A Thailand Vagabonding Welcome: Songran 2016
To say that a 23-hour flight felt short sounds like madness. But that was my sentiment when I heard the roar of our landing gear unfolding above Bangkok.
My flight with Taiwan-based Eva Airways was so enjoyable that I hated to see it end. I had an empty seat next to me for the duration of the “full” flight. Where was my seatmate for the last 13 hours, perched and pale on the toilet?
Who knows, but I expanded my domain and set up shop for the long haul. My comfy seat had been graciously upgraded at check-in by the Thai Eva representative in LAX. I apparently got on his good side by brutalizing the good Thai language and telling him I was destined to drink some Chiang Mai moat water at Songkran. With a wink and a wai, he handed me tickets for one of the best flights in memory.
Even deep-vein thrombosis couldn’t have run me out of my seat. It seemed a small price to pay for being reminded that flying can be enjoyed rather than loathed as an exercise in human suffering. The legroom would have accommodated a Harlem Globe Trotter.
By comparison, I first crossed North America with American Airlines. Sometime during the interminable flight, I expected a grim attendant to slide open the door to Cattle Class and unceremoniously heave in a shovelful of feed pellets from a burlap sack to us serfs crammed in the back. She’d then slam the doors as panic and frenzy ensued inside. Let the clean-up crew deal with the horrors later.
It never happened. The Machiavellians behind American Airlines must think that a $6 can of Pringles should suffice for anyone’s dinner. After all, isn’t that what those sickly looking passengers eat on their sofas at home? Had we been crossing water, I’m convinced they would have landed to save fuel then put long, wooden oars into the hands of passengers. We’d row our way across the Pacific in true Viking style as a muscle-clad overlord beat a large drum to keep pace.
Eva, on the other hand, had a full menu and somehow managed to bring a customized order to each seat. My salmon was restaurant quality. I actually began to feel guilty sometime after accepting the 12th offer of a free drink. The brand new HD screen in front of me was loaded to capacity with free movies I was late to see: The Force Awakens, the last Hunger Games, 007 Spectre. A six-hour marathon of violence, yes, but now I’m less inclined to run away screaming for fear of spoilers being dropped in casual conversation.
I had no idea what was waiting for me this year in Bangkok. Sure, I was snorting the exhaust of the city less than nine months ago before paying good money to be chased by Spanish bulls. But cities such as these can mutate rapidly and unexpectedly. Returning to the place where it all began 10 years ago is always risky; no one wants to discover that their Vegas bride has become a hideous, fanged monster the following morning.
Bangkok couldn’t have greeted me any more warmly. We twirled and dipped. From no queues at immigration to the unexpected three-dollar ride I caught to Khao San Road, the road rolled out in front of me as softly as ever.
Even that despicable tangle of a backpacker bog seemed to turn the volume down a bit until I readjusted. After a few jetlag-induced afternoon sleeps and nocturnal nights, I was back on the Thailand horse bucking and bawling with hat-waving yips! and yeehaws!
Don’t get me wrong: chaos comes swiftly and silently in the filth of this city. But I popped into the swirling model and started contributing right away. With a loving tentacle, the amoeba sucked me in as a recognized particle. Stepping off a plane into an Asian capital and already thinking four moves ahead does wonders for one’s confidence.
Bangkok is a bit like durian fruit. I’ve tried it enough times to enjoy it for what it is, but that doesn’t change the fact that it stinks. Knowing that my ant-covered heart is still buried in the sand near the Andaman, and that Chiang Mai and Pai await with endless espresso and glorious hippy food, usually get me out of the city before I bleed out. But this time I had good reasons for sticking around the 10 days.
I was blessed to meet up with some true vagabonds here. One asked me to remove his motorbike-earned stitches at Cheap Charlies; if that isn’t hardcore, what is?
No time was wasted on this trip. The universe opened and a downpour of pleasant life changes spattered down. In an unexpected ambush of flying cockroaches, I’ve never felt more happy or alive. I know now that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.
Driving to Pai
I did the drive last year but dug in for many enjoyable weeks of work and play. The mission of this two-day trip was simply to soak up the Zen that only turning a motorbike throttle through a sharp turn can provide.
One of the 762 twists and turns on the road between Chiang Mai and Pai was particularly fateful for me. As I rounded the turn, a minibus was approaching from the other direction. No big deal: I passed dozens of them along the drive.
But on this particular turn, as I tapped the brake just to tighten the corner, I felt my back tire slip and give a bit on the slick blacktop. The road had recently been refinished and was as shiny as Greek marble. At that instant, only visible to those on the Fourth Plateau who survived 15 shots of espresso, or perhaps a sadhu, a complex formula flashed and flickered in the air above my head.
Numerous variables were instantaneously calculated by the laws of physics: the thickness of my brake disc down to microns, the temperature of the road surface, the stickiness of my worn tires, the trajectory and speed of both me and the minibus, my body weight, how much I was leaning, and so forth. Parameters flickered, God worked the numbers, and my tire held. Had it not, I would have gotten a firsthand look at the sizable insects collected on a minibus grill in Thailand.
I’ve yet to pay my penance in skin to a Thai highway, but chalk up another point in the close-call bracket.
Here’s a video of part of the drive. Turn your volume up for full effect. Sadly, being a GoPro newb, I let the battery drain before the most interesting part of the drive! So much for that Redbull sponsorship.
I drove into Chiang Mai for my third Songkran (Thai New Year) to be attacked by ice water from both sides. My red arms hissed in relief.
I first experienced the madness and glee that is Songkran in 2006. I didn’t get back again until 2015, and the timing worked out perfectly to see the largest festival in Thailand again this year. Sadly, this year was certainly the tamest; the government has really tightened the screws. One new sign on the street even read: “No Provocative Dancing.”
Songkran is nearly indescribable to anyone who hasn’t experienced one. Some residents understandably run like hell when this time of year rolls around. For at least four days, filthy water from the rat-laden city moat is ingested and blasted into your eyes, nose, and ears. Parasites throughout the city celebrate victory. Even now, I’m certain there’s a community of creatures prudently exploring and staking land claims throughout my sinus cavities.
But that’s a small price to pay for participating in the largest water fight in the world. Imagine a party the size of Mardis Gras for at least three days, but everyone is armed with unsafe water. Throw in gridlock traffic, motorbikes, street dancing, music, masks, screams, laughs, and Buddhism – that’s just the start.
Gleeful Thai families enjoy rare holiday time by having reunions and cookouts; meanwhile, every Buddha statue in the city is carried in a big, noisy procession through the main gate to be washed. For only one day, you can point a watergun at Buddha (it’s good karma, even) and not worry about coming back as a politician in the next life.
How to survive Songkran in Chiang Mai:
- Arm yourself. Many people prefer the simplicity of a bucket; I prefer a sizable water cannon.
- Begin partying around noon every day.
- Fill your weapon with water – the icier the better.
- Join the giggling, screaming, writhing, snake of humans as they fight through the streets.
- Try not to be run over. (sadly, this was the worst year yet)
- Dry off for dinner. Go out to party again that evening.
- Wake up. Repeat.
Perhaps the thing I most enjoy about Songkran is the passive interaction with thousands of strangers from all over the world. Normally, you would probably just walk past a group of Thai/Chinese/Japanese/German/French people going the opposite direction. During Songkran, you get to shoot them in the face to say hello. The whole thing is transactional, and a little flirty in some ways. If they shoot you first, you reciprocate by washing their tonsils with poisonous water. It really is a great way to make friends.
Songkran 2016 vids from my borrowed GoPro soon to come.
Nepal in Two Days
Despite a very enjoyable time in Chiang Mai and noisy reunions here, my time in Thailand has come to a temporary end. I’ll close the door gently behind me and return in a month.
Broken toe be damned. Like the hippies before me, and as the great Bob Seger once sang, I’m going to Kathmandu…