Songkran

We were pretty happy to see Starbucks and McDonald’s upon arrival to Chiang Mai, although Starbucks doesn’t do my favorite drink in Thailand. It was nice to have food that tasted familiar… – even if familiar is crappy junk food! We took Jessica to McDonald’s to help speed her recovery after her traumatic hospital experience, and then got her nails done and headed to the night market for some shopping.

The night market was amazing! We spent a few evenings wandering around there taking it all in. Several square blocks of people selling everything imaginable, open-air massage parlors (of course, Jessica had to have a foot massage and the ladies thought this was adorable!), food stalls, and tuk tuks lining the streets vying for business. There was a free dance show going on in one of the food courts that Jessica loved, and we wandered around browsing for more stuff we didn’t need.

Grant bought a pair of shorts and ended up going back to exchange them THREE TIMES because they either didn’t fit or the zipper was broken… – the guy was getting so sick of him, we were almost afraid to walk past that stall! I bought a sparkly t-shirt and was a bit put out by the teeny woman who laughed at me trying on a medium: “NO NO for YOU a size LARGE!”

There were stalls and stalls full of artwork by extremely talented portrait artists. All of them seemed to be copying the same few famous photographs from National Geographic, with amazing skill and accuracy. We decided to have Jessica’’s portrait done and the guy took her photo on the spot and agreed to have it finished within 24 hours. The price was so reasonable we didn’t even bother to bargain, so he shook his head at the stupid tourists and gave us a “discount.”

We returned the following day to pick up Jessica’’s portrait and she was SO excited to see it! It was really well done, but lacked that certain something that made it perfect. Jessica loved it though, and every time we passed that stall in the following nights she kept asking to see her picture.

There was one shop selling some really wonderful wood carvings. They had a massive display of an aquarium entirely made of wood. They even had a panel full of water across the top to give it the proper lighting effect. I am sad they wouldn’t let anyone photograph it -– a truly amazing piece of work that belongs in a museum. We debated buying something really impressive, but worried about it cracking in Calgary’’s dry weather. Some of the pieces in the shop had already started to crack in places, so we contented ourselves with a cool carved elephant’’s head and crossed our fingers that it’’ll remain intact!

Jessica’’s bartering skills were improving daily by this point. She was already negotiating most of our tuk tuk rides… – much to the delight of the drivers!

Based on our lousy experience with the overnight train in Vietnam, and our really positive impression of the budget airlines in Asia, we had decided to limit the number of places we visited in Thailand and Malaysia and fly between them rather than take the train as I had previously intended. We’’re also finding it a lot easier to spend several days in one place rather than packing up every night or two. For this reason, we ended up spending ten days in Chiang Mai, instead of the four I had planned. The hotel we were booked into had been full and we ended up switching hotels halfway through our stay from the Holiday Inn to the Novotel.

Turns out we arrived in the midst of the New Year’s festivities and they really swung into gear just as we switched hotels. As a result they were playing some truly horrific, repetitive music in the hallway of the Novotel. It repeated itself every few minutes and was loud enough to hear throughout the room. I called the front desk two days running to complain and they turned it down for me. THEN I find out it’s some sort of traditional celebratory thing and I feel like a big jerk for complaining!

We hadn’t done too much the first few days aside from visiting the hospital and recovering from food poisoning, so we kind of missed our opportunity to see the city before it was completely taken over by the New Year’s events. Thankfully, our tour company had allowed me to change the dates of our hill tribe trek to after the festival because I was sick during the originally planned dates. But this left us only the days of Songkran to really see the city and surrounding area. Well, OK then! Let’s celebrate New Year’’s –- again!!

Now, in Thailand it is customary to throw water on someone to wish them luck in the New Year… – much like we’’d experienced in both Fiji and Laos…… but NOTHING could have prepared us for Chiang Mai’’s version of the custom! The day before the festival we went out and bought some cheap water guns so we could join in the fun. People were already gearing up and there were a few gangs of little kids set up with barrels of water on the sidewalks soaking the passers-by. On the walk back to the hotel we got a bit wet and had a blast shooting passing cars and mopeds with our guns. We even got into a shootout with a cop which was a bit unfair given that we had cheap little water pistols and he had a garden hose! Jessica loved her water gun and was quite excited by the whole prospect of shooting people with impunity. We had to pry it out of her hands when we got back inside the hotel and she only relinquished it when we promised she could shoot some more people the following day.

We made plans to get out and see the elephant camp and the monkey school on the Sunday of the festival weekend because we had no other day to go and do it. We attempted to book a taxi the day before, but they were either busy or more expensive than we wanted, so we ended up grabbing the first tuk tuk that we could find on Sunday morning. We agreed to hire him for the afternoon for some stupidly low (to us) price and set off.

Now…… a word about this tuk tuk. It was essentially a motorbike with a bench seat in the back that was barely wide enough for the three of us to sit comfortably. There was no roof, but the day looked like a nice one –- not too sunny as to sunburn our heads and not too cloudy to as to rain. Perfectly overcast, in fact. We figured that we’’d get a bit wet on the drive through the city because of the festivities and associated water play, but there was a half hour drive through the peaceful countryside on the way to the elephant camp in which to dry off. Of course, I’’d dressed everyone in their quick dry clothing for the occasion and packed a towel and a spare t-shirt for Jessica, wrapped my camera gear in plastic and we were ready to go play. To our great delight, the tuk tuk driver had thoughtfully equipped his vehicle with a big barrel half full of water so that we could reload our weapons at will! Plus there was a small pail if we really wanted to get serious about it. Water pistols in hand, we set off on our afternoon adventure.

Everywhere you looked there were people shooting each other with water pistols and lining the streets with huge barrels of water and buckets –- some people even had high powered hoses! Trucks filled with teenagers cruised the streets with barrels of water in the back and people shot each other from the back of mopeds…it was one massive city-wide water fight! COOL!!!!!!! Out came our guns and we were ready to do battle! The fun lasted –- oh –- about ten minutes.

Ten minutes into the ride we were soaked to the skin and freezing to death, and we’’d pretty much given up shooting back with our puny little guns. People thought it was great fun to add ice to the water. So not only was it cold, sometimes it actually hurt. Apparently loads of people die every year due to traffic accidents caused by the water fights, and I can believe it.

The tuk tuk driver gave us an umbrella to try and shield Jessica from the worst of the onslaught. She was, by this time, huddled in a small wet bundle on the seat between the two of us freezing half to death. Of course Mommy didn’t think to put on her rain suit! It’’s only a little water and it’s hot in Thailand, right? Well, with the addition of ice to the water we were all pretty cold and wet and miserable by the time we hit the edge of town. The umbrella was ruined within a few minutes and we had no protection at all in our topless tuk tuk from the overzealous teenagers in the back of pick up trucks who pulled up alongside and blasted us with water. We began to look forward to the buckets that weren’t icy cold…… at least they warmed us up a tiny bit!

Eventually we left most of the pick-up trucks full of teens behind as we headed out of town towards the elephant camp. We had a water-free few minutes and the wind was starting to dry us out a bit. We had a laugh at our naivety and we were looking forward to the elephant camp when we pulled into the little town that surrounded the camp. Uh-oh…… stretching ahead of us was a veritable gauntlet of water buckets and manically grinning Thais. Jessica squealed and dove for cover and our former ally -– the tuk tuk driver -– who had previously attempted to avoid the worst of the onslaught…… STOPPED dead in front of the first of the bucket brigade. An entire five gallon bucket full later we were all soaked to the skin again, Jessica was screaming, and we had only just begun….

Several very wet minutes later we pulled into the elephant camp with a seriously annoyed Jessica. We noted that the water level in our bucket was actually HIGHER than when we started out -– despite our best efforts at fighting back! We went inside and were just in time to catch the final show of the day. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours drying off while we watched elephants kick soccer balls and paint lovely flower pictures. Of course, just as we were about to leave ……it began to rain. Well, pour is really the word for it. Fantastic. We have a topless tuk tuk and it’’s raining and we have a 45 minute drive back to the hotel. Ah well -– we were wet anyway, right? And hopefully the rain will have driven most of the water throwers indoors, right? Not so much. We ran the gauntlet again back towards the monkey school which we had passed in our haste to make the last elephant show.

Wet to the skin and shivering, with Jessica screaming blue bloody murder, we arrive at the doors of the monkey school – again just in time for the show. Might as well go inside because at least there’’s a roof and maybe the rain will stop. The monkey show is a bit hokey, but fun. They show us how they train monkeys to pick coconuts and they do various tricks like ride a bike. Grant asks if he can hold one after the show and the lady brings out a little one for him to hold. For some reason it doesn’t like Jessica at all and every time she reaches for it, he swats her. Then it was my turn to hold him and he tried to do some unmentionable things to my ear whilst Grant laughed his ass off and kept filming!! Thanks for the help mister!!

It was still raining when we left and we decided to give the adjacent snake park a big miss. Our valiant tuk tuk driver had ripped apart two broken umbrellas to give us the material to wrap Jessica in. (I put her in shorts why?) We bundled her up in them and stuffed her in between the two of us, took a deep breath, and headed off into the downpour. What a nightmare. Sheeting rain and cold wind from the drive, interspersed with buckets of ice water coming in from all sides. There was more traffic this time, so we got stuck beside even more of those delightful teen-filled ice-bearing trucks!

Jessica huddled between us, giving a little moan now and then to let us know she was still alive. Once in a while we’’d hear a plaintive little voice at a stop light: “”Is THIS our hotel now?”” (I am convinced THIS was the start of the ‘”are we there yet?”’ trend that we’ve been enjoying since.) I spent the ride cursing the entire Thai community under my breath (mostly) and huddled in my seat trying to simultaneously protect my camera and my daughter’s head. Grant varied between fighting back with our puny little guns (he’’d long since broken the driver’s bucket) and cowering under the onslaught.

We tipped the driver almost as much as we’’d agreed to pay him for the afternoon. Poor guy was completely soaked and freezing. I can almost forgive him the stopping in front of the one bucket guy!

“Wet to the skin” does not do justice to the state we were in when we arrived. Even the bills in my wallet were wringing wet. Thank GOD I thought enough to bring a plastic bag for my camera. Even though it was covered in plastic, the case was still wet. The hotel staff had a good laugh as we squelched our way through the lobby. We jumped into a hot bath, ordered a pizza, and didn’t go out until evening the following day!

I have few pictures of this event given the high probability of my camera being ruined but you can check out this link for some idea: Songkran

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