Songkran – The offspring of a water fight and a music festival!

DSC02592The only way to quickly describe Songkan to those who have not experienced it, is that it is a perfect mix of a 3 day music festival and a water fight, all taking place in city surroundings.

Songkran is celebrated in Thailand from the 13th to the 15th of April, which coincides with the traditional New Year celebrations all over South East Asia. It falls on the hottest time of year in Thailand, at the end of the dry season.  The traditional celebration of Songkran is throwing water over others; this is essentially to wash away the sins of the previous year and to start the New Year clean and pure.

Typically, as with the rest of Thailand, it has become over run with tourists and backpackers. This does add to the fun of the festival but at the same time it slowly eats away at the traditional Songkran. However the local Thai people don’t seem to mind this and even enjoy it more to hit Western targets with their water guns.

Our first introduction to Songkran in Chiang Mai was when we returned from our moto trip to Pai, we were bombarded with buckets of water as we drove down the highway into the city. Children who were just able to stand to grandparents all joined in, tossing buckets of water on passing vehicles.

Once we entered the city we hit a huge traffic jam around the moat area, this is where the main party takes place. It was here that we got stuck for an hour trying to manoeuvre our bikes in and out of the stationary traffic. It was a lot of fun though; people were all sitting on the back of pick-up trucks with barrels of water, soaking anybody in sight. The Thai people were respectful when they threw water, we had backpacks on so they would only throw water at our chest, in order to avoid wetting our bags, the Western tourists were not so forgiving though.

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When we made it back to our guesthouse we met some of the friends we had met on the train from Bangkok. I grabbed some beer and joined in on the festivities outside the guesthouse. We then returned our bikes and headed for the main area where the celebrations were taking place. Armed with water guns and buckets we headed straight towards the battlefield. Water was gathered from anywhere that you can find it, usually from passing pick-up trucks or else from the water in the moat. This water in the moat was not very clean water, in fact it has a very strong green colour to it, this however didn’t deter me from going to for a quick swim. By the time we reached the main area the sun was starting to set and the temperature started to drop, so as an alternative to a water fight we settled for a few beers instead.

Songkran is a water festival for people of all ages, it is a chance for older people to leave their childish side out and just have fun, and the children of course love any chance to throw water. Everybody walking through the streets of Chiang Mai during Songkran has a smile on their face, and to be honest, why wouldn’t you? You are taking part in one of the biggest water festivals in the world.

Of course no festival is complete without alcohol. The Thai authorities have however limited its availability during the festival. For example the main festival area where all the music stages are located is a strict no alcohol area, and the 7/11’s are prohibited from selling alcohol from 2pm-7pm. I presume this is in an attempt to lower the number of alcohol related incident that may hinder the enjoyment of the festival. There are of course bars open during the day, and this is where most of the drinking takes place during the day. However the alcohol consumption is not just done by the Western visitors, the local Thai’s also like to indulge. This seems to be a very traditional way of drinking; usually the family would sit down together over food and drink beer or rum and coke. It was very common to be walking around and to be offered a drink or a shot of rum, and of course that is very hard to turn down.DSC02594

Most of have been lucky enough to experience the feeling at the being front row of a concert, for those of you that don’t; you are missing out big time!! Being at the concert stages at Songkran is something surreal. The DJ is protected from the water by transparent plastic sheeting, beautiful girls are constantly spraying the crowd with power hoses, the water is ankle deep and the atmosphere is inexpressible. At one stage I turned around from the stage to see a pick-up truck stopped and people, including the drive, were climbing onto the roof. It took me 5 seconds to think about it and I went to join them. With a helping hand from someone on top of the roof, I joined them for a dance in the middle of all the traffic. This may have been the highlight of my Songkran, it was the last few hours of the festival and everyone was going crazy and I had the best spot in Chiang Mai.

Songkran is a festival like no other. If you get the chance to do it in your lifetime, just do it, no matter what age you are!

It was something that I can now tick off my bucket list!

Is it on yours?

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Wet Dreams – Songkran and a crazy motorcycle ride through the jungle

Now that I’ve got you attention, let me tell you a tale of four naïve volunteers, their Honda Dream’s, the jungle of Northern Thailand and Songkran water festival!

We had just arrived in Chiang Mai from Bangkok on an overnight train that took 14 hours. This however is not as bad as you may think, in fact, it is by far the best way to travel long distances in Thailand. The cost of the ticket was 800 bhat (just under $30). We each had our own fully horizontal bed, complete with pillow and blanket. Before we got on the train we took a quick stop in a 7-11 for a couple of beers and two bottles of Sang Som rum. The train even has its own restaurant/party carriage where we spent most of our time. So when you were fully loaded with drink and ready for bed all you had to do is stumble back through the swaying carriages to your bed and pass out. When we work up we were arriving in Chiang Mai. Perfect!!

Double checking our route

Double checking our route

Anyway, planning our route was the first part of this expedition. We bought a map and set our sights on the northern town of Pai. There is a main road that connects Chiang Mai and Pai, this takes you through the valleys on a nice tarmacked road. Or there are the other alternative route that are never travelled by tourists. It came down to a flip of a coin on which route we would take, like it literally did come down to a flip of a coin (heads or temple) And the alternative route came up temple, so our choice was made by fate. Little did we know what lay ahead of us because of that simple flip of a coin!!

With our motos rented the previous night we awoke early at 6:45am to begin our journey at 7am. We estimated the length of the trip at around 150km to get to Pai, so around 6-7 hours. (How wrong we were) However because some of us are not ‘morning people’ we did not leave until 8am. Looking at it now, that hour lost us a valuable hour of sunlight. Getting out of Chiang Mai was easy, there was not too much traffic and the roads in Thailand are a lot more organised than those in Cambodia. We headed north until we had to turn off the main road to find our alternative route. Once we turned off this main road that was fully of trucks, buses and fast cars we were greeted with one of the best roads that I have ever had the pleasure of driving on. It was the perfect combination of a smooth paved road, seamless inclining bends, and awe inspiring views that would distract you from the road ahead!

Our bikes out side the cafe after breakfast

Our bikes out side the cafe after breakfast

After making it out of the city and off the main road we decided to stop for breakfast as a small cabin at the side of the road for some morning Pad Thai. After filling up we set off once again, stopping every so often to take in the sights and some pictures of the interlocking green valleys. We tried to stop along the way at a couple of waterfalls and caves; however these had all been turned into tourist attractions and had an entrance fee. For me this is not the way that you should experience some of Mother Nature’s greatest sculptures. It just reminded me of how lucky we were in Koh Kong when we found the giant secluded waterfall. We did however come across a cave, while it was a tourist attraction, it did not charge and entrance fee. Here we found a deep cavern that bore its way in to the monstrous cliff-face. Equipped with just the flash lights from our mobile phones we entered the cave to explore. The impeding darkness quickly engulfed us and sounds of the unknown cause paranoia to set in and it soon had us exiting the cave quite quickly.

Caves we found along the way

Caves we found along the way

Back on our Honda Dream’s again we set off again. For those of you that are unfamiliar with motos, the Honda Dream is the most popular and reliable bike in South East Asia. It is perfect on big roads and with its 125cc engine it can reach a good pace. Its handling and gear changes are second to none and it there are ever any issues with it, most mechanics will know how to fix it. But what really sets the Honda Dream apart from the other motos is its endurance and ability to overcome any terrain that is throw at it, be it mud, water, gravel, or all of them combined! It really is the ultimate bike and it was just what we needed for this trip.

We stopped for food at Yang Moen at 3pm with around 4 hours of sunlight left. The next part of road was going to be the worst of the trip, on the map that we bought it said that this road is only passable in a 4×4 during the dry season, on our Dream’s we could handle anything.  Even before we set out we knew this, but we didn’t realise how bad it was actually going to be. While finishing our food we tried to guess at what time we would arrive in Pai and what we would do for the night. Let’s just say we were way off guessing our arrival time in Pai. The first half of the road was an enjoyable change from the perfect tarmac, now we were driving on sand and rubble, up and down through the green hills. A flat tire here would be a disaster for us, but luckily that flat tire came on a different road.  The conditions of the road would change dramatically every hundred metres or so, but this just added to the excitement that was building up inside us.

Some of the road conditions that we encountered

Some of the road conditions that we encountered

This was short lived however, and soon we came crashing down to reality when we came to a cross roads that was not on our map. There was a village at this crossroads and we asked a family for directions to Wat Chan. This was a rural village in the middle of the jungle in Northern Thailand and no one spoke English. He pointed us to turn right at the crossroads, but I am pretty sure he had no idea of what we were asking him at all!! Hoping for the best we took his directions and headed off right, we travelled along a road that was so bumpy and full of potholes even the most equipped 4×4 in the world would have struggled on. We carried on for a half an hour until we came to a village that was completely and utterly deserted. There were around 15 houses in the village and not a soul to be found, and the road that we were stopped within the ghost village. We decided to turn around and to head back to the crossroads and see if we could get better directions. We found a guy that spoke a little bit of English and he showed us a different way and ensured us that his way was indeed the best way to get to Wat Chan, but it would take us over two hours. Now we were in a race against the sunset. For you how don’t realise the importance of getting off the road after dark have not travelled by road in a developing country. It is a dangerous place to be even during the day, let alone at night. The biggest vehicle has the right of way regardless of everything else, and us on our motos wouldn’t stand a chance.

The new road, in the middle of no where!!

The new road, in the middle of the jungle!!

Racing against the inevitable darkness we began to encounter roads that we getting worse and worse, until we came to another village deep in the forest. This village was slightly unusual because all the way we had been driving on dirt and suddenly in the middle of this village they were building a concrete road. This then forced us to go around the road that was still wet, and through someone’s house. This involved driving through a fence, up huge earth steps, under a house and around all the animals that they kept! At this stage we had started to gather quite an interest from the people of the village. Once we got around the road works we stopped to ask the locals how far Wat Chan was. This was a lot more difficult to communicate than you would expect because none of them there spoke a work of English, and none of us any Thai. So through various different forms of communication we realised that we were still at least 2 hours away from Wat Chan. This is the point in our journey where real panic and worry started to set in. This resulted in high tensions between the 4 of us, and anything that we said or did got on someone else’s nerves. This was the first real sign that everyone was worried about where we would end up. To add to this situation, my moto stopped working; whenever I gave it power it wouldn’t respond and just cut out. This was a very worrying situation to be in. The fact that we may already have to spend the night in the jungle, as well as trying to get a powerless moto out too would be a disaster. Thanks to a local ,with what looked like a giant spliff, he got the bike working again, as I said, the Honda Dream is an extremely reliable moto.

The locals fixing my bike

The locals fixing my bike

We now knew which direction that we had to go in but we did not know what condition the ‘road’ would be like. This was fine for 15 minutes until we came to yet another split in the road. It was at this point that I turned to the guys and said to them that we had two options; 1) Carry on the road but we didn’t know what lay ahead. 2) Go back to the village that we just left and ask for help in getting us out of the dense jungle. We opted for the latter and went back to the village. We were fortunate that two guys were already packing to go out to the main road and they said that they would guide us out.

If it was not for these guys we would never have made it out. The road that unfolded before us was made up of all sorts of obstacles and challenges for us to get past. Small wooden bridges, followed muddy crevasses and then climbing up 50° hills with dykes on either side of the foot wide path. This was a huge challenge for us and it could have gone very wrong if someone took a stumble or hit a bump and fell off. That’s not to say that we never fell over during all of this. I took a couple of falls and my moto took a serious beating but we made it through. After this exhausting drive we finally made it out of the jungle area and out onto the main road! First stop was petrol.

While at the petrol station there was a huge sense of relief that we were out of the jungle and finally back on a road that was on the map. Nevertheless tensions were still high and words were firmly spoken between a few people. We decided to try and put it behind us until we had reached somewhere to stay and have a well needed beer! We still had an hour drive to go until be reached Wat Chan where we would try to get a place to stay for the night, and now there was around 15 minutes of light left so we had to get going. Driving in the dark is something that you have to be cautious about most of the time, but especially so when you are driving on a dirt road that was full of huge potholes that you can’t see until the very last moment.

The condition we were in after 13 hours driving in the jungle

The condition we were in after 13 hours driving in the jungle

The best feeling that we had all day was when we were driving along this dirt road and suddenly we hit smooth tarmac, this indicated that we were on the main road to Wat Chan! This was the biggest sense of relief that I have experienced in a long time. As we sailed along this road we all started to cheer and beep our horns in excitement, now it was smiles all round. We found a guesthouse in Wat Chan, got something to eat, had a beer and went to bed. We were all tired, dirty, dusty and delirious from 13 hours of riding, but the important thing was that we weren’t sleeping in the jungle that night!!

We arose with the sun the next day hand travelled towards our original destination of Pai, 57km away. This was a beautiful ride through the mountains as the sun was coming up, I couldn’t help but stare off into the mountains and realise how lucky I am to have the chance to do this! It’s something that I will never forget. We made it to Pai at 11am and got some lunch, we decided not to hang around and just start off back towards Chiang Mai, this time taking the main road! This road was superb, new smooth tarmac combined with hair-pin turns made for an entertaining journey home. Lars was not so lucky because at about half way he got a flat tire, better on a main road than in the middle of the jungle. A nice Thai family with a pickup truck were happy to help and loaded the moto into the back along with Lars.

Lars and his moto in the back of a pick up truck

Lars and his moto in the back of a pick up truck

They found us a mechanic that would fix the tire and didn’t want any money in exchange. With this slight inconvenience out of the way we finally made it back to Chiang Mai. It was here that we were greeted with buckets of water being thrown at us while we drove. Entering Chiang Mai then was total madness!! The streets were full of people, cars and pickup trucks all taking part in the beginning of Songkran! We made it back to our guest house wet, exhausted and filthy, but at least we made it back. Now we could concentrate on the 3 day long water festival that awaited us!!

Songkran Water festival

Songkran Water festival

SONGKRAN!!

Thailand Adventures – A Sneak Peek

Diner before the train out of Bangkok

Dinner before the train out of Bangkok

Khmer New Year gave us the opportunity of having a two week holiday away from the school. And with Thailand being so close there was no point in staying in the Kingdom of Wonder, so along with three friends; Leo, Carl and Lars we set of on our journey north towards Bangkok. I’m not going to get into the full details of the trip that we took yet but instead give you a quick preview of what we experienced along the way.

19 hours on a bus from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, just some of the travelling that we had to do in order to reach Songkran in Chiang Mai. There we rented bikes and headed towards the northern town of Pai,  however we wanted to take the road never travelled by other tourists. The was the first big test of our group.

The local villagers fixing my moto in the middle of the jungle

The local villagers fixing my moto in the middle of the jungle

Getting totally lost in the jungle of northern Thailand is an experience that I will never forget  and something that I never want to do again. Eventually, albeit with help from local village people we were guided out of the dense forest area. Songkran greeted us back in Chiang Mai in the form of buckets of water when we arrived on our motos.

Songkran - Chiang Mai

Songkran – Chiang Mai

Pattaya was next on our list but this would not be a highlight, but it was something that I just wanted to experience for myself. It is the same and a bit worse than I expected, during the day there were a lot of Russians in bars drinking, unhappy local shopkeepers and a huge amount of construction going on. At night it got worse then. At night is when the place really makes its name for being the world capital for sex tourism. Bar girls, prostitutes and lady boys roam the streets trying to get people into their bars and then into bed. But luckily this was only a stop over and the next day we headed back towards Cambodia. Final resting place is in Otres Beach. Nice beach, good food and the sea is only 10 feet away!!