Songkran 2006

UPDATE: Photos of the Songkran Water Fights are now available in the gallery.

Technically, it’s only the second day of the Songkran festival and already I’m worn out. This morning, I’m debating whether to partake in the water-tossing festivities or to attempt to photograph them again. The former is more fun; the later may serve me better in the long run. Either way, either today or tomorrow, I’ll be donning some form of aqua weapon and taking to the streets.

It takes a lot of mental energy for me to photograph the water fights. You have to have eyes on the back of your head because wielding a camera is no guarantee that you won’t turn into a target. I’ve wrapped mine in a special water-resistant bag, but that’s only water resistant, not waterproof. A good shot from a bucket and I suspect the protection I’ve provided would be worth little.

But I managed to get a few fun shots yesterday. The early morning saw a procession of monks at the Tha Pae Gate where hundreds of worshippers filled the alms bowls well past overflowing. Next was the Miss Songkran beauty contest where ladies donning umbrellas slowly strolled the stage in their high-rise heels and synthetic smiles.

Afterwards, I wandered a while and took photos of the water fights. I tended to stick to the more sedate areas of combat where I could better protect my gear. As I walked from site to site, I was forced plead with assailants to make only the lower half of my body their target. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not, but so far, my camera still works.

A lot of people seem to respect that a camera is a bit of an expensive item and that getting it wet would be a bad idea. It’s actually a greater percentage of Thais who are willing to avoid shooting my camera than it is the foreign tourists. With them, I can plead in English to watch out for my camera. More than once people have replied, ‘You’re going to get wet anyway!’ while they proceed to do their worst. Well, idiot, it’s only because of people like you that your statement is true. The majority of people are willing to give me a little slack from the water torture if I play along a little and present them with, say, my ass to get wet instead of my camera.

While shooting, the police attempted to close off a couple of ridiculously congested roads so that the parade of Buddha images could make their way toward Phra Sing temple. I briefly gained access to the city wall’s ramparts thanks to a friendly tourist policeman and was able to witness the chaos from the safety of an elevated viewpoint. Many of the city’s temple’s Buddhas are removed from their usual positions and mounted on a car to have the revelers douse them with herb-scented purifying water as they passed. Traditional dancers, drummers and ethnic groups mixed with ladyboys in the procession and everyone got a generous helping moisture.

I quickly ambled over to Phra Sing where I got to see the laborious process of re-mounting the heavy Buddha image back in its place using a complicated set of lifts and manpower. As soon as it was back in its watchful position in front of the Wat, worshippers flocked to it to drench the image.

The long procession continued and the entrance to Phra Sing made a good vantage point. The water tossing was under control there to an extent and the crowds were actually navigable so I could easily get the best vantage points.

I soon found myself a bit exhausted from the whole day and headed back to my guesthouse knowing I had a couple more days of similar excitement.

But all this makes me sound like I’m obsessed about the safety of my camera and refuse to have any fun. Not true. Yesterday was a great time and I made more than a few friends willing to protect me in exchange for some photos later (since they were too scared to bring their cameras with them). I just hope I’m able to sort out who’s who later when I process and send out images.

More fun than the enjoyment of shooting in the water fights was participating in them. Two days ago, before the festival even officially began, there was already madness in the streets. Arming myself with a water pistol (whose life was a short few hours of functionality – the people selling these cheap plastic trinkets must be making a fortune) I headed to the moat and proceeded to get soaked and to soak.

I went straight for the busiest section of road I could find and noted to myself that this is exactly how I imagine anarchy would look. Lining each side of the road were assailants. Behind one group was the moat with its never ending supply of muddy water (I’m trying not to imagine how much of it I have and will swallow over these few days) and on the other side, bars and pubs sent hoses out into buckets to arm the partiers. In the middle were the cars, tuk-tuks, trucks, motorcycles and bikes all playing the role of moving target.

The trucks usually carried a band of assassins with barrels of water feeding their weapons and thus they weren’t defenseless. The scooters and motorbikes may have been the most appealing targets for many – they had no way of retaliating. Some were almost knocked off their bikes by forceful bucket blasts.

Screaming girls received faces full of water from aggressive bucket wielding men. If they had the means, they would respond by delivering a face full of ice water (one of the more potent weapons in the combat). People were tossed into the moat. Ladyboys donned bikinis and competed admirably in the perpetual wet t-shirt contest surrounding them. When the traffic slowed, roadside warriors would turn against each other to continue the fun. Mischievous gunmen ambushed drivers foolish enough to leave even a crack of their window open. Buckets of water flew into the open-backed sawngthaew buses (pickup trucks converted to buses).

And all the while, joyous screaming and laughter.

There were those few not interested in the celebration. A few locals hope in futility to stay dry, but when an errand draws them out of their house, they, in vain, try to ward of the water with a dirty look or two. There was the ridiculous foreigner riding a scooter down the busiest stretch of the busiest road who flipped me the bird after I shot his already-soaked body. No use playing the victim in these circumstances, friend.

No, it’s best to don a smile whether you’re riding a motorbike, donning a camera, or just trying to cross the street. There’s no use pretending you won’t get wet. No, they’ll find you. So you might as well enjoy the brief respite from the 40-degree heat. Because the only loser in a water fight, is the one who stays dry.

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