever seen.  We knew that we were about to get really, really wet.

        Now that we had been introduced to Songkran, sleep was absolutely out of the picture.  We bought some cheap plastic thongs for my feet and a few bottles of water each for ammunition, then headed out of Khao San Road.
        We found ourselves thrust in the midst of throngs of Thai people walking down the road, squirting water-guns at each other, tipping bottles of water down each other’s back, even groups of ten kids crowding around huge containers of water loaded on the backs of utility trucks, dipping in their buckets and tossing them on to the crowd.  Now the important thing to remember is, true to Thai style, one must not express any displeasure at any water-tossing, no matter how cold, no matter how much, and no matter how inappropriate i.e. just as you’re about to take a mouthful of pad thai.  The only correct response is to smile and laugh, saving face but most importantly just enjoying the festivities.  Now this is easy to follow at first as the cool water is a welcome relief to the Bangkok heat, however as the sun occasionally disappears behind clouds it can become a little cool to be constantly drenched, let alone with the ice water.  However, not to be the awkward foreigners who can’t hang with the locals, Jeremy and I headed off down the road towards Democracy Monument with our bottles of water in hand, throwing water straight back at those who splashed us and laughing at the entire scene of chaos.   
        As we made our way it became abundantly clear to me that I was receiving significantly more attention than Jeremy in the Songkran exchanges with those we passed.  And it wasn’t just the water either, there was a new element to Songkran which we hadn’t encountered on Khao San, but which was proving more popular than merely splashing water about.  People were carrying small bowls with them which contained some kind of mixture of water and a powder I believed to be talc.  As they walked by you, they would stop in front of you long enough to dip their fingers in the paste and wipe it over each of your cheeks.  At first this was quite funny, announced by the usual insincere “Sorry!”, however after five minutes of that there was talc in your eyes, mouth, nostrils and ears as the passersby searched for bare patches of skin to smother.  I tried wearing my sunglasses so that I could at least keep the muck out of my eyes, however this brought even more fun as my sunglass lenses were smeared with particular accuracy to ensure I couldn’t see through them.  At times the Thais were so excited to be celebrating with a foreigner, as Jeremy and I seemed to be the only farang outside Khao San at this time, I would feel hands groping for my face from every direction whilst I stood with my mouth and eyes squeezed shut, calling for Jeremy to come back for me when I felt them pass by.  Our favourite apology was “Sorry… messy Thailand!” by a twenty-something feminine Thai man before he smeared paste all over Jeremy’s face. 
        We must have endured this for two hours on main roads all but closed down from the crowds, cars driving too slow covered in paste and taxis using their discretion as to whether they should stop for anyone or not, as well as smaller streets where families gathered out front of their homes, laughing at their children particularly enjoying seeing farang walking by, helpless against their Super Soakers.  Utility trucks drove by with children piled on the back, throwing their buckets of water at pedestrians as they sped past.  We walked by a shop front where two people were refilling hundreds of empty plastic water bottles with tap water and made a mental note to check our water bottles were untampered with the next time we purchased water.  Occasionally we stopped at a street vendor serving small balls of fried fish with chilli dipping sauce or small bowls of tom yum noodle soup, and marveled at how they were miraculously dry despite being located in the midst of it all.  We even passed a policeman, solemnly enforcing the peace with one cheek and one side of his shirt smeared with the grey paste.  I had to stop often, calling to Jeremy to pour clean water into my hands so I could wash my eyes, as my face seemed to need so much more paste than his.  We passed a number of Buddhist temples and saw piles of flowers just inside the entrance, offerings to Buddha, and heard chanting fill the air around.  Statues of Buddha were being bathed gently by young and old, and any car driving by was a moving target for at least a bucketload of water. 
        After hours in the thick of the celebrations I felt an urgent need to have eyes, ears and nose cleared of paste, clean clothes that were not dripping wet and a drink of water that didn’t taste of chalk.  We worked our way back to the end of Khao San Road and noticed that they had erected a barrier slowing the entrance of people into the road to enforce that they leave their talc paste bucket behind.  I guess they had experienced farang displeasure at having their nice expensive clothes smeared with goo and figured it best to leave that only to the farang who dared venture outside their tourist haven.  As we re-entered the road it was now full of Thai people and foreigners, though mostly Thai, engaged in all-out wars from one side of the street to another, squeals coming from all directions as ice-water was fired, the street wet and sticky with not a single dry piece of clothing in sight.  The farang were really getting into the spirit of things, displaying more playful aggression where the Thai would use the surprise sneak-attack, looking away quickly to deny any responsibility for the soaking you just received.  As we reached the D&D we passed three travelers in clean clothes carrying their luggage out of the hotel foyer, and I laughed outright at them.  They rolled their eyes in resignation, there was no use fighting this one.  As we walked through the lobby the staff laughed at our sorry state and we retreated to our room to shower.

        After a long nap I headed up to the pool on the roof, where I had left Jeremy hours ago.  It was now dark and I had a priceless view of the bright lights of Bangkok from the 7th floor.  To my amazement, the Songkran celebrations had intensified into a Mardi Gras-like all-out street party.  Below me in Khao San Road the street was literally jammed full of people moving past each other, easily ten abreast, each pushed against the one in front.  The bars and restaurants had their stereos turned up at full volume and enthusiastic Thais were dancing hard as they lined the streets.  Most of the throwing of water was now being done by those at the sides as anyone in the middle could barely raise their arms high enough to fling anything at anybody, so they simply enjoyed getting soaked.  The noise of the music, squealing, screaming drifted up to me.  As I looked out to Democracy Monument I could see the crowd extending the whole way towards the brightly lit fountains which had been set up around the monument.  Behind me it continued on, in all directions, and endless celebration Thai-style.  As far as I could see Bangkok was one throbbing, moving, snaking, squirting, screaming water fight. 
        I felt someone sneak up behind me and turned to see Jeremy with a big grin on his face.
        “Have you seen this?”
        “I know!  It’s crazy.  You should see it out there – it’s impossible to move or go anywhere without getting immediately drenched to the bone.”
        I looked out over the crowds.  “I can’t believe it – it’s ten times bigger than when we were out there.  It’s like… I’ve never even seen anything like this before!  Not this big…”
        Jeremy laughed at me.  “ It’s like a Thai Mardi Gras!  People are going crazy!  It’s awesome.”
        We set up the tripod and took some video before we could tear ourselves away from the spectacle.  If you can say anything about Thai people, it’s that they know how to have a good time. 
        Messy, messy Thailand.


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Fiona! Your description of Songkran brought back so many vivid memories! As children, my brother and I would BEG my mother to let us roll down the car windows when we drove into town (we lved in Chang mai). I still can't believe she let us do it once . . . It is one thing to have all your clothes drenched - but a car interior? Mom was pretty charitable that day! :) Keep up the good "clean" fun!

Great stuff - can't wait to get back there. I am planning to do the CELTA at ECC Siam Sq in November. Would be very interested to know what you think of the course, the tutors and the pros & cons of doing it in Bangkok.


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