Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Songkran Continues - 13 April 2553

Today, Tuesday 13 April 2553, here in Thailand is the official start of Songkran. But this is not true here in Isaan, we started last week and are now in the full swing of the celebration.

As we drove out to Tahsang Village, we encountered roving gangs in pick-up trucks sort of reminiscent of the "Technicals" (improvised combat vehicles from civilian pick up trucks) in Somalia. Rather than having a 50 caliber machine gun or a recoiless gun mounted in the back of the pick-up truck, the vehicles that we saw here in Isaan all had some sort of container, typically a 55 gallon steel drum, large clay pot, or large blue plastic barrel filled with water. Just as in the movie "Blackhawk Down", the backs of the pick-up trucks were also filled with a motley rag tag band of irregular troops. We are in the midst of Songkran, Thai New Years, and young children and especially young people pile into the back of trucks to toss water on other vehicles, motorbikes, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians along the main highways and rural byways of the region.

It is quite common to drive down the main road at 90 kilometers per hour, approximately 55 mph, and see a running water battle between the occupants of two pick-up trucks traveling parallel or traveling opposite each other. The "troops" in these vehicles are soaking wet. They are mostly dressed in tee shirts and blue jeans. The younger men often remove their tee shirts and wrap them around their head to create a fashion statement and impress any young girls traveling with them or whom they may encounter along the way. Quite often the young people are drinking beer or whiskey much of the day. It is amazing to see young people 4 or 5 sitting on the top of each side wall of the truck as they speed along the road. The pick-ups roam around to engage in throwing water. Some of the people have developed an expertise of tossing buckets of water backhanded for no look tosses to catch people off guard.

My favorite combatants are the little children apparently on their first or second Songkran forays. They wear cotton tee shirts with colorful cartoon character images on them and cotton shorts. The little warriors are always drenched and look like little water rats. Some of them are carrying super soaker type water guns and in some cases "water cannons". In no time at all the little guys have overcome their initial anxiety and are tossing water just as enthusiastically as their older brothers, sisters, and cousins fighting next to them in the pick-up bed. There is one exception to their enthusiasm, most of the younger children are hesitant to toss water on a vehicle driven by a falang (foreigner). For me, I don't mind having water thrown on the truck. When I see a small child who is hesitant I will honk the horn at them and make faces at them. I enjoy seeing the shock on their face. Duang just laughs at them and me whiling telling me that I am crazy. Hell - it's Songkran and it only last 3, 4, 5 or is it 7 days once a year!

On the road from Kumphawapi out to Tahsang Village, we passed many areas where children had set up along the road to throw water. A motorbike was behind us as we drove along the country road. In one of the small villages I spotted a group prepared to throw water. I slowed down and pantomimed to the combatants not to throw water on our truck but to work with me to get the motorbike behind us. It worked perfectly. I drove slower and slower until when I got just passed the people I stopped forcing the motorbike had to stop. The motorbike received the full brunt of the water attack. Everyone, except the motorbike people, laughed like crazy.

When we got to Tahsang Village the streets were abandoned to the small children with their buckets, barrels, hoses, and water guns. The adults were all at Duang's aunt's house gambling in the front yard. Gambling? Have I not written that gambling is illegal in Thailand? Well gambling is illegal in Thailand but according to Duang "It is OK. It is Songkran. Police no pompain" The villagers were taking full advantage of the dispensation for the Songkran holiday. They were playing a dice-roulette type game that I had seen played outside of Duang's uncle's funeral (another occasion when gambling is tolerated). It is this dichotomy and contrast that for me makes living in Isaan so interesting as well as entertaining.

We had gone to Tahsang Village to deliver new supplies to the family market. There has been a heavy run on beer, and whiskey so we were replenishing the stock.. We also had several different types of snacks to sell. I helped to stock the snack rack and made sure that it was all squared away. Remembering my last experience when Kwan and Peelawat had rearranged all the bags, I remarked that we were fortunate not to have Peelawat around to "help" us.

Duang was taking care of the market as a sort of gift to her mother. Her mother was free to gamble and spend time with her relatives and neighbors. I wandered around the village taking photographs of the people that I encountered. Duang was concerned about the children tossing water on me and perhaps more importantly my camera. I had confidence and trust. I am well known in the village but as a foreigner the children are still a little leery of me after all I am a "falang" ("boogie man" perhaps to some). I had a great time and got some nice photos of children having water fight.

My favorite model for the day was a young girl dressed in black. She apparently did not recognize me - she was the passenger on the motorbike that got drenched when I played the joke on them by stopping. With the 105F (40C) heat and 35% humidity, she had dried out quickly. I had found her and her three little girlfriends playing with paper dolls at a home near Duang's parents. They children were playing on a raised bamboo pavilion with a thatched roof. A naked baby boy about 16 months old and his mother kept the girls company. I took some photos of the group and shared the photographs with the people using the monitor on the back of the camera. The people loved seeing themselves in the camera - including the little boy. These are simple pleasures that I enjoy being able to share with the villagers. I will get some prints made to give them in appreciation for them being themselves.

After awhile the girls decided to have a water fight. They were prepared to toss water on people passing by but with just about everyone at Duang's Aunt's, there was not much traffic on the village street. They tried to get a man on a motorbike but had gotten so distracted with our photo session that they were too late to get him. They decided to get cool by fighting each other. We all had a great time. After awhile even the baby boy, now clothed, tried to join in the fun. He watched the girls fill their buckets and he went over and grabbed one of the large containers. He didn't get any water into the container but seemed to enjoy putting the container over his head to every one's amusement.

I had gotten quite hot so I returned to the family market to grab an ice cold Coke. With all the Police road blocks I was not going to gamble with drinking beer. Writing of gambling - by now so many people were gambling, that the game had been moved to the flat ground across the street. There were so many gamblers that they were in danger of collapsing the raised bamboo and wood pavilion. After awhile Peelawat came over for a visit. In no time at all he had gone over to the nice and orderly snack rack and pulled four different snack bags and brought them to me. I thanked him for each one and placed them atop the desk that I was sitting at. Peelawat came over to the desk reached up and grabbed one small bag pf chocolate cereal snacks and gave it to me as if to reinforce his desire that I eat it.

It was a great day and we will return tomorrow for the formal ceremony when respect is paid to the village elders at the Wat.

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