Thai New Year Parade

Thai New Year in Isaan Part 2: Sanook, a Road Trip and a Massive Water Fight

Expat Life, Thailand

One of the downsides of not having full command of the language is that we never quite understood the plan of the day. When we awoke on day two, Pat said we’d have sanook (Thai for fun) that afternoon, but didn’t elaborate. So we hung out at the house and talked to the assorted people who visited the house all day. 

(This is part two of three – to catch up, you can read part 1 by clicking here)

Thai New Year, or Songkran, is a homecoming for the people of Isaan. To call it a diaspora would be incorrect, because the people of Baan Du Laat have not been scattered. Instead, the exodus has taken them mainly to one place – Bangkok. Millions of people who reside in the Thai capital are from Isaan. Those who have stayed behind live a simple life in a village without wifi and coffee shops. 

Early on day two, friends and family started to show up randomly at the house; an ebb and flow of visitors would continue throughout our stay. There was one kind old man who appeared at random, and as soon as he would arrive someone would immediately pour him a glass of whiskey. I hope that when I’m old, people give me booze when they see me.

Thai kids seem to always get in trouble for not placing their hands together and offering a slight bow, known as a wai, when they see their elders. They aren’t being disrespectful, it is just that they forget or get distracted and need to be reminded. In Baan Du Laat, I was always the kid in trouble. “Wai yai!” they’d say and poke me in the ribs when an old woman would enter the house. I’d dutifully wai and greet the grandmotherly woman. After a while, I was on high alert for elders to wai at since I didn’t want feel the hot, burning shame of belatedly wai-ing and getting scolded. 

Kristi, on the other hand, was an expert on the art of wai-ing. At her school, kids wai to her all the time and she wais to elders throughout the day. Her skilled and timely wais made me look even worse.

With all the people coming and going I lost track of names and family relations. Although I felt bad for not knowing many names, the Thais had great difficulty pronouncing ours. They couldn’t quite say Kristi, so she became “Cee-Cee.” Jeff was alternately butchered as Chefpf or Djefbf. Eventually, they gave up and just called me You, as in the second person pronoun in English.

At high noon, I joined the men on a fishing expedition. Let’s just say that luckily the markets were well stocked with food, because our hapless crew had no chance of catching anything. Two men placed a mat in the shade and proceeded to drink, while two others waded into a fishpond with nets. After a few minutes, one fisherman gave up and returned to the shade to join in the drinking. The other man waded around the pond for about half and hour but returned only with a few mangoes. I looked in his bucket at the mangos and said “Blah yuert!” which translates to “fish many” and everyone laughed. I am a comedian in multiple languages.

That afternoon, we were instructed to put on our Songkran clothes for sanook. By this time, many people had gathered at the house in colorful clothes and commenced drinking with enthusiasm. We went out in the street and joined a parade of people dancing, singing, drinking, and fighting with water. There were monks in the back of trucks blessing people by politely and reverently pouring cups of water down their backs, symbolically washing away their sins from the prior year. As we walked down the street, kids with Super Soakers and buckets of water washed away our sins more thoroughly.  

The parade, music and dancing lasted about two hours. This lively yet fairly civilized celebration foreshadowed the Big Ass Water Fight of Songkran 2018 that we’d experience over the next two days.

Day 3 “Bai Tiao” and an Epic Water Fight

On day three, they told us were going to “Bai Tiao,” or to go on a trip. We had no further information (that we understood). We loaded up in the car with Pat, Krong, their daughter, niece, and young grandchild, and took off an a road-trip. 

First, we went to the world’s largest wooden church, where the family seemed surprised that we didn’t pray to the Jesus statue, light candles, or do any of the rituals associated with the busy and lively Buddhist temples. They probably thought our religion was boring (and they were right).

Next, we visited a massive mountaintop temple that was indeed busy and lively. Thousands of Thai people swarmed the temple, climbing the main tower, praying to Buddha, banging gongs, dumping water on statues, and of course, performing the ancient act of posing for selfies. There was a man on a microphone making announcements that boomed out of two massive speakers. We didn’t know what he was saying, but when we walked by him to enter the temple we heard the word farang and had a pretty good idea that he was talking about us since we were the only farang there.

After the temple, we went to Yasothon City and visited a beautiful yet quirky park with a massive frog and giant dragon on the riverbank. The frog, which is about three stories tall and can be climbed through an internal staircase, was one of the only things I was hoping to see in Yasothon. It was as bizarre as expected.

This is where things got crazy. Pat’s daughter took us on a walk down the main street. We had no idea what we were getting into, because we were always clueless, but we found ourselves walking into the teeth of an epic Thai water fight. For miles down the main street people had filled swimming pools and large drums with water. Kids and adults alike would scoop water and throw it on passers by, and with us being the only farang, we were prime targets. I bought a bucket and used it to scoop up water and fought back!

Roving bands of kids with super soakers patrolled the streets, shooting unsuspecting people. I can’t tell you how many times those little bastards shot me right in the crotch. Pickup trucks, beds filled with drums of water and several menacing aqua-warriors, drove down the middle of the street attacking those on the ground.

It was nearly 100 degrees that day, so the water felt great, except that some evil people had ice water, which was shockingly cold. It is all fun and games until someone shoots you in the balls with freezing water. 

In addition to the water, people walk around with tubs of powder and clay and smear it on the faces of people as a blessing. The clay and powder ran down my face and clung to my clothes, arms and legs, forming a muddy goo.

All along the street, tents were set up with massive speakers that blared music and street food vendors lined the road. How the food and speakers avoided a liquid catastrophe, I have no idea.

We walked for miles down the road – the water war seemed to never end. Then we returned to the car down the other side of the street. When it was all said and done, my sins were washed away 100 times over. My fingers pruned up like I had been in the bathtub too long and I was covered in powder, clay and mud. I was a sloppy mess.

We returned to Baan Du Laat that evening exhausted yet very happy. Little did we know, the real fun was just about to begin.◊

For the curious, here is the location of the world’s largest wooden church.

This is part two of a three-part series

Part 1: Culture Shock, Concerts and Booze-Pushers

Part 3: A Big Ass Parade in a Tiny Town

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

21 thoughts on “Thai New Year in Isaan Part 2: Sanook, a Road Trip and a Massive Water Fight”

    • We were totally worn out when it was done. Luckily, we had another five days of vacation left so we went to the beach to recover!

  1. Ahhhh Jeff, you are such a great story teller. I have been reading this aloud to Ben and we are both chuckling away. You guys are good sports haha. Our favorite experiences are ones like these ~ authentic, surprising and very local. Being the only foreigners is always a highlight for us too. Sure hoping there is a Part 3! Although really what MORE could happen?

    Ben & Peta

    • Yes, there is a part 3, with even more drinking and debauchery. These people really partied hard! Thanks for your comments and kind words.

  2. It made me laugh when you mentioned about how the locals found it hard to pronounce your name and Kristi’s. My mom can’t quite pronounce James’ name right — she always says “Jem”. Reading this post made me think of how cool (and funny) it must be to have you and Kristi in my parents’ place to celebrate the end of Ramadan; on the second day of the festivity we usually meet the big family from my dad’s side, and three years ago James stepped on watermelons for he was too busy shaking people’s hands. 🙂

    • We need to make it to Jakarta soon, and maybe a holiday would be the best time to visit for sure. We’d love to be there at the end of Ramadan. Watermelons are really big – he must have been thoroughly distracted to step on those!

      James to Jem seams funny, but names are hard sometimes. My name is hard in all languages. In Latin America, the J becomes an H and they call me Jefe which means boss. That is my favorite nickname, although “You” is a close second.

  3. It just keeps getting better … can’t even imagine what day three will bring!
    On a smaller topic, I’ve always found that speakers of Asian languages can’t say (or is it hear?) the English short ‘e’ as in Jeff (also my husband’s name) or Lexie. My Jeff is often called something more like Chuck, and I’m usually Laxie or Lucksy!

    • I can see how Jeff becomes Chuck. In Thai, the f sound never occurs at the end of a syllable. So Jeff would change to Jep normally. Thai people all go by a nickname anyway (which I have a future blog post about) so I often tell them my name is Jet which means 7. The J sound can sometimes have a CH to it. So I can see how Jeff could be Chuck.

      In Thai, I can see Lexie being a challenge because they like to separate all the vowels and that short e can be tricky.

  4. Wow, it gets more and more bizarre and fabulous. Must have been an amazing time. Looking forward to more. Great photos as usual.

  5. This is totally hysterical Jeff—the name pronunciation, your fishing trip and of course the giant water fight. Before reading the part about the ice water I thought this would be a rather fun thing to do in the Thai heat. I can’t believe the party continues. I imagine you needed some rest after part 3!

    • The ice water was always shocking. You just never knew who had it so it was always a surprise. But overall it was a great way to cool down. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Phew! This was quite literally a cultural immersion of the grandest kind! I can totally empathize with you and Kristi’s experience of being the only foreigner at a big local celebration. I committed so many faux pas the first time I joined Bama and his family for the end of Ramadan, including the major no-no of calling an elder by the wrong title. Referencing Bama’s earlier comment, those watermelons I stepped on were not whole but cut up into slices and served on plates!

    The giant toad statue is just super bizarre, and I had no idea the world’s biggest wooden church was in rural Thailand. It seems sort of counter-intuitive to dress in your Songkran best and then go out and join a massive water fight with clay powder involved. But reading your account also reminds me of my last day in high school, when we seniors went berserk and held a Songkran-style celebration of our own! We threw water balloons from balconies onto unsuspecting people, and I remember the moment a teacher came in for English class and everyone instantly pointed their water guns at him. We went outside again and after a few minutes the poor guy was pretty much soaked through. This carried on with an all-out battle in the main courtyard where I dumped a bucketful of water over my ex (we are still on good terms). It got so crazy the principal threatened to suspend us all for the day.

  7. Pingback: Thai New Year in Isaan Part 3: A Big Ass Parade In A Tiny Town | Planet Bell

  8. Pingback: Thai New Year in Isaan Part 1: Culture Shock, Concerts, and Booze-Pushers | Planet Bell

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