I wait outside the hotel with my luggage when a pick-up truck pulls up beside me, attracting the eyes of staff in the swish Bangkok hotel I have stayed in for two nights, alone. The truck is full of excited Thai people, mainly women and children, in loud Hawaiian shirts. This is Weena’s family.
‘Hello, hello! Wel-come!’ they shout from the truck in carefully-pronounced English.
My new Thai friend, Weena, and her husband, Steve, a fellow Australian, jump from the truck. Weena hugs me. It feels warm and comfortable, even though I don’t know her well. She gestures to Steve. ‘This Steve,’ she says.
I have only briefly met Steve once back in Australia. I say hello, shake Steve’s hand, and we are off.
Forty minutes later, Weena and I in the front seat, the truck pulls up in front of a simple Thai home in a quiet, leafy street in Navanakorn. It’s a pretty street within Navanakorn’s industrial zone, a definite contrast to my hotel, but far more welcoming. I wait politely by the car while Steve rushes my suitcase inside and Weena’s noisy family disembarks.
Within seconds, a huge commotion ensues as everyone excitedly loads the truck with buckets, pots and pans, a huge barrel, and a never-ending coil of hose. Buckets of water are passed, production-line-style, to fill the various pots, and the hose splashes at high speed to fill the barrel. Weena’s family prepares for Songkran, a national holiday.
Beginning on April 13, Songkran is an important event on the Buddhist calendar and marks the Thai New Year. The word Songkran comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘astrological passage’, and represents a transformation, or passing. Everyone must clean their houses to prepare for Songkran as any remaining dirt or rubbish will bring bad luck. People visit their temples to pray and make offerings, as well to offer alms to the Buddhist monks. The whole country celebrates with time off work, get-togethers with family, processions and performances.
Water is also an important element of the festival and includes the ritual bathing of the Buddha image with fragrant water at home and at the temple. People pour water onto the palms of older members of the community and ask them for blessings. Children pour water over the hands of their parents and grandparents as a sign of respect. And water ‘fights’ have become an inescapable part of the celebrations.
‘Water give you good blessing and wash away bad luck!’ Weena explains.
Weena knows I need to hear this. I have suffered a terrible break-up and have secretly been brought to tears face down on her massage table back in Sydney. In the process, she has become my friend and dragged me away from my misery. You come Thailand with me, she had counselled.
Weena’s sister hands me a gift bag and the whole family crowds in. I open the bag to find a blaring Hawaiian shirt to match the loud array that surrounds me. I hold it up against my chest and everyone bursts with laughter.
‘Now you family on family holiday!’ Weena snorts, barely containing her glee.
It is not long before we are ready to go. Everyone and everything is squeezed in and onto two trucks. Fifteen of us in total, looking all very Hawaiian. I have pride of place on the back of one of the trucks, along with Steve, a few young nephews and nieces, and Weena’s Thai son, Jack. Being only eight, Jack giggles hysterically at me in my snug new shirt; he is yet to learn to keep his opinions to himself.
It is freeing to sit in the back of the truck, perched on the edge in the open air. A motorbike passes by, carrying a three-person family. Another passes with five. People spill from open-backed trucks filled with barrels, pots and pans. Others cram into cars. Every vehicle on the road is overloaded with Thai families heading to their home towns or holiday destinations, all excited about Songkran’s three-day celebration.
As we head to Pattaya, a beach resort area on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand, the roads become more and more congested, until we end up at a standstill in huge traffic. It is so hot, people begin to escape their vehicles. Others cool themselves from their barrels and buckets of water.
Suddenly, a huge splash of water smacks me from behind!
I turn to discover two guilty, grinning Thai teenagers. I am momentarily stunned, and dripping. Jack is in fits of giggles.
‘This is only the beginning!’ warns Steve, who gets a mouthful as he speaks. Splash!
Now it’s on.
Crowds of people jump from their cars and trucks, all water-equipped. Water splatters in all directions! Water pistols, buckets—anything that can carry liquid. I seek revenge and hurl a bucketload at the teenage boys. Success! They are soaked. Jack attacks me with his water pistol. I get him back with a splash. Steve and the children get in on the act. It is crazy fun! I am completely drenched, mascara running, Hawaiian shirt clinging—but I am having the time of my life!
A sea of people surrounds our truck and weaves between the other vehicles. The ground is wet and steaming with the heat. I watch as people smear a kind of paste on one another’s faces. Jack and I fling buckets of water over the unsuspecting crowd.
I turn to scoop another bucketful, but am confronted with one of the teenage boys. He has jumped onto our truck with a handful of dripping paste. He smiles a bright teeth smile and brings his oozing hand to my cheek. At first shocked by its chill, I allow him to streak my face with the cold, wet mixture; it is an unexpected calm amid the madness.
He jumps off the truck and disappears into the crowd. I learn later that the paste is a sign of protection, and brings good fortune.
Soaked to the skin, my face smeared with paste, I glance at Weena, who laughs at me from inside the truck, safely behind a locked door and dripping window. She is yet to be dragged from the car by Steve and dowsed in a bucket of water. She is definitely expecting it!
While the origins of Songkran’s water splashing and face-pasting traditions began with more gentle rites, water fights have become an anticipated part of the holiday festivities. These water rituals represent cleansing and renewal, washing away bad luck and starting the new year with a clean slate. Preparing for the good fortune to come.
I already feel my bad luck has been washed away. I am in a new and beautiful place with my newfound family. My old life has been left behind. And our holiday has only just begun…
BIO: Lisa Reily is a former literacy consultant, dance director and teacher from Australia. Her poetry and short stories have been published in several journals, such Panoply, Magma, Foxglove Journal and DNA Magazine. Lisa is currently a budget traveller with two bags, one laptop and no particular home. You can find out more about Lisa at lisareily.wordpress.com