Farang old timers will tell you that Songkran, the Thai New Year, is now a complete travesty of what it used to be ‘in the old days’. This is both right and wrong.
The official version from which those old timers take their leaf is that Songkran is one of the gentlest Thai traditions whereby the younger people gently pour a few drops of water on the hands or wrists of their seniors as a show of respect, and, since this coincides with the hottest period of the year before the rains bring a measure of cool, they are welcome to splash one another with water or anoint one another’s faces with cooling paste after proper permission has been requested and granted and the whole exercise is carried out in a spirit of fun amongst the ‘fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters’ of the tightly knit Thai family.
As always, this official version is more wishful thinking than reality. Abundant literary evidence of almost a century ago – the novels and stories of Yakhorp, Malai Choophinit and sundry contemporaries – shows that water splashing in those days was already prone to rowdiness.
By the time I settled down here over three decades ago, Songkran was on its way to being an exercise by the great unwashed in letting off steam – but nothing on the scale of noise, violence and sexual titillation this has now achieved.
The degeneration of a fairly genteel tradition into an almost week-long orgy of water, powder, flour or even sand or chemicals throwing, carried out with all too often as much force as can be mustered, all under the blessed excuse of ‘having fun and sharing it’, has been quite obvious all along.
I remember a train ride from the North perhaps twenty years ago when the alternative was being doused with smelly ditch water or being braised alive windows closed. The other passengers, all Thais, weren’t amused either.
Year after year, the rabble have gained the upper hand: they work up the frustrations of the year in one alcohol-fuelled, institutional-culture-sanctioned mass pandemonium, with its collateral damage of hundreds killed and thousands maimed or injured on the roads. By rabble I mean a wide array of disaffected, unemployed youngsters and exploited blue- and white-collar workers who take their cues from either the very much alive nak leng tradition of manly lawlessness and sexism, or the ranting of demagogues, or, in the case of cutie-cute young urbanites especially, the permissiveness prevalent on the net and in modern Western-aped culture, or all of the above – a basic, often ignored or belittled reality of present-day Thailand.
So, it wasn’t difficult to predict that even a seasonal water game wouldn’t be enough when social tensions rose to fever pitch and would transmute into brutal clashes as we have witnessed two years running. Nor is it difficult to predict that more of the same is in the offing, with or without a military coup to egg the pudding.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable in crowds, even in supermarkets or the tube, and a quarter century of globe-trotting as a reporter has taught me how clueless crowds can turn rowdy and madding, not to say vicious. So, for over ten years now, I’ve taken to spending the Songkran festival indoors, with plenty of food and drinkable water, and pastis, coffee and fags: my drugs of choice.
There was one dramatic exception, in April 2006, on the 14th to be precise.
I had taken my daughter to see her grandparents and uncle in France. Two weeks later I left her there for an extra month of French learning and flew back. At Donmueang I took an airport bus to Bang Lamphoo; a short taxi ride from there would see me home. Reflecting without surprise that the traffic was heavy, ‘good old Bangkok’, I engrossed myself in a novel. At one point I looked up and in the same split second saw a perfect naked female breast under a soaked T-shirt and realised, appalled, I had landed in the middle of Songkran!
The scene outside was maddening, of frantic semi-naked bodies on all manner of white-smeared vehicles, twisting in the throws and throes of watered hell. By fits and starts, the airport bus almost reached the Democracy Monument and then stalled, caught in a human tide, and opening its door disgorged its contents into a throng bent on welcoming those farang preys with machinegun shots of blessed powdered water. In my harshest Thai I copiously berated the driver, yet there was nothing to it but taking up the gauntlet and the luggage and footing it the rest of the way, two miles across and around the Pinklao bridge.
Unfortunately, I who in my entire life, whether on assignment for a week or three months, had always taken pride in making do with one leather bag, was also that day ‘repatriating’ one of my daughter’s heavy suitcases. So there I was, nattily, if too warmly, dressed, bag on shoulder, suitcase in tow, stomping with a dour face through a crowd of ecstatic revelers. I must have cut a ghastly figure: all along incoming cohorts gave me a narrow berth; I had to beg immunity just once, at the entrance to my street; and by the time I reached home, there were only a few splotches on my clothes. When I weighed myself, I found I was two kilos lighter than when I had left.
This year, Songkran has been most unusual, the coolest one, weather-wise, in my memory, and also the quietest, even compared with last year’s let’s-get-on-with-it-while-they-shoot-to-kill-ah-ah-ah: I had to lock myself up and turn on the air-con to counter the drunken racket next terrain vague for only a few hours on Tuesday evening. The next day, Songkran Day, there was a constant curlicue of children laughter in the air around the house and a muted rumour of carousing masses beyond. When I woke up from my current translation of Dorkmai Sot’s ‘The good citizen’ at around 2am on Wednesday, I stood amazed: there was total silence! Not even the usual buzz of air-con compressors: my neighbours, all fat cats with cars and chalets, had gone one better on me and fled the scene to less soaked pastures. Doesn’t this tell you something?