Songkran

As I was standing on a street corner in Jomtien, a white tourist drove his motorbike to the intersection and stopped. He sat idling for a minute waiting for the traffic light. Without warning, a blast of cold water shot from the sidewalk and hit him in the chest. He stood up for a moment, still straddling the bike, and looked down at his wet shirt. Dazed and annoyed, he shot a sideways glance at the perpetrator, another white tourist with a water cannon.

I laughed to myself. Did he not know? It was Songkran, April 13, 2013. I had only yesterday been in Chiang Mai. My travel companion and I were travelling to the train station via songthaew. Our path led around the old city’s moat, the main parade route for the Songkran festival. Along that route, hundreds of people, mostly Thai, were lined up in brightly colored shirts, armed with squirt guns and buckets, and ammunitioned with barrels of cold water. Within minutes, we were soaked. But we didn’t care. It was a novelty to us, and we enjoyed the hell out of it, especially in Thailand’s hot April humidity. We were laughing, and thanking them for the cool water. To us, this holiday tradition was splendid fun, even if it was a bit inconvenient for business and travel.

So there I was a day later, both baffled and amused at the motorcyclist’s shock and irritation. He must be green, I thought. He must not know about Songkran.

Now it’s two years later, plus one day. It’s also the anniversary of the day I met my girlfriend—the number one reason for moving here. Two years ago today, I stumbled drunkenly into iBar telling my friend that dancing and making out with a cute Thai girl would make my night. Little did I know how fated the next 24 hours would be. I spent all night and the following day with her. We walked up and down Beach Road, a place completely new to my eyes. We sat on Pattaya beach—for me a first. That evening, we met up with her best friend, and we played Songkran water fights and drank beer and kissed the hours away. Then, we all went to her friend’s house for a Thai-style barbecue. At 1 am that night, we said our goodbyes for what we thought would be the last time. How wrong we were!

And now, two years later, I’m a little less green. I’m more plugged into Thai culture. Little is new to me anymore. And I see the irony in my assumptions about the motorcyclist. Perhaps he didn’t know about Songkran. Or perhaps, like many local residents in the Pattaya area—both Thai and foreign—he was dreading the holiday. He was dreading the fact that he can’t go anywhere for a week without getting soaked. He can’t do business, go out to eat, or even get his groceries without it becoming a laundry affair. And so, like most middle-aged farang men, he was probably on his way to the store to stock up on supplies so he could shut himself in for the week and avoid the festivities.

Why would anyone want to avoid such fun? The answer is rather simple: as with many things, Pattaya does not practice moderation. This is a city of excess, uncompromising and undiscriminating. While other cities around Thailand take turns having their water festivals to ease the economic pain of intercity migration, Pattaya synchronizes its clock to all cities. So from the date of the first festival, April 13, to the Extended Songkran Festival—made just for this no-holds-barred city—on April 18-19, this city is a wet zone. For the most part, the partying is restricted to the usual party zones—Walking Street, Beach Road, Jomtien Beach, and much of South Pattaya. And the locality of this extended hydrated apocalypse should belie the ethnic makeup of its four horsemen, namely farang tourists. And it’s not just annoying fun. Every year people die during this 7-day chaos, some of them from being shot in the face with water while on their motorbike.

So perhaps what was going through the motorcyclist’s head two years ago was, “Aw man, already?”

As for me, I hope to be out there today, soaking up the fun. Literally.

Advertisements

Koh Samed

March 20-23, 2015

The soothing hush of waves rolled into my ears. Leaves whispered serene secrets above my head. Birds sang soft melodies from every corner of the atmosphere. Children laughed and splashed. A minty lavender scent filled my nose, accompanied by hot and cold tingles up and down my back. Masseuse number 58 slowly and methodically rubbed out all my anxieties and tension as she quietly babbled in Thai with the other masseuses. This is bliss, bought and paid for, and easily travelled to, on Koh Samed.

IMG_3436

A mere 13 square kilometers in size, this tiny island lies just south of the Rayong coast and only 220 kilometers from the boisterous bustle of Bangkok. It was only 34 years ago that the Thai government lifted restrictions on overnight stays on the island, and declared it a national park. Now, a plethora of resorts and bungalows decorate its eastern beaches. Despite its relatively arid climate, the island boasts lush tropical forests as a backdrop to its white sandy beaches and turquoise waters.

IMG_3426
The boat ride from Ban Phe pier in Rayong to Na Dan pier in Koh Samed

To get to Koh Samed, visitors ride forty minutes from the nearest piers in Ban Phe. Upon arrival, they hire green songthaews that traverse the brick-paved road that winds around the circumference of the island. From Na Dan, Koh Samed’s busiest pier, the songthaews carry travellers through the narrow busy streets, walled in on either side by shops, hostels, and eateries, until they arrive at the entrance to the national park.

IMG_3473
The road to Ao Pai and Samed Pavilion Resort

The Samed Pavilion Resort, located conveniently next to Ao Pai beach, is tucked behind a 500-meter footpath that features a few other quaint restaurant-resorts. To get to the Samed Pavilion, we needed to scuffle across the soft sands of the beach, bordered by hedges and bungalows, and cross a small wooden bridge that fords an even smaller stream.

DSC_0071DSC_0079The resort dazzles the eyes. To enter, we had to walk up a white pathway into a picturesque courtyard. A large knotted tree spreads upward shading the courtyard, and small brown vines drape from the treetops above. A series of rain-showers invites beach-goers to rinse off before entering the Pavilion. The aesthetic of the resort is so fantastic you have to tell yourself you’re not in Disneyland, but living the reality of tropical tranquility.

DSC_0061DSC_0064

DSC_0068
The view from the room
IMG_3432
The path from the Samed Pavilion Resort to Ao Pai beach.

After checking in, we ventured outside the resort. The cozy, rock-sheltered Ao Pai beach was inviting enough, with masseuses beckoning you and white, plastic beach chairs available for the IMG_3438taking. But for our first beaching, we continued on. Upon exiting the footpath and following the road past economy bungalows boasting spectacular views of the water through a small grove of trees, we came to a little hut which functions as a convenience store. Past the hut, through a small opening in vegetation and some artisans making necklaces and other trinkets, we entered the northern part of Ao Pai beach.

IMG_3451
Jep’s Resort and Restaurant

Jep’s Resort and Restaurant immediately welcomed us for a bite to eat. Most of the tables sit on white sand, with several large trees providing a canopy lit by star-shaped paper lanterns. We ate curry and drank beer and watched the waves roll in. We’d return to a spot near the restaurant the next day. There we’d rent out a couple beach chairs from an old tanned Thai woman, and there sip beer, swim in the warm waters, feed stray dogs our chicken bones, and watch other tourists play Frisbee and try to do headstands.

Jep's at night
Jep’s at night

But that night, after a small bite at Jep’s, we ventured further north. Just past Ao Pai beach is Hat Sai Kaeo, Koh Samed’s largest and most popular beach. Ploy’s Barbecue pumped music loud enough to draw us from afar. We sat at one of its low tables, on bamboo mats and Thai-style cushions, and ate fresh fish and drank more beer.

Ploy’s Barbecue features probably the most spectacular fire show Koh Samed has to offer, though fire shows are as plentiful as beachside resorts. The team of eleven fire dancers dazzled spectators. With every eruption of fresh fire, we could feel the heat from 50 meters back. Some wielded large staffs with flames roaring on each end. Others spun fiery maces, sometimes tossing them back and forth. The show lasted so long we left before it ended. Despite agreeing that we’d seen enough of fire shows for the weekend, every dinner at every restaurant included them, and we gazed with renewed awe.

We started to wander back to our resort, carrying a flyer for Naga’s Bar urging us to “Fucking Party.” Just over the crest of a short, steep hill, Naga’s is a roofless bar with body paint splattered over all its walls and tables, and black lights to make the paint glow. We sat on the edge of the bar enjoying the nighttime views from a promontory. Naga’s wasn’t the raver that its flyer suggested, but it’s 80-baht happy hour cocktails were enough to leave us staggering back to our resort.

This was but one half day at Koh Samed. The other two were not unlike it. It’s not often one can find a place so tranquil, exuberant, and culturally immersive without the over-privileged, or even vaguely colonialist, underpinnings of all-inclusive resorts scattered around the earth’s tropics. It’s a place where one can spend as little or as much money and time as one wants, and still sap from it seemingly eternal enjoyment.

IMG_3443

Hiatus Completum

Hello faithful readers. You may have noticed I haven’t posted something for about a month now. Some of you were inundated with my presence, in the flesh, during my visit to the United States. If you weren’t one of those unfortunate souls to have to entertain me and rejuvenate my hope for humanity via drinks and conversation, then you probably also didn’t know of my venture to the motherland to gather supplies and recollect my social wellbeing. As you have probably guessed by now, this explains my digital absence. But now I’ve returned revived and triumphant, and I’m here to continue this blogging exercise. 

I cannot predict how consistent or dependable my posts will be in the coming months. Currently I’m on “summer” holiday. That is, the Thai school year begins mid-May and ends mid-March, so I am enjoying two months’ paid respite from the stress and joys of teaching. Such a recess of responsibility entails everything from taking nibbles at preparations for next school year to lying around doing diddly squat to taking minor excursions to nearby points of interest. My next post will be a much overdo description of one of such trips–to Ko Samed. See you there (at the posting, not the island).