It felt like an iceberg had slid down my back, freezing me in my sopping wet shirt. If I’d been used to the cool climate of the Northwest, I might have been better able to handle the cold. But although I was born in Seattle, Washington, I grew up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is still my home today. Chiang Mai is one of the most exciting cities on Earth, despite its dusty appearance. I’ve made so many memories in the time I’ve lived here.
For the Thai New Year I climb into the back of a huge, rusty pick-up with 15 of my friends, ready to head to the city to participate in the annual water festival known as Songkran. We have water guns strapped to our shoulders and sunscreen on our faces, and we’re wearing tropical, touristy shirts we only put on once a year. We’ve brought buckets of ice-cold water so that even in the 110-degree heat, pedestrians will soon face the wrath of the arctic plunging over their skin.
We make our way to the moat around the center of Chiang Mai, where our truck becomes part of the traffic. Markets are open and people are everywhere, splashing buckets of water on each other. The warm air is full of the marketplace ruckus, the scent of fresh pork (sold for less than a dollar), and the stench of exhaust spewing from the Toyota truck. Pop and EDM music blare through bass speakers, and a faint odor of beer surrounds many of the passersby.
My friend Daniel and I stand in the back with bazookas full of chilled water. When our truck stops, we unload our armada on everyone in view. Then we rush around, spraying people left and right. People run, and shrieks rise from those who are splashed. It’s absolute chaos, and you’d never get away with this in the United States, but in Thailand it’s a national holiday – and a tradition. A long time ago, Buddhist monks would sprinkle water on villagers’ heads as they passed by. How it changed into an all-out water war I’ll never know, but I’m not about to argue because it’s so much fun.
Eventually Daniel and I run out of water and have to retreat to the truck for refills. We maneuver through cars and trucks that have been covered in wax so the water will simply clean them. As I jump onto the truck, a Thai man in a Bob Marley T-shirt with a thin, gray beard runs after us with a small bucket and hits Daniel in the back. He gives a yelp, indicating that the water is freezing, and we all laugh. The man runs off, yelling “Sawad-dee bee mai, fa-rang!” Happy New Year, foreigner!
At noon, the sun is high and hot, but we don’t mind: we feel refreshed. We stop at a vendor selling sticky rice and fried pork on a stick. You can buy Thai food in the States, but it’s not the same. That hot, juicy meat you can rip with your teeth, plus a handful of sticky rice, is one of the greatest tastes in the world. That and rotis! A roti is a thin, fried piece of bread covered with toppings ranging from bananas to chocolate syrup. Just thinking about them melting into my mouth makes me hungry! To top it off, I buy a can of A&W and chug it before we continue our aquatic battle.
We round the corner of the moat and become one with the chaos again, all the while splashing people and yelling “Sawad-dee bee mai!” I am hit by a wave that tastes as if it came from the sewer, which is close: it’s from the moat. Who knows what’s thrown into the moat besides trash? People swim in it, so some don’t care, but I once saw a man urinate into it like it was no big deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if that water was thick with disease; I can recall a few years when I’ve gotten sick right after Songkran. Needless to say, I try to spit the water out.
Daniel and I get ready for our next raid, this time with others backing us up. We charge an Isuzu truck and bomb it with buckets of water. There is screaming and laughing all at the same time as we finish. Suddenly the coldest blast I’ve ever felt hits me in the back! I let out a high-pitched scream and recoil from the icy pain. It burns! Of course, everyone is laughing, so I just shake it off and refill my tank.
By the time I get home, I’m exhausted. Another Songkran has come and gone – and I loved it. I love Thailand, and I know that it’s only in Thailand where I can have these experiences.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.