Songkran Festival

We managed to make it all of 20 feet from the entrance to our apartment building before getting soaked.  The dousing came at the hand of a middle aged Thai man, grinning ear to ear and yelling “Happy! Happy!” while pouring a bucket of ice cold water down our backs.  And thus completed our initiation into Chiang Mai’s Songkran Festival.

Songkran is the three day celebration of Thai New Year.  Traditionally, the celebrations involved pouring water over statues of Buddha to cleanse a family of any bad luck from the previous year and bring good luck into the new year.  According to an expat we met who has been living in Chiang Mai for 18 years, when he first moved to this city Songkran meant elaborately dressed Thai women carrying blessed, fragrant water would pour a little over the shoulders of passers by for good luck.  Over the last few decades, however, the tradition has morphed into a full on city wide water fight (possibly with the help of some drunk Australians, but we can’t be sure.)

All of the photos in this post were taken from a safe distance – the window of our 7th floor apartment building.  As you can see, even on the relatively small side street that we live on the locals show no mercy.  You can’t go outside with a camera and expect it to survive.

Chiang Mai is one of the craziest cities in which to experience Songkran because the festivities take over the entire city, unlike in Bangkok where it only affects a few streets.  Nearly every road is lined with people hanging out near giant tubs of water and brandishing buckets, squirt guns and hoses.  They douse everyone that passes by – whether they are on foot, motorbike, or car.  Many people circle the city riding in the back of pickup trucks, filling buckets with huge blocks of ice and throwing the melted (but still freezing) water on passersby.  Traffic on the main streets is jammed with these vehicles as they stop to soak people they pass.

The moat that surrounds Chiang Mai (which looks serene and calm in the photo from this post), provides much of the ammunition needed to keep the water fight going all day.  It is packed with people filling buckets and squirt guns, pushing one another into the water, and swimming to cool off.  This area of town was pure chaos – there was no chance I was going to bring a camera into this mess, so you’ll have to do without photos.

The waterfight lasts all day long, from sun up to sundown, and no one is safe.  If you’ve left the house and are out on the street, it is assumed that you know what you are getting yourself into.  We passed through the streets completely unarmed, and were soaked to the bone in no time.  Thankfully the temperature is in the high 90s and 100s, so the cold water actually feels exceptionally good, which is a good thing because in most areas you don’t have much of a break between soakings.  As we walked along the moat and main road we were pelted by bucket after bucket of moat water and endlessly sprayed with squirt guns.  Most locals seemed to avoid hitting us directly in the face (though the foreigners appeared to adhere to no such etiquette.)  Usually I was sprayed in the chest, unsurpisingly, and on one occasion a Thai teenager thrust a bucket of water at my chest so hard that I suffered a wardrobe malfunction.  (Yes, you read that right.  It was the closest to being on Girls Gone Wild that I’ll probably ever get in this lifetime.)

The whole event is just good fun.  No one seems upset when they get hit, and anyone who wants to avoid the splashes just stays home for three days.  People drink beer all day, but no one seemed obnoxiously inebriated.  Families participate in droves, with kids running freely in the streets and soaking strangers with reckless abandon.  Music blares from cars and buildings, and street vendors sell weapons and snacks.  I was impressed to see that the vast majority of participants were in fact Thai locals, and not just twentysomething backpackers.  The Thai people actually get really into this holiday and you can tell they are having a blast as they soak and get soaked (even on the last day when you’d think enthusiasm might be waning.)  When the sun goes down each day the water fight ends, and the real party begins.  The sounds of club music and karaoke fill the streets until well past 2am every night.

We had a great time letting people drench us – we just thought of each bucket of water or squirt gun soaking as adding more good luck to our upcoming year, and who wouldn’t want that?  At this rate, we’re heading for a very lucky 2013!

Ida - December 23, 2015 - 6:35 pm

wow, looks like you guys had a blast in the party.Well, what a co-incidence it is. You guys are celebrating Thai New Year wheaers we people in Nepal are also celebrating Nepali New Year 2065 B.S.I guess this is the season for new years. lolHappy New Year

Shama Kern - May 19, 2013 - 8:41 pm

As a long time Chiang Mai expat resident, I have to admit that I escape from the city during Songkran. In most of Thailand the festival lasts one or maximum two days, but in Chiang Mai it goes on for an entire week. If you really have to go out and get something done, like work or business, it makes it really difficult, especially if you are riding a motorcycle. I think one day of Songkran is good fun and enough, but one week can get pretty stressful.

My Thai wife confirmed what you said, that many years ago it was a much more polite affair, and now it has turned into an all-out water battle, especially in Chiang Mai.
Thanks for posting some really nice pictures.

Wats of Chiang Mai

You could trip on the number of wats, or Buddhist temples, here in Chiang Mai.  There are over 300 of them scattered throughout the city – we can see two huge ones just from the window in our apartment.  Earlier this week we made a trek around town to see two of the more famous ones.  Along the way, we stumbled upon two different wats that were so ornately beautiful they demanded to be photographeThe temple above is Wat Monthian.  Beside the main temple building is a massive buddha statue, impossible to ignore as you are passing by on th

A moat surrounds the Old City in Chiang Mai, creating a square around the city.  Wat Monthian is on one side of this moat.
Directly on the opposite side of the moat is Wat Lok Molee.  (I’m telling you, there are wats everywhere.)  This temple is at least as old as 1367, possibly older, though it has received a face lift recently.The courtyard around this wat houses several statues and two gold and silver bodhi trees.  I’m thinking the writing on the leaves is either some sort of prayer or names of people who donated to the temple, but I can’t find any information about it.  It will have to remain a mystery.There are several panels of carvings inside the temple which are quite intricate…
…as are the ones outside the temple.  Beautiful storytelling.Behind the newer temple is a large chedi or stupa, which is a type of Buddhist burial mound.  This one supposedly holds ashes from the Mengrai dynasty.This wat isn’t on the tourist circuit because it’s a little out of town (nearer to where we live), but I think it was my favorite.  Really cool architecture, gorgeous carvings, a courtyard full of fun statues and zero tourists.  Win.The more touristed temple in town is Wat Phra Singh.  It’s on everyone’s list because it is one of the oldest.  It houses a giant golden buddha (with several other buddhas) and a fiberglass sculpture of a monk in meditation that is so lifelike it’s creepy.  (I did not photograph the monk.  Too creepy.)Finally, we visited Wat Chedi Luang.  There is a more modern temple in front, and behind is the old chedi that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1545. The wats are beautiful, of course, but much like the cathedrals in Europe they tend to blur together after a while.  I think we’ll skip most of the 277 other wats in town and just trust that we’ve gotten a good taste of what they have to offer.

Siriwattana Market

It’s amazing the diverse types of housing we’ve lived in over the last few months.  Our new home in Chiang Mai has very little in common with our last home in Bali.  Rather than living in a villa in the countryside, we’re spending this month living in a high rise serviced apartment building in the heart of the city.  It’s kind of like living at a hotel, really.  We have a nice one bedroom apartment on the 7th floor with a very small kitchen and a view of the city and surrounding mountains.  The building has a fitness center, coffee shop, restaurant, and front desk staff.  While the other tenants appear to mostly be retired expats, it’s generally at pretty good setup for us for the month.

A huge perk to our building is the proximity to one of the best markets in town, the Siriwattana Market.  Just a three minute walk from our front door is a wealth of food stalls and vendors serving up amazing, fresh Thai food.  (I’ll mention in advance that I am aware of the excessive number of images in this post.  This is mostly because food has been at the forefront of my brain.  If you spent over a week eating virtually nothing and were then throw into Thai food heaven, you’d think about food a lot, too.)

Much of the market is comprised of stalls like these – bowl after bowl of fantastic, ready to eat foods.  Curries, stews, stir fried veggies, noodles, meats…everything.  Just point to what you want and the nice person behind the counter will fill a plastic baggie with a serving size for you.  Portions usually cost under US$1 and are enough for two meals.There are also loads of pre-made baggies just waiting to be grabbed.  Salads, soups, entrees, you name it.  With this many options, John and I find ourselves a little overwhelmed.  We’ve thought about finding a local and somehow bribing them into wandering the market and educating us so we have a better sense of what to try.  I’m still working on how to make that happen.

The bags on the right are like DIY soup kits.  You buy this bag, (which has a whole fish, noodles, cabbage and garnishes) and the accompanying bag of broth (made in a huge cauldron and scooped fresh into a plastic baggie for you), and then take it home to make your own fresh noodle soup.  It’s like the Thai version of the deli counter at Whole Foods, but much, much cooler.Once you’ve gotten your main dish, you go to one of the ladies selling freshly cooked rice in single size portions.  A bag for two people runs about US$.025.

Huge cauldrons like this one are all over the market, bubbling with huge portions of food.There are separate counters for all of your fried food needs.  I’ve only been able to identify the spring rolls and fried squid, but I’m sure there are numerous surprises underneath all that batter.If it’s meat you’re after, there is plenty of it here.  This woman sells whole chickens Giant wood burning ovens roast whole fish, which is available all day long.And of course there are sausages and grilled meats of all types.

One stall has tubs of pickled vegetables.  On the right is the snack corner, for all of your dried fruit, nut and chip needs.  They have chips made out of things I cannot identify.  We’re slowly sampling out way through this stand.I’ve learned from many different people that its common for people in Asia to eat out most of their meals rather than cook.  This is because it’s so inexpensive to eat out, and the quality of food is so good.  When I say ‘eat out’ I don’t mean at fancy restaurants, of course, I mean at market stalls or from the above take away stands.  Since our kitchen isn’t very large or well stocked, we’ve been functioning along with this model as well.  This market has a huge section that is basically a food hall, and we’ve had several meals here.  Practically each table represents a different ‘restaurant’ where someone will cook you something out of the makeshift kitchen in their food cart.  There is very little English here, so we tend to point at the photos of stuff that looks good when we order.  Some things are better than others, but we’ve yet to have anything that wasn’t good.Of course, if you have a better kitchen to work with and are looking to cook for yourself, you can buy anything you need at the market as well.  I love a good produce market, and this has to be one of the cleanest, most organized ones I’ve seen anywhere.Look how everything is lined up and the prices are well marked?  I haven’t seen marked prices at a produce market since…the US.  Ok, maybe Australia.  Still, it’s rare.Posted prices means no haggling or bargaining required.  It’s a much easier shopping experience, to say the least.
Even the butcher section of this market is amazing.  It’s set off into its own little side area, which is air conditioned to keep everything cool and fresh.  I didn’t go inside the area because it’s too intense for me, but from outside the doors you can see how the meat is well organized and kept very clean.  This market is night and day from the meat stalls of Central America.I prefer the tofu, which is also readily available in huge slabs.Local fresh fruit sits beside apples, pears and grapes imported from the US.  I suppose for the expats it must be nice to be able to get fruits from home, but we’re sticking to things like mangosteens and dragon fruit while we can get them.

There’s also a bakery, stands selling fresh flowers, vendors making fruit shakes, a lady who makes fresh donuts…too much to photograph.  I’m glad we have an entire month to explore all the intricacies of this market – it’s going to take us that long to taste everything!

Kuang Si Falls

Food poisoning is a tricky thing.  When you are on your home turf, in your regular environment, it’s much easier to suss out which unique or suspicious food you ate that was the genesis of your suffering.  When your environment changes on a near daily basis, however, it becomes much trickier to identify the source.

We may never know what truly caused our food poisoning in Laos, but I’m convinced the meal we had at one of the most highly recommended and highly regarded restaurants in town deserves the blame.  This particular restaurant prides itself on teaching Westerners how to eat Laos food, and has its own wildly popular cooking school.  We had eaten there in an attempt to sort out exactly what Laos food entails – in our two days of experience we hadn’t been able to place any local flavors.  About a third of the way into our meal at the nice restaurant we sorted out why this might be the case – Laos food is not particularly good.  (Or to be more polite, at least we don’t have the refined pallettes to enjoy it.)  We struggled to finish our meals, and in fact didn’t do it, which is a feat for my Clean Plate Club loving husband.

Once the meal ended, the suffering truly began.  I spent the rest of the night in aching stomach pain, and the following morning puking up things I don’t dare to describe.  It only got worse from there.

You may wonder why I would bring up food poisoning in a post about a lovely waterfall.  The two are related, however, as the day we were set to view this waterfall I spent the morning puking.  We decided to put off our visit to the following day, our last day in Laos, but when I woke up the following day still feeling like rubbish we couldn’t put it off any further.  Knowing that we were leaving on a flight to Thailand the next day, I put on my game face, got dressed, and tried to believe I wasn’t going to yak over the side of the tuk tuk on the way there.  I really wanted to see this waterfall.
After a 45 minute bumpy tuk tuk ride and a twenty minute hike, I still hadn’t had a gastrointestinal incident, and was very happy to have made it.  The water in the falls is spectacularly blue and very beautiful.  The terraced falls just keep going on and on – they’re surprisingly large.  There are several larger pools (not photographed) where you can swim, and there’s even a rope swing.  I didn’t have the energy to climb to the very top of the falls (John claims I didn’t miss much) or up the tree for the rope swing, but I did manage a swim in the freezing cold waters.We were there early enough in the day that there were only a handful of other people enjoying the falls.  On our way to leave, however, was a different scene.  All of the drunk and disorderly backpackers were just starting to file in for afternoon swimming, and we were (un)fortunate enough to meet the first American traveler we’ve seen in a while.

This particular guy is the kind of American who makes all of us look bad.  You could smell the booze seeping from his pores, and as he approached us (wearing aviator sunglasses, brandishing a cigarette and drinking straight out of a liter beer bottle), I immediately wanted to run in the other direction.  Fortunately, he seemed more interested in swimming than chatting, and after a few moments he jumped into the pristine natural waters with his beer and cigarette still in hand, and floated off under one of the waterfalls, aviators still on, to continue drinking alone.  I apologize to the country of Laos that we in the US produce deuchebags like that.  (Sorry, but that’s just the best word to describe him.)

Seeing it was time to leave, we headed back to town, and not a moment too soon.  Once I got back to our hotel room I was practically immobilized, and didn’t leave again until we had to leave for our flight to Thailand the next day.

At some point, John got sick, too (though we think his was from the hotel food in Thailand.)  The two of us then spent the first four days of our time in Thailand laid up at a hotel in the outskirts, trying to recover enough to take a four hour winding bus ride through the mountains from Chiang Mai to Pai.  Finally, after nearly a week of illness, we decided the universe was trying to tell us not to go to Pai.  Instead, we cancelled our mountain trip and found a high rise apartment in Chiang Mai where we will be living for the month of April.

I’m now finally on the mend (and on antibiotics) over a week later.  With any luck this will be my last episode of stomach illness on world tour, but I’m not crossing my fingers.  If I can get at least through April without further ailment, that will have to be good enough.

[...]  Bali, Indonesia#16:  Halong Bay, Vietnam#17: Hoi An, Vietnam#18: Hoi An, Vietnam#19: Kuang Si Falls, Laos#20:  Kathmandu, Nepal#21:  Kathmandu, Nepal#22:  Pokhara, Nepal#23:  Annapurna Range, [...]

Month Eleven Recap

Where We’ve Been

Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

The Highs

  • Teaching a yoga class for our Couchsurfing hosts in Singapore.  I love being able to share my skills with people around the world.
  • Vietnamese street food.  It’s seriously delicious.  Don’t even get me started on the coffee.
  • Cruising Halong Bay.  Gorgeous scenery, good company, and a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of city life.
  • Buying custom made clothes and shoes in Hoi An.  The wonderful tailors in town can make anything for you at cheap prices, so I replaced some old clothes and falling apart shoes and John got a pair of silk pajama pants that are actually long enough for him.  Win!
  • Kuang Si Falls in Laos.  It’s just as beautiful as it looks in all the photos.  (Mine aren’t posted yet, but you can google it if you are impatient :) )

The Lows

  • Stomach bugs.  I spent our last few days in Bali ill with some sort of stomach flu, and spent most of our time in Laos (and the first four days in Thailand) laid up with food poisoning.  For March I spent 10 days sick – that’s a third of the month!  Yeah, I’m pretty much done with being sick.
  • Missing out on a few things I wanted to see and do in Laos because of above mentioned illness.  We did very little during our stay because I couldn’t get out of bed.  Not cool.

Things I’ve Learned

Since I can’t possibly express everything we’ve learned while traveling, this is usually a section with flippant little anecdotes about laundry and massages.  Please don’t think that is all I am actually learning about while we travel.  After chatting with people native to China, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand for hours about education, government, healthcare, and culture what we’ve learned about the world in this month alone is astounding.  It’s also always fascinating to learn what the world thinks of the US (especially because nearly everyone says the same things.)  Needless to say, we’re learning a lot this year.

What’s Up Next

April is all Thailand.