“JIM! HEY, JIM!” Someone called from the darkness under a stilt house. I assumed the person was calling for me, since no one in Thailand can say my name correctly, and since I’d just met a bunch of new people the day before at a drunken Thai New Year’s parade. I stepped under the awning, and when my eyes adjusted, I saw a family assembled around several plates of food. I recognized Payu and Bee, a young couple I’d met the night before.
They quickly made room and offered me food and beer. I declined the food since I’d just eaten, but I had to accept the beer because to turn that down would be rude.
I sat with my new friends doing my best to speak Thai as the curious family pelted me with questions. Meanwhile, several kids started a spirited water fight in the street. I was sweating to death in the searing heat, so I grabbed a bucket, filled it with water, and joined the water fight to cool off.
I started to feel drunk and realized I should check on my wife. I thought maybe she needed breakfast or wondered where I was since I only planned to go on a short walk. I returned to the house, gathered my wife and several large bottles of beer, and returned to hang out with our new friends for the day.
That experience – new friends, food, water fights, parades, and lots of drinking – is a microcosm of our four days in Baan Du Laat, a small village in remote Thailand where we recently went for Thai New Year.
Songkran in Rural Thailand
This was the 2nd year in a row we went to remote Thailand for Songkran with Pat and Krong, a couple we know from our neighborhood in Bangkok. Our first experience in 2018 was mind-blowing. We didn’t realize that we were headed to a remote village (we thought we were going to Yasothon City), our language skills were limited, and we had no idea just how hard everyone partied.
We triumphantly returned to the village this year, armed with improved language skills and wisdom gained from the previous visit, for four more days of sanuk.
Upon arrival, I asked Pat’s teenage niece to help me make a family tree. The prior year we met so many people all at once that we failed to learn names. To my surprise, I learned that the niece is named Premier and Pat’s daughter is named Pizza. We spent a lot of time with Pizza and Premier the year before, and the fact that I didn’t know those two fantastic names shows that we were truly overwhelmed.
Songkran is like New Year’s Day, Easter, high school homecoming, and spring break, all rolled into one. It is three days of religious ceremonies, water fights, feasts, and street parties. People all across the country travel home and celebrate, but I suspect our friends in tiny Baan Du Laat do it better than most.
Our first evening in the village, a marching band consisting of eight drummers and two electric guitars playing psychedelic rock music, started jamming by the temple. The festive music attracted a crowd of townspeople well-provisioned with alcohol and dressed in brightly colored shirts. Soon, the band and villagers flowed down the street in a lively procession of drinking, dancing, and water fights. The parade lasted for several hours and eventually circumnavigated the town.
I saw something out of place at the parade – another farang! We met an affable American named David, who was not only making his first trip to the village but his first trip to Asia. Like us, he was visiting with a local friend and seemed shocked by the experience.
The next day, we went to Yasothon City with Premier and Pizza and joined the wild street party on the town’s main drag. Thousands of people fought with water and danced at the numerous concerts and parties lining the road. It was a wild and sexy party, as wet people danced and drank with reckless abandon. Kristi and I were way too old and not nearly cool enough for the party – I would not participate in anything like this in Las Vegas or Daytona Beach. Since this was a cultural experience, we walked up and down the street with Pizza and Premier experiencing the fun.
Being some of the only farang at the street party, we were prime targets. People not only splashed us with water but also smeared powder on our faces as a blessing. I had over 300 people, most of them underage girls, smear powder on my face. The last time I had so many young girls touch my face, I had to pay exorbitant sums on Soi Cowboy. By the time we left, I was covered in globs of coagulated powder and soaked so thoroughly my fingers pruned.
April 15 was a subdued and spiritual experience by Songkran standards. Although everyone drank and fought with water during the day, in the evening, the townspeople gathered at the temple to pour water on the Buddha statues, monks, and elders as part of a beautiful ritual to symbolically wash away the sins of the prior year.
After dark, we returned to the temple with the family for a quiet ceremony to honor their ancestors. They placed garments and food under a tree, prayed, set off fireworks, then retreated to the dark and watched as a monk blessed the offering and took it away. It was a solemn and beautiful experience.
Day 4, we had a communication breakdown. We thought there was going to be an evening concert, but in fact, the show started mid-morning and lasted through the heat of the day. The concert was a fundraiser for the school, and there were free beer and food. I didn’t want to drink beer in the morning – again! But that was not an option as our friends ensured our beer mugs were never empty. Luckily, Thai people put ice in their beer to keep it cold, and since it melted almost immediately in the searing heat, I stayed hydrated and sober.
Just before sunset, we got a surprise: there was yet another parade through town with a marching band playing funkadelic beats and more refreshing water fights. Although the locals had been drinking in the hot sun all day, they still had the energy to keep on partying. I was duly impressed.
The next day our hosts took us to the airport and asked, “Next year?” Against the protestations of our livers, we replied, “Every year!!!”
Have you ever celebrated a holiday with locals?