Happy Songkran in Chiang Mai
I like Chiang Mai. Maybe it’s because of the time I picked, but I think it’s beautiful all year round. The taxis all have the same prices. But the city is small enough to be explored by bike or on foot.
It’s Songkran, the Thai New Year, from April 13-15. Traditionally, the Buddha images and statues are washed at this time, that is also the hottest time of the year, but now it has evolved into a public water battle. Apparently, Chiang Mai is the best place to celebrate it, so I wanted to come here for that.
People warned me. Chiang Mai has been on top of the list of worst air quality in the world for weeks. On the way to my hostel I check the air quality index. With levels of 150-200 for PM 2.5, Chiang Mai is marked red: Unhealthy. PM 2.5 is this dangerous micro particle that can reach the furthest corners of your lungs.
Some spots on the map are marked purple. Hmm, haven’t seen that before. I scroll down. In Bangkok we used to have yellow or orange, and yellow means “moderate”, so nobody wore a mask anymore, but this is still above German limits for air pollution. Purple means: PM 2,5 between 200 and 300. “Very unhealthy. Health warnings of emergency conditions. Avoid outdoor activities” it says. I adjust my breath mask.
Welcome to the north of Thailand. Chiang Mai lies in a valley, but I can’t see any of the surrounding mountains today. The smog stays in here. It mainly comes from agricultural burning and forest fires in a neighboring province. Even in the city, you can’t see too far. But unlike that car exhaust, you can’t smell the fine dust, so I understand why so many people have given up on wearing masks.
But then I arrive at my hostel, Kaysorn Residence, the next thing I love. I found it looking for an eco-friendly accommodation. That I can refill my bottle with drinking water for free is just one of their standards. It’s a family business, and the two kids are running around in the yard as I arrive. A huge painting on the wall shows the twins. As they don’t have a lot of guests at the moment, I have a four bed dorm to myself.
When I leave to explore the town, the kids are splashing at everyone from their wading pool. “That’s not too bad” I think, considering all the warnings I read about Songkran. I collected the plastic bags from the vets in the hospital after their last grocery shop and wrapped all of my things in them.
But ten minutes later, I am soaking wet. I have walked past two vegan restaurants already, and I was gifted a mangosteen (a very delicious Thai fruit). Families on the side of the road or couples on scooters are fine, they only have water guns. The restaurants may have hoses or splash you from big bins. But the pick-ups are dangerous: They have buckets. And the will pour the water directly down your neck.
For the first time in Thailand, I’m taking a walk without being too hot.
I reach the Nimman road, with its hostels, massage salons, restaurants and souvenir shops and loads of tourists. The buildings are pretty. And from here on, there is no more drying up in between attacks. Everybody is laughing, screaming, smiling, dancing, and walking in the middle of the street. And everybody is wet. There are fire sprinklers, hoses, water guns, and a lot of buckets. People pour the water over you from the backs of pick-ups, they sit in the bus with umbrellas, and from the sides of the roads, they spray at pedestrians and all those stuck in the traffic jam.
Everyone is a child, any everyone is happy. Of course, this day goes by the motto “take only memories” – taking out my camera or phone is just too dangerous. “Saswadee pee mai!” I hear, and here comes another bucket load of water in my face.
I meet Ant, who just graduated from MUT, at the Kad Suan Kaew Mall. She’s now back with her family, as is the rest of Thailand – Songkran is a family holiday. For that reason, many restaurants and stores are closed over these four days. At the mall, people wet you from a stage where a band is playing, and it seems to be one of the main spots for the festival. We dive into the battle and slowly make our way through the crowd. While the old town is mainly quiet, on the outside of the old wall, the party is going on. The old town has the shape of a square, and the wall is mostly preserved. It is surrounded by a river that serves as an endless supply for the water festival.
We reach the main procession. Each faculty of the Chiang Mai university has sent a group of students and professors in traditional clothes, there are marching bands, but the main attraction are of course the Buddha statues on beautifully decorated cars. People splash them, and the water runs down on the statues and all the marigolds around them. This water turns golden from the flowers, is collected and distributed back to the people. A woman near me pours some of it over my head as a blessing, and then we splash the rest on the next statue.
When the procession ends, we stand on the road, ankle deep in water. At the Wat Lok Moli temple we get some free food, and later we end up on a party on the street near the Tha Phae gate.
On my way back to the hostel, I’m attacked again by a child that conveniently stands in a big water bin and can pop her head up and splash people as they walk up.
On my second day, too, I just walk wherever it looks nice, let myself get soaked thorough, have delicious food at a vegan restaurant called “Goodsouls”, walk up and down the local handicraft market and watch a temple music competition.
There is something beautiful and exciting to see at every corner, because I’m in Chiang Mai. And because it’s Songkran.