We’re staying with Alice’s second cousins, Andrew and Mona, in Bangkok.
A high school teacher with a big heart and good jokes. Younger side of middle aged, post 6-pack stomach with the ubiquitous shaved sides hair cut. Talks fast, slamming down opinions like anvils off a skyscraper. Cynic.
Ambiguously aged like most Thais, beautiful and youthfully energetic. Doesn’t like mornings, likes revolutions, wants to open a Thai restaurant with no bullshit. Optimist.
While we were organising our stay in Bangers Andrew bombarded us with warnings.
– The roads out of Bangkok are madness, go on them and you will die
– Everything will be closed
– You will get wet
– Everything will generally be disorganised and chaotic
Songkran is on. It’s Thai new year, christmas and mardigras all chaotically packed into one wet, sexy, alcoholic adventure. About 40% of locals leave the capital to spend time visiting their families or travelling to G rated, middle-class, beach getaways. It leaves the city remarkably more subdued. Streets which used to have amphetamined markets and hive-like bazaars are now just quietly suburban, scattered with the few hard-working hawkers. Half the shops are closed, the roads are empty and the highways no longer resemble stampedes. Everything is less – this is all with one GIANT exception – Central Bangkok.
Andrew had described this several times but being a naive doubter I thought it would just be a few kids with some water pistols spraying girls they have crushes on. The morning it started I had to head out to the train station to pick up my bike.
Andrew: “You will be a target. Everyone is going to want to splash the pharang on the bike.”
Mona, waving her arms : “You are yelling ‘Hey everybody splash me. Splash me. Hey you! I want to get wet’.”
On my way back to Andrew and Mona’s place I got drenched. Every conceivable method of wetting someone was experimented on me – water pistols, hoses, buckets, bottles of water, mindless splashing, everything. One guy so fervently hauled a bucket of water at me I swerved from the impact, almost crashing into a motorcycle. Another time a man ran out of his house to swipe chalk across my cheek*, I was riding fast at the time so he really had to whack me to get it on – almost crashed again.
I got back to the house an hour after I had planned, utterly drowned and spotted by blurred hands of wet chalk. (my navigation had been shot when my hands became to damp to operate my phone, so I had to Crusoe it again). I was feeling triumphant and exhilarated, as if I had just come out of the Songkran warzone but when I arrived dripping at the door, no one seemed at all surprised or amused.
“That’s nothing.” Andrew said.
That afternoon Mona’s best friend June came over with a her teenage son and her quietly cute niece. We suited up and prepared ourselves for a journey to the heart of the monster.
If I ever direct a zombie film, this will be the scene of the apocalypse. It was fucking madness. Thousands of people packed into a suburban highway, everyone of them armed with cheap water guns, iced water and chalky sludge. It’s a war between a million different armies – no one is safe, everyone is shooting everyone – foreigners, the heavily armed, and anyone dancing is particularly vulnerable to a good drowning. At it’s heart it’s so packed the only way to cross from one side of the fight to the other is to use your slimy chalky body to slither through the crowd like a single oil molecule swimming through a river.
As soon as we got to the edge of it Andrew became suddenly consumed by the need to arm up. With Andrew spouting American-gun rhetoric like a vengeful patriot, we bought some cheap rifles and prepared to soak some suckers.
Most of the others squirted and splashed either indiscriminately or vengefully but I went for the unsuspecting and, admittedly, cheap targets. All of my water was reserved for shots to dry people, unaffected kids and rich Chinese tourists – crotch, bum, ears and eyes were my targets. Alice said I went to far when I shot a sleeping baby in the back of the head but such was the madness of the day, it just kept sleeping anyway.
Eventually it go so packed we were unable to leave willingly. We could only subject ourselves to the drifting will of the masses. Cold, covered in chalk grime and far away from our original energy and enthusiasm we were uncomfortably pushed with the hoard until Andrew found an unlikely refuge – Sunrise Taco. Our own little war-time Switzerland, peaceful, dry and clean. We sat in the in the tawdry oasis until the fire hoses and lemming swarms had quietened to water pistols and take out queues.
I finally went to the Grand Palace.
My first independent trip overseas was to Thailand. I was travelling with my best friends and I didn’t have a clue how to travel – we just read guide books until we were exhausted of circling temples and other old things. We also had this ridiculous idea that because we were going to Europe afterwards we should conserve our money. We were unbelievably stingy. Any meal over $1 was too expensive and accommodation was as cheap as we could get – bed bugs, mosquitos and cold showers all fair game. It was like a prison, we only ate fried rice and pad thai for a month. It’s a big regret of mine. Anyway when we arrived at the Grand Palace, the most famous tourist attraction in all of Thailand, we saw the $4 entry fee and left without a second thought.
I payed for my stinginess. When I returned yesterday it had gone up to $18 and it was fucking hot. It only took us an hour before we didn’t give a fuck how gold, massive or holy anything was, we were nearing 7/10 sweaty. That’s way to much wetness and smelly ness for one person. We left and went straight to a Bangkok’s gaudiest mall – we bought somethings at Uniqlo and watched Captain America.
On the first night with Andrew and Mona we went out to a more conventional Thai restaurant, as in it wasn’t just a stall with some trestle tables. It was a bit more expensive than usual, $3 per dish instead of $1 but fuck it was good. I think it was the best thing I’ve had here.
Larb pet – minced duck with roasted rice powder, dried chilli, lemongrass and thai basil.
Khao pad pu – peppery fried rice with egg and crab.
Gang som pla – Whole snapped deep fried then basted in tamarind and boiled on a hot stove at the table.
Gai tod – sour and salty fried chicken with roasted peanuts, fresh chilli and slabs of ginger, with a sour chilli sauce
All of the dishes were very similar to what you can find in good restaurants in Sydney but better. I raked my mind thinking about what the differences were and I think it’s just a few uncommon ingredients and methods here and there – like the twice cooked fish and the roast rice powder in the larb. If this place was at home I’d go every week.
Andrew and Mona have left for a holiday and have very generously let us stay in their place. We’re in a weird kind of spot now though – because Songkran is on everything is closed. The street food markets are half empty, lots of shops are closed and it’s ambiguous what ‘tourist attractions’ are open or not. What is open and happening is guarded by hoards of water-bazooka clad squadrons intent on obliterating foreigners with icy cold water. We can’t leave Bangkok though because the roads are too dangerous. We’ll probably just chill out and eat some more and maybe get a train to a jungly national park.
* Originally water was lightly poured over the heads of buddha’s and the people to symbolise cleansing. The chalk dabbing is another blessing. Both have since been transformed from religiously significant to party fuck yeah.