Chiang Mai: Songkran Water Festival

I left my phone in the backseat of the taxi we took to the airport on the way to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I only realized it was missing after clearing Singapore immigration, and by then, it was too late. I would have to make do without. Without music or a camera or even the internet. No WhatsApp. Ditto twitter.  My legion of devoted Instagram followers would have to get their fix elsewhere.

In the blog post that follows, I’ve tried to recall Chiang Mai as best that I can, but without my phone for corroboration, I’m afraid I’ve had to rely on nothing but memory: that fickle, unreliable instrument, always prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandizement. But anyway, here goes.


We arrived in Chiang Mai on a beautiful Friday morning. The Thai New Year’s festival, Songkran, was well underway, and this meant one thing: a massive, city-wide water fight. During Songkran, if you’re dressed in a bathing suit or a formal suit, it makes no difference – if you are out and about, you are going to get wet. Soaked. Drenched. No one is spared and no one may demur. There is no white flag to wave, no way to say, “Actually I’m just passing through. I’m only here to watch.” This will be met with a bucket of icy water to the face. If you are driving, make sure your windows are rolled up. Otherwise people will dump water directly into your car. If you want to stay dry, stay inside.

When we landed in Chiang Mai, I was fit and healthy and strong; but by the end, I was tired and weak, reduced to my baser self. My will was tested and I was asked to rise above. Instead, I am ashamed to admit, I went low.

Old grandmother with a cane, shoot water in her face! Pour icy water down that young child’s back. Hit those tourists with the dirty river water. Wait! I’m one of those tourists.

And on it went. I filled my super soaker – purchased on the fly from a roadside stall – with ice cubes and I took a kind of maniacal joy in watching people squirm when soaked with the freezing cold water. When others did the same to me, I vowed terrible, merciless vengeance; only to forget moments later as water was shot again and again into my face.

From the elderly and infirm to the young and spry; hippy tourists, toothless street vendors, the water discriminated not. The city recast as war zone. Fallujah, if Fallujah were all in good fun, fought with water instead of bullets.

There were seven of us, and we roamed through the streets futilely seeking cover. A moment’s respite from the onslaught. But avoiding faux danger could lead to real danger. The streets, packed with moto-bikes and trucks, were a real and unforgiving hazard. And true enough, I almost died once. Trying to avoid the demonic yelps of a bucket carrying pursuer, I nearly stumbled into oncoming traffic – saved, literally, at the last minute, by a vigilant friend.

In the wake of the hysteria, the uninhibited glee – Water! – I was left with a pair of soaked shoes, a bad cold, and a slightly wounded ego. But otherwise, entirely unharmed.

Night Market

All things must come to an end. And so to, the great Songkran festivities of 2017 eventually petered down. No longer were we afraid to leave the refuge of our hotel rooms. Instead, free to walk the streets of Chiang Mai unmolested by water guns and ice buckets, we ventured out, hesitant at first, but in time, gaining confidence to roam freely.

So it was that we stumbled upon the Chiang Mai night market. A remarkably large, sprawling market that included cookie-cutter souvenirs but also, surprisingly, a large number of genuinely unique keepsakes and fresh cooked street food. It was a happy confluence of tourists and locals; buyers and sellers.

The market stretched all the way into and around a Buddhist temple, where we sat beneath the stars and watched what appeared to be a traditional Songkran dance-off. You Got Served, Thailand style. Walking back to our hotel, we passed a group of water-gun carrying tourists. They held their weapons, loaded and pointed, like a bunch of half-crazed commandos who had just stumbled in from the jungle, unaware that the Songkran war was over.

Thai Food

Is there anything better? Pineapple fried rice, Pad See Ew, Panang curry. Are these authentic Thai foods? I honestly do not know. But what I do know is that each of these dishes is genuinely delicious. I ate each in its turn in Chiang Mai (some more than once) and I did not have a single unappetising bite. And then of course, there is that that has no equal, the unfailingly delicious Thai dessert: mango sticky rice. Has anyone ever eaten mango sticky rice and said, “Oh no, that’s not for me?” I think not.

Back in Singapore

This is a happy story and so it has a happy ending: my phone was retrieved. Saved by the taxi uncle and returned Monday morning. From the vantage of my phone, I walked zero steps this weekend, travelled nowhere, and spent almost no time staring at a shiny glass screen, but of these, only the last is true.

Matt - water gun.JPG
Getting down to business