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Soaking the city

We spent eight hours today, starting at around 10:00 o'clock, completely soaked with water. I had read about the Thai New Year celebration "Song Khran," but I would not have believed it to be as extreme as it turned out to be.

But let me start where I left off: Phitsanulok. Following the recommendation of the director of the lower northern Thailand Tourist Authority (TAT), we spent the evening by the river running through Phitsanulok, where the Thai were celebrating the "food festival" -- it seems to me that the Thai, or Southeast Asian folk have a festival for almost anything to make it around the year...

The road along the river was banked with little booths selling just about everything, from edible to handicrafts, with fair booths offering games such as darts, jumping castles, and live bands in between. Strolling around, we had a bite of the most appealing things -- I did stay away from roasted cockroaches, maggots, and other bugs this time, for I had already sampled them in Vietnam and felt no particular need to repeat the experience, although it was not revolting back then at all: it's just a little meat with a lot of crust that you don't want to eat, and the taste isn't particular. An excellent meal of noodles with some sort of sweet-spicy sauce, together with a beer and the company of some young Thai boys ended the evening for us and we returned to our hotel rather soon, with the intention to get up early to finish our errands and make a run for Sukhothai.

So with our plane tickets and some fresh cash, we set out for "Sgt. Tawnee's Folklore Museum", a private collection of traditional Thai "things" -- tools, traps, toys, instruments, clothing, ... just about everything... Sgt. Tawnee was a poor soldier who realised that people were forgetting about how their ancestors went about to solve everyday's problems and consequently started collecting anything and everything -- a truly remarkable and beautiful collection! After a so-so Thai massage (see forthcoming blog entry), we quit the city by bus to arrive in Sukhothai about an hour later, where we were met by the pickup van of the guesthouse we had booked, also following the recommendation of the TAT director: we are staying at the Ruean Thai Guesthouse, a place with cozy rooms, a swimming pool, and very friendly staff, for about 10 EUR a night -- the best guesthouse I have been to in three vacations in Southeastasian countries, three thumbs up, I can recommend it to anyone coming to the area!

We had just settled and taken a shower when the hotel clerk notified us that the director was waiting downstairs to take us to the "light show". We boarded his van, together with his family and colleagues, and drove about an hour to Srisatchamalai Historical Park, where we arrived just in time to witness an impressive ceremony, part of the New Year celebration: old people were sitting in rows on chairs, and younger folk passed from one to the next, pouring drops of water into their hands as a form of respect to the elderly to help them stay cool in the dreadful heat of the month. Naturally, we lined up and did as the others did -- and found us filmed and greeted by a television crew afterwards for an interview.

Not wanting to be a burden to the director and his family, we followed the suggestion to stroll around in the park for about an hour, until we returned to the agreed meeting point. There, we found that mats had been rolled out on the lawn in front of one of the temples, and maybe 200 Thais were sitting and dining. The director invited us to join them, and we enjoyed Thai cuisine until dusk, when everyone got up for the national anthem and the show began.

At first, a famous Thai singer (so we were told) performed a couple of folk songs and we learnt that, (to my knowledge) unlike European folk songs, the Thai sing songs telling real events in history. A fashion show of old, traditional Thai clothing followed, and finally, the stage was set for a performance of the history of Sukhothai. People were all over the place, fighting, dancing, or just "ruling" (as the king(s) would do), and a voice recounted the story, which one of the director's daughters translated for Aline, I was busy taking pictures. Fireworks accompanied the scene, along with flying objects consisting of a real flame underneath a balloon made of rice paper. Most flew high and far away, some got stuck in trees and went up in flames. After the show, I had a chance to see some of the costumes and must say that I am deeply impressed, not only by how Thai people used to dress, but also by the love and care the people put into the show to make it as authentic as possible. Interestingly, only one other tourist ("fallang") was at the event, something the tourist director wants to change in the future -- good thing we witnessed the "pure event"... I seem to prefer places not frequented by tourists, and in the Thais seem to be continuously surprised that we are not heading for the beaches in the south following our time in the north. Back at the hotel, we fell into bed, exhausted from the day and the nightswim in the pool.

I got up this morning to find my ear clogged with water -- must have been the late swim. The guesthouse owner insisted to take me to a pharmacy to find some eardrops, and I hope this nuisance will go away soon.

We rented a motorcycle for the day and headed in direction of the old Sukhothai city, or the Sukhotai History Park, as it is also called. Waiting for our photo chip to be beamed to CD, we made our first encounter with the way young people like to celebrate the New Year (which officially started today): all over the city, people rode around on the back of pickup trucks, emptying buckets of water over other people. We bought ourselves a water gun and plunged in for the fun. It didn't take 30 minutes until we were soaked, but nothing could stop us. The old city is maybe 10 kilometres away, and the drive was the most unforgetable motorcycle ride I'd ever had: all along the sides of the road, people were filling buckets and splashing everything that passed -- being on a motorcycle with merely a water gun, and as "fallang" (foreigners), we were naturally the primary target for just about everyone, so by the time we had reached the city, we had soaked up half an ocean each. We stopped by a group of kids, gave our water gun to the smallest one, bought a new one, and teamed up with them to fight the passing vehicles. Oh what fun!

Dripping, we made our way to the park after a while, and strolled around some temples, the market, and many more water fights. Even though the water obscured the heat, we still didn't feel like taking the barrels of water we had collected for a walk and didn't last too long before we were on our way back, destined to stop again with our allies (the kids) to make sure no car and no passenger got by unwashed. The Thai also crumble up chalk, mix it with water, and smear it into each other's face -- you can imagine how we looked like after a few minutes: soggy and chalked.

Finally, we made a run for the hotel and got back at about 16:00 o'clock for the first time of feeling "dry" in eight hours. Now, after some time at the pool, we are loathing for dinner but daren't go for the city as we are wearing our last set of clean, dry clothing; I doubt the Thai lay their buckets to rest at seven and call it an evening. Fortunately the hotel offers food too, so we'll likely be boring and stay in.

Tomorrow morning is our flight to Chiang Mai for more of the wet fun. I'll keep you posted. Thanks for reading along.