Juanito’s Travels 50 yr backpacker – Chiang Mai, Songkran (Thai New Year) April, Thailand pt27

Songkran Chian Mia Thailand April 2023

I’ve spent the day in bed in Luang Prabang, Laos. My body finally succumbing to the round 37-39 degree heat we’ve been subjecting it to every day, and the constant input of rather spicy, and at times perhaps dodgy, food. My current tummy troubles may not have been from food and could have been from a tea (maktoum tea) that is meant to help with digestion but can also lead to flatulance, nausea etc that they they gave us after a massage. Who knows, we’re freaking our body out everyday with new experiences, maybe it just gave up for a bit so it could have a rest. But, in the category of probably too much information I had all the above symptoms and was feeling shit for a whole day.

Since starting the previous paragraph we’ve travelled through Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai in Thailand, then over into Laos where we travelled by slow boat from Huay Xi to Pakbeng. We spent a couple of days in Pakbeng and visited an elephant sanctuary organised by a French woman called Helen and then boarded the slow boat again to Luang Prabang, which I now see as the Paris or Melbourne of South East Asia. The slow boat really, really, really, really sucks by the way, but I’ll do more on than in a later blog.

I was hoping to finish off my story of my 1995 trip to Ireland, the UK, France, Thailand and India before starting this trip around the world, but that didn’t happen, I’m also unlikely to finish writing the blog posts for this trip any time soon as I figure it’s better to travel around and experience things and try and remember what we did rather than take out too much time from travelling to try and stay up to date.  So I’ve still got a bit to go on India and Thailand (1995). Laying in bed sick in Luang Prabang, maybe a week ago now, does remind me of my visit to Varanasi, India in 1995, so I might as well do a bit on that, perhaps I’ll come back and fill in the gaps later, plus look at how many typos I have throughout this story. It’s not that I’m a bad speller it’s that I’m a terrible typer.

I’d come back from Jaipur and Pushkar to New Delhi and checked up on whether I could get a seat on a plane for Bangkok, but the Thai Airways people said I’d have to wait at least four more days (or it might have been 3), so I went to my travel man at the fancy hotel which I used to do number 2s to avoid the public toilets and asked him where I could go for a few days while I waited to see if I could get on the plane.

He said with a sideways nod of his head, ‘Varanasi is very shanti (peaceful)’.

‘Ok’, I said, ‘I’ll go there’. And he booked me on an overnight train to Varanasi. I arrived in Varanasi a bit before dawn and grabbed a motor rickshaw down to the Ganges River where I quickly haggled with a boat owner to take me out on the river. We were in the centre of the Ganges when the sun began to rise and its reddy/ orangey haze spread across the landscape. It was one of the most amazing experiences in my life.

The complete opposite of the slow boat trip from Huay Xi to Luang Prabang – again, in a late post I’ll explain how suck-full that is.

Back to the Songkran (Thai New Year) festival in Chiang Mai though!

Songkran Chiang Mai Thailand April 2023Songkran Chiang Mai Thailand April 2023

We travelled from Koh Chang to Trat and then flew from Trat to Bangkok. Had I known how much time we’d been waiting at Trat I would have just booked us a ticket on the bus to Bangkok as we ended up arriving late int he evening and having to spend a night in Bangkok, whereas if we’d taken the bus we probably could have arrived earlier in the afternoon and flown from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Should have, could have, didn’t. In the end we arrived in Chiang Mai on the 12th of April. Once we’d settled in we explored the old walled area of the town, grabbed something to eat, visited a temple etc. We could see the preparations for Songkran were in full swing, but still didn’t quite know what to expect. I knew Songkran had something to do with water and water fights and generally getting wet. With the 38 plus degree days we had everyday it wasn’t something that sounded that bad. A bit of a cool down.

We saw buckets, water pistols, and plastic phone and wallet protectors on sale. There’s a manky looking moat around the walled city and along its edge people had buckets on strings that they could throw in a retrieve water.

Songkran Chiang Mai Thailand April 2023

‘Songkran doesn’t start until tomorrow’, I said to my wife, as we walked along the narrow paths at the edge of the road and the moat which were increasingly being taken over by stalls selling offensive water weaponry and defensive gear. It was looking ominous.

Even though Songkran wasn’t due to kick off until the next day, after three years of COVID shutdowns this year was obviously being highly anticipated by the Thais and there were many mischievous smiling faces about as we walked by, and indication of what was to come!

Songkran Chiang Mai Thailand April 2023Songkran Chiang Mai Thailand April 2023   Songkran Chiang Mai Thailand April 2023

So we basically just managed to get a bit of breakfast and visit one temple before we had our first, delicate wetting, I think it may have been a little kid with a bucket dripping some water on our back. We laughed and walked on, then we started to see more and more.

‘I think we need to go back to the hotel and prepare for this.’ I said to my wife. So we made our way back and yes, on the way we got a few more splashing. We got into our bathers and waterproofed our gear before heading out again in the afternoon.

Then the serious chaos began.

Basically every time we left the hotel in Chiang Mai for the next two days and headed anywhere near the main streets near the ancient walled city with the moat around it – if you visit you’ll see what I mean – we were totally drenched.

At first it was fun, just some light pouring of water down our back, then we’d get a few water pistols from kids, but then the whole buckets of water came out and we walked along dripping wet, my thongs squeaking with the water. Sometimes the buckets of water had ice in them, and even with the near 40 degree heat it felt cold. It didn’t stop, every step you took there was more water, and then more water. The only places you were safe were in the restaurants. And it wasn’t just locals, foreigners, often hanging out in the safety of the second floor of restaurants rained down barrages of water pistol fire. Those guys I’d have to say were the worst sort of pricks you can imagine, how is that remotely fair that you can fire water down on people and yet there is no way to retaliate. Every foreigner who does that needs to be dragged down and thrown into the moat, which looks quite feisty and toxic, and, which I may have said already, but it’s worth saying again, is retrieved by ropes and curets and dumped on people.

The streets looked as though torrential rain had hit, but every drop came form people’s water pistols or buckets. The only good thing about it was that you could hardly feel the heat, which is I guess why they have it at that time of year.

I think usually Songkran just lasts a couple of days, but this year, the pent up Sonoran festivities continued for days. The next day the level was even more intense, and the day after, when we were leaving for Chiang Rai, it looked as though the water fights continue unabated. There was some reprieve when you got into the back alleys away from he Main Street, but from where we were staying it was near impossible to go anywhere without encountering some water and henceforth walking around soaked.

songkran Chiang Mai Thailand 2023Songkran Chiang Mai Thailand 2023

There was a slightly religious element to the whole thing when we saw a Buddhist parade with floats with Buddha statues, where people were putting water on the Buddha as a cleansing thing, and the monks on the floats were offering water blessings onto the crowd. There were also Buddhist monks splashing water on people passing by the temples, and, out of respect, nobody returned fire (or water).

Sonkrang Chiang Mai thailand 2023songran Chiang Mai Thailand 2023

The rest, in my imagination, bore as much relation to the original festival as modern day Christmas shopping does to the birth of Jesus.

We did take a break down a backstreet where found a nice coffee shop. The Thais do really nice cold coffees now and it’s not too hard to find them around. We met one guy there from Syria and started chatting. He used to have a cafe in Syria.

‘But now, coffee is a luxury, no-one in Syria has money for such things’, he said. And, not seeing much hope in his own country, he applied for a visa for Thailand, which took some years but which he finally got. He missy have been good at making coffee because even an Australian in Syria who had visited his cafe, presumably some years earlier, had been impressed by his piccolo!

We were only in Chiang Mai for two nights (though arrived very early the first day, and late on the last day so had close to fours days there). We had planned to stay a bit longer, but changed our itinerary after we were told my wife – travelling on a Mexican passport – could only stay in Thailand for 15 say (see earlier post about visa-on-arrival hassles) and partly because some dodgy hotel on Booking.com cancelled one of our bookings after they realised it was Songkran and they could get much more money from tourists for the time – watch out for dodgy hotels on Booking.com, seems like the company does nothing to prevent fictions ratings and you soon discover that some of the worst places have a bunch of 10 star ratings from fake visitors from Russia, Sierra Leon, Greenland and Antartica (the last few I’m being facetious). I suggest just checking the worst ratings of a highly rated place. If there’s a bunch of 1s and people like why the hell do they have a 9 star rating, it’s because they’re fake. Usually a pretty good one still has a few bad rating of 3s, 5s, but not heaps and usually for trivia things. The 1 ratings are usually big warning signs! As is tonnes of 10 ratings! We also met a young French traveller on a day trip to Ayutthaya, near Bangkok, who really loved Chiang Rai so we decided to extend our time there a little.

I couldn’t tell you much more about Chiang Mai from Songkran as that absolutely dominated everything and it was impossible to see the ‘normal’ everyday life in Chiang Mai, due to the water wars. But on your first morning we went to a great French Cafe – the Chouquette bakery and cafe – which had fantastic coffee with almond milk and baguettes as good, or better as you get in Paris. But then when we went back the next day they had a sign saying it was closed for a week for Songkran.

As with the Songkran wars taking over our sightseeing in Chiang Mai, as the Syrian guy said, ‘If only the world fought with water rather than bombs, it would be a much better place’. And for two days at least we could still walk around and find great street food, even though we were always saturated. I stopped every afternoon for a few puffs of my joints from Bangkok (again Legal!) just away the water fights. It was nice to chill in that way, but it did also make me a little tired. Mexican weed is better – but generally not legal in most states there, oh, the irony of that. it beggars belief!

I certainly can’t disagree with the Syrian guy though, better to be shot and bombarded with water while being stoned than have the real thing make you leave your country for a better life elsewhere. Good luck to the guy, so greta he was still able to be resilient after all his experiences.

P.s. some of the hazy imagery here is not just due to the fact I still use an iPhone 8 or something like that, it’s also because you have to protect your phone with waterproof casing, which is sold everywhere and if you don’t want your phone destroyed buy it!.

And Happy Songkran to all!

Songkran Chiang Mai Thailand April 2023