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.