Caught in the heart of the world's biggest waterfight

THE skytrain seems unusually frigid as I settle down on a rare empty seat between two Thai journalists.

Here, says the older one on my left, giving a bottle of mineral water to the one on my right.

“Rot naam,” the elder mutters, before stretching out her palms above my lap, in anticipation of the traditional Thai water blessing.

Her colleague obliges, pouring water onto those cupped palms, silently watching it overflow onto my thighs.

I smile weakly as the water forms icy rivulets down my twitching calves. No one on the train bats an eyelid.

It is, after all, the first day of Songkran, when this ritual is performed to honour elders and seek blessings for the new year ahead.

Traditionalists used perfumed water on hands dangled above an ornate dish. Here, on this train, there is no scented water in sight, much less a dish. My lap will have to do.

Wet thighs are the least of my worries today as the sunny streets of Bangkok have been turned into wet gauntlets by watergun- and pail- and hose-toting locals, or what’s left of them.

Like any other metropolis in the world, Bangkok hosts millions of migrants from surrounding provinces seeking better schools or jobs. Come Songkran, they pack off home, leaving its usually bustling sidewalks bereft and its clogged streets serene.

This is also a time when the frenetic whistleblowing from carpark security guards grounds to a halt, when homesick parliamentarians postpone hearing Bills, and when newspapers dishing out stories of death and destruction are reduced to running stories about dogs lost and found.

The tourists pour in to fill this vacuum. The Songkran festival (known also by other names in the Mekong region) is touted as the world’s biggest waterfight, where the random dousing of passersby gets steadily wilder as revellers get more inebriated.

The friendly tuk-tuk driver will deliberately slow his vehicle close to the sidewalk, so the children waiting there can empty a bucket over your head. Wade into the crowd and you will be greeted by outstretched arms ready to smear your face with powder.

Young, pretty and female passersby get it worst (or best, depending on how you see it). Men are more likely to douse these attractive strangers or smear their cheeks, all in the name of a New Year blessing.

Resistance is futile. In any case, being entirely drenched at one go makes you a less enticing target for the next water squad down the lane – unless, of course, you are young, pretty and female.

There’s a darker side to the celebration. It is known for its body count. Last year, more than 300 people died and about 3,300 were injured during Songkran road accidents. This year, 218 people have died from Thursday to Sunday alone, with the main causes being drink driving and speeding.

The Thai authorities, in response, have tried to restrict the sale of alcohol in designated areas. For the first time this year, the police also warned revellers against splashing water from vehicles, to the protests of youngsters used to riding on the back of pick-up trucks with tanks of water to douse anybody in sight.

Few people pay heed to the warnings as the afternoon wears on in the backpacker district by Khao San Road, and the rising volume of dance music is matched by the growing numbers of empty Beer Chang bottles littering its sidewalks.

It’s a different world altogether just five minutes away in Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, a temple where Thailand’s revered king Bhumibol Adulyadej and his ancestors were ordained as monks.

This is a quieter, less hyped side of Songkran: Young and old Buddhists take turns to light candles as they seek blessings for a smooth year ahead. After that, some sit in quiet contemplation in its cavernous prayer hall, waterguns discreetly tucked away.

It is dusk as the temple volunteers gently shoo away revellers hoping to use the temple’s toilets.

Thank you for coming, they say, closing the gate behind the last few visitors.

The temple is done for the day. Outside, the party is only just beginning.

tanhy@sph.com.sg