Jar would also join us through the Thai New Year, or Songkran as it is better known, which marks a three day celebration, where everywhere in Thailand goes a little bit apeshit with mass water fights. Traditionally these water fights symbolize the washing away of sin and misfortune of the past year, but this meaning is somewhat lost on the newer generations of Thailand. So this year we aim to celebrate a simple and more traditional Songkran festival, as in the past I have always had a love / hate relationship with Songkran. Of course the water fights can be fun when you’re part of them, but when you’re smartly dressed, and carrying a box of twelve Dunkin Donuts, then Songkran is a horrible festival. How am I supposed to eat water soaked donuts, you jerks. But it is for very similar reasons that many people avoid Songkran, opting to either stay indoors, or to just disappear, as it is the longest holiday period of the year in Thailand. I have done similar myself, as I celebrated the previous New Year next door in Myanmar, and I have also celebrated the Sinhalese New Year in Sri Lanka. Because this festival is not unique to Thailand, as it follows the Buddhist and Hindu solar calendar, known throughout South and Southeast Asia. This also includes Cambodia, Laos, India, and other Tamil populations in Asia. But they do celebrate the New Year in their own unique ways, and this year we celebrate traditionally, with the rural folk of Broken Road.
We join a mass alms offering before it the celebrations begin, where many monks have ordained at a central Nang Rong temple, which is common for holiday periods, simply because people have free time to get involved. But, on the return journey, we find the roads are now chock full of traffic, and the usual turns and shortcuts to the house have been blocked and redirected by police. The mass exodus of the cities has already begun, when workers travel back to their hometowns to celebrate New Year with their families. And in the coming week there would be hundreds of road deaths in what is dubbed the ‘Seven Deadly Days’ of Songkran. This has become an annual occurance, and, as expected, the majority of road deaths do result from speeding and drinking during the holiday period. So we therefore aim to avoid the main roads, where possible. But we do still have to run to the market, and the bank, and to an out-of-town wholesale supermarket, and we really are not well prepared, as what normally would be a thirty minute errand, takes almost two hours with tailbacks and traffic. But it could have been worse, as many of Fanfan’s friends have been travelling for more than twelve hours now, where they left Bangkok the previous night, only to arrive to Nang Rong at around midday today. What normally would be a five hour journey, or seven if you’re Jar, was now taking twice as long. And this is another reason to avoid Songkran.
The Songkran holidays don’t officially start until the thirteenth of April, yet the local kids and teenagers are already out on the street corners with hoses, buckets and squirt guns. So we decide to take a preliminary tour of the village, to get an idea of the upcoming shenanigans. Again as designated driver, I sit comfortable and shielded in the front seats of the pickup, along with Meh, Fanfan, and niece Mai. So Jar involuntarily volunteers to sit in the back bed of the truck, which he was of course happy to do, although he didn’t quite realise the implications of the decision at the time. Normally vehicles would rush past these gangs of water wielding hooligans, but we are really in no hurry, so I take a more leisurely drive, to stop, and park next to them. And Jar is tortured each time by barrages of water, as he fights off these gangs with just one small super soaker, and a few square foot of manoeuvrable space. It is an initiation of sorts, an introduction to Songkran, because similar soakings would only continue through the coming week, although they may not be as onesided in the future.
Otherwise I am in no real hurry to get wet this Songkran, because I’m honestly not a great sport when it comes to soakings, and I find it hard not to swear at people when they bombard me with buckets of cold water. Which, to be fair, is similar to me with cold showers, or any discomfort really, when I’m almost guaranteed to whinge, shout and swear a lot. But these are natural reactions, like Tourettes, so I probably shouldn’t be faulted for my inevitable swearing at small children, as most of them don’t understand English anyway. So it’s fine. But I do swear a fair bit in daily life, although I have left it out of my writing, as it really is not necessary. So apologies for Jar’s foul mouth in the previous chapter. Anyway, we are supposed to see these Songkran soakings as a kind gesture, as they wash away past sins and misfortunes. So instead of swearing at children, we really should be thanking them, which just feels weird. Although I have found a way to avoid soakings where, by holding up my camera as if it were expensive, they would often move onto the next potential target. Or they would get up close and just pour water over my crotch. There really is no way to avoid the water, and even those paid to protect pedestrians, like security guards and police, are more likely to join the rabble with squirt guns.
So the next morning marks the beginning of this year’s Songkran with the annual boat race at the central lake of Nang Rong. Something I wasn’t overly excited for as it meant driving and tailbacks and crowds. And so, pre-empting the traffic, we arrive early via the back roads from Broken Road, only to find ourselves with hours to waste before the actual boat races begin. We fill this time with snacks, such as durian ice cream and rubbery grilled squid, and we hide under the shade of nearby trees. This was actually my first proper visit to Nang Rong town centre, other than on passing, and it was the first time I’d been in close proximity to other foreigners and expats from nearby areas. Naturally my first instinct is to bark at them, like a dog, “this is my territory”, but I instead pass them by amiably. But my avoidance of other expats comes more from how locals in Thailand would often try to pair us off. They’d introduce us and then try to match us off on some sort of weird play date. “Oh, you should meet Ludvig, he’s from Slovakia… do you watch football?” And it’s extremely hard to say no, when they’re standing right there in front of you. Admittedly this happened more with friends on my first years in Bangkok as Fanfan knows better. But it sometimes seems that having the same skin colour, means you were pretty much identical. Very racist I know. But, given I haven’t even time for my own friends, the last thing I want is to be sent off on some weird play date with Günther, or whoever, as he probably doesn’t even like football anyway.
As the crowds bulk out, we move over to the banks of the lake where makeshift bandstands have been set up for cheer groups to dance in support of their local boat race team. Each stand will vary where one would have grannies doing the traditional ‘Ram’ dance to Thai folk music, feet stepping and hands weaving in front of them. Then on the next there would be a younger rowdier crowd, banging techno, but still doing the ‘Ram’. People Ram to everything here. But, as we finally get comfortable at the lakeside, we are hassled away again by some drunk who determined to tell us his life story in very broken English. Going by his clothing he may have been one of the event organisers, or just a drunken imposter. This is actually a common problem with being of very few English speakers in a foreign country. People like to test their English on us, and it’s something I normally wouldn’t mind, if the majority of them weren’t drunks. “Where you from?” “The UK.” “Yo, London!”, “No, Northern Ireland” “Yo, Dublin!” I give up.
So instead we go to watch other goings-on away from the lake. This is when we spot a large crowd huddled round a golden Buddha statue which had apparently been taken from a central temple in Nang Rong. Only once a year are these statues ever moved and, before it had arrived here, it was paraded through the streets of the town. We missed it because of the yammering drunk guy. Anyway, the golden Buddha was set up on an ornate pedestal and, one by one, local officials, and important people, would take turn to pour scented water over the hands and feet of the statue. Then out of the blue, a girl dressed in traditional Thai dress approaches me, and presents me with a necklace of jasmine flowers. I accept, bashfully. She tests her English with me “where you from ka?” “the UK”. “Welcome to Nang Rong ka” she says with a smile. Some conversations are more enjoyable than others. But we were getting bored by this time, and we leave via the back roads as the boat races begin.
We start the more intimate Songkran ceremonies on the front porch of the grandparent’s house, where we pay our respects to the elders of the family and house. We arrive to find Ta sat next to a framed photo of Yai, and a number of other Buddhist and ancestral shrines. For the ceremony, called ‘Rod Nam Dam Hua’, we would each take turn to scoop water, scented with oils and flower petals, into small ceremonial cups. We would then pour the water onto each shrine and use the branch of a gooseberry tree to splash the water around a bit. We start with the Buddhist shrines, before moving on to the image of Yai, and finally Ta who sits holding a garland of jasmine flowers in cupped hands. We first pour the scented water over his hands, and then move to his feet. And in return, Ta blesses us. Then the other family members take their turn so we do the same to Meh, and aunty Napow. And they in turn do the same to Ta. It is always the younger paying their respects to the elder. Things do become emotional given what has happened in the past month. This would be the family’s first Songkran without Yai.
After completing the ceremony at the family home, we leave the compound, to pay our respects to other elders in Broken Road. Along with us we bring cartons of soy milk which we hand out as gifts. By now I do recognize most of the grannies in the area, with their twiggy frames, and bright red betel teeth. They had always joined Yai on the porch, although this would be my first time meeting them on their home ground. I somewhat expect them to live in simple wooden farmhouses, so I am somewhat surprised to find many of them sat on the porches of, what would be better described as, mansions. So we repeat again the ceremony from before with the scented water, and in return the grannies bless us. Of course I have no idea what they say, but there is always laughter, and it appears to be at the expense of Meh. So Fanfan translates the blessings for me. As always they have wished for me and Fanfan to have babies, before Fanfan goes dry. That doesn’t change. They also wished for Jar to meet that beautiful Thai lady, which I told them he was desperate to find. Finally, with Meh, they had wished that she would buck up, and stop being scared of Yai’s ghost. To this day I still walk Meh between houses, so that she can sleep next door with Ta and Napow. We have even volunteered Jar for sleepovers if needed, although we’re yet to tell Jar.
To me Songkran felt near over, yet it was still the first morning of the first day. Songkran is tiring. So we decide to spend the remainder of the day at home on the porch. With an arsenal of buckets, hoses and squirt guns. Our street is one of the quieter in Broken Road, so people actually use it more, as they try to sneak past the busier roads. This doesn’t work, of course, as niece Mai keeps dick at front gate, and we are always quick out to ambush. But it is all quite dangerous as those passing are almost always on bikes or motorbikes, and many are drunk. One guy, who was hammered, even tried to speed up and swerve around Niece Mai, which just ended in him screeching his tires and near going headfirst into a bush. He then shouts abuse at Mai, before staggering off drunk with his motorbike. But the dangers are apparent, given the continuous wail of sirens which pass in the distance. It is a stark reminder of just how dangerous Songkran can be.
Otherwise the morning is relatively quiet and it isn’t until late afternoon when things kick off again. It starts with an eruption of muffled shouting from local grannies, as each shouts to the compound next to them as they shuffle from their porches to the front gates and to the street. I follow to find a procession of cars turning into the top of the street. One of them, the main procession car, is said to be carrying a revered Buddha statue, from a Bangkok temple, and for two days now it has been travelling through and stopping at various temples in Isaan. And now it is following the very unlikely route past our compound. So I go to join the grannies out the front but am told I would have to take off my shoes to take part in the ceremony. More or less we would throw water over the statue as it passes. And it is normal to remove shoes when making offerings or ceremony with monks or the temple. So I remove my flip-flops and take turn to throw water over the statue as it passes. It isn’t until afterwards that I realise that my flip-flops had been nicked. Probably by Fanfan. And between me and the house was a sharp stony pathway. So now I was pretty much stranded on the street, with an entire parade of water wielding revellers about to pass me. They then each take turn to pummel me with a continuous barrage of cold water. I politely thank each and every one of them, obviously.
The next morning we wake to niece Mai picking flowers in the nearby garden. The flowers would then be mixed with scents and water, and used for more blessing ceremonies, as we go to pay our respects to the monks of the big temple. Today I decide to make an effort for the occasion by dressing in a Songkran shirt, which is really quite similar to a Hawaiian shirt, or at least it’s equally as ridiculous. I had actually planned on buying one the previous day, but Fanfan wasn’t having it, as I’d only wear it once and never again. Which is true, but I try to convince her otherwise. This only made her more annoyed “there’s no way you’re wearing those ugly shirts near me”. So inevitably I am jealous of Jar who has been wearing Songkran shirts from the beginning of the celebrations. He’s kind of small, so he can fit into the old shirts of Meh and aunty Napow. In fact Jar is actually, obviously, a nickname and it was given to him in his first days of Grammar School when someone said he’s so small he could fit in a Jar. It’s kind of stuck. But for me, I need something more man-size, and even the larger size shirts borrowed from surrounding neighbours, I can only wear with buttons open. But it’s the best we can do. The sound of loud “look tung” music signals today’s temple event and, before leaving the house, Meh teaches us how to do the ‘ram’ dance. In return, I teach her how to do Chunk’s truffle shuffle. We then forward to the temple.
I feel like I’ve fit in well in Broken Road so far, until today. But now, arriving late to the temple, I couldn’t feel more the opposite. Like some ridiculous tourist in a bright pink Hawaiian shirt, and with white powder paste caked all over my face. I look ridiculous. Today the temple hall looks different than normal where, strung between the rafters, there hangs a grid of sacred thread. This is used to connect between each chair of the congregation, and the monks who are in prayer at the front of the hall. It’s almost like something from a sci-fi movie. A strand of string dangles down from above each member of the congregation, and they will connect this to either their heads or their wrist. But we are too late to get into the grid and we instead shuffle in at the side of the hall. It is a long service today, with similar prayers to the usual, only they last twice as long. It is a relief when the service comes to an end. It is then that we can make our respects to the monks who take place on a line of chairs at the front of the hall. We join the queue to pay our respects, and in turn, we pour the scented water over the hands and feet of each monk. We then make our way back to the house.
I was happy to end Songkran now, although this isn’t really an option. People don’t allow it. If I were to leave the house, to take a stroll to the local shop, for example, I’d not get far without another soaking. So I instead opt to spend the last days of Songkran eating barbecues and getting drunk on the upstairs balcony. There is also a lot of drinking over Songkran when the younger generations normally catch up over ice coolers with big bottles of beer, and glasses of Hong Thong rum, which they mix with soda water, for some odd reason. We were always offered drinks when out and about in Broken Road, which I did always accept, because alcohol makes the wetness more bearable. But almost always we were wearing wet clothes through Songkran as it just feels pointless to change into dry clothes during the day, when we’re almost certain to get soaked again soon after. And these water fights continue for the entirety of the coming week. Even as I write this I am wearing wet clothes while sat on the front porch. Fanfan and niece Mai have just poured water down the back of my neck, and before that they were smearing a white powder paste on my face. I think they were trying to give me whiskers, to make me look like a cat or something. But now the paste is dry and flaking over the keyboard, like dandruff. If I weren’t drunk right now, this would all be very unlikable. I miss normality.
In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief.