I read a Facebook message a couple weeks ago inviting me to travel to Bangkok with my friends Adrienne and Michaela to celebrate Songkran, a festival celebrating the Thai New Year. Adrienne’s message called it “water festival”. I’m a big fan of water, festivals, and Bangkok, so I booked a plane ticket the next day.
I left for Hanoi on Monday, April 11th. It was my first trip to Hanoi by train! I’m proud to announce that after Tuesday morning around four, I get to say that Hanoi is the only city to which I’ve planed, trained, and automobiled. My seat for the ten hour train ride was a bed. I was in a sleeper car with three others. I posted up on the bottom bunk and started the ride with a conversation with the passenger in the bottom bunk about four feet away from me. We swapped details on why we were traveling. She shared food (that’s an easy way to get me to like you). She pulled out what looked like a wad of paper towels and asked, “Do you want an egg?” I was curious about where she was going to procure these eggs and how we were going to eat them. My question was answer when she unwrapped two soft boiled quail eggs from the paper towels. New Samuel L. Jackson movie idea: Eggs On A Train. After sucking down our eggs, we snoozed until the train stopped in Hanoi.
Leaving the train at five on Tuesday morning gave me a few hours to kill before I met up with Adrienne and Michaela. The streets along the train station were already bustling, which made my wandering even more fun! I ended up hanging out in a hotel lobby to do some work. The people-watching I did in the lobby opened my eyes to what traveling could be. The routine of nearly all the traveling I’ve done in Vietnam has been staying in hostels, trying to design my own plans, packing as light as I can, and settling in for big adventures. I learned the routine from nearly all the travelers I’ve met in Dong Hoi. But my office building that morning was a higher end hotel. My lobby table had a wine menu. Folks leaving the hotel were in groups of ten or twenty and a group I assume to be the hotel staff carried their suitcases and bags to the buses they were taking. The travelers looked recently showered, rested, packed in something besides a backpack, and were staying in a hotel rather than the least expensive hostel they could find. Weird.
I met with Michaela and Adrienne at The Social Club, a hidden-away breakfast place they recommended. Adrienne hailed a cab after the three of us feasted on eggs, avocados, and toast. We landed in Bangkok Tuesday afternoon. Another first: my first flight to Thailand that I remember! My first trip to Bangkok was a medical flight from Hue, Vietnam. I was unconscious for it. And celebrating my 23rd birthday. Happy days. Do I remember the whole flight this time? No. The three of us had a lovely nap in the back row of the plane. We’re experienced travelers. We fully understand the power of the plane nap. Travel naps are arguable the best kind of nap.
We Skyrailed to our hostel and the came the “What do we do tonight?” discussion. We talked options and decided that we wanted to stay dry Tuesday evening. We wanted to take it easy, explore Bangkok, and check out the water-fighting scene on Wednesday and Thursday. We found lots of people selling water guns, waterproof plastic bags, bowls of flour, masks, glasses, and other equipment for Songkran. We bought our water guns and plastic bags and wandered to Khao San Road, the main road of the upcoming all day water fights.
We tried to determine the rules of the festival as we were walking. Who do we spray with water? Who do we leave alone? Do we decide by age? Apparel? Location? Help! We need rules!
What we quickly learned on the walk is that having water guns in our hands was an open invitation for anyone to spray us. I experientially say now that we had water thumb wars on Tuesday night. Children would spray a few splashes of water on us as we walked by and gleefully laugh. Casual and comparatively low-key.
Our first stop was the patio of a restaurant. They served scorpions on a stick.
Our next stop was a bar across the street. The bar had posted signs warning a 2000 Baht fine for spraying a water gun in the bar. Inside the restaurant stayed comparatively calm. Of course some casual water fights broke out, but the staff just told any water fighters to stop. Like the restaurant though, this bar had a patio (read: home base for a bar customers versus Khao San Road water warriors). We were excited to get our real water fight practice in! All hands were on deck as exchanged water gun blasts with people walking past down Khao San.
We returned to the hostel soaked from the night we had planned on taking easy. We added our wet clothes to the bathroom towel racks that were already filled with dripping shirts and shorts.
I found Michaela and Adrienne in the hostel lobby Wednesday morning talking with Michael, a new friend. We waited for Michael’s friends Laurel and Elliot to join us in the lobby, and the six of us rolled out to Khao San as adventure partners and an unbreakable Songkran squad.
The water spraying was everywhere! Sidewalks were lined with water guns/buckets/backpacks for sale, buckets of water for reloading, and street food. Parents were savvy in holding their children to give the children a better shot at the passersby. They also used their kids as a self-saving shield.
We made it to Khao San soaked yet again. (As you read the rest of this, assume we were covered with water until I say otherwise. Let’s save ourselves some time. You’re welcome.) Tuesday night was child’s play compared to Wednesday’s water festival! People from around the world were walking on the street spraying streams of water from all directions from lots of kinds of water guns. As a Super Soaker expert, I appreciated seeing so many styles of throwing water on people.
After a few minutes on the street, our group started analyzing our water gun techniques and came up with some brilliant tactics. I focused the aim of my Mickey Mouse squirt gurn on side ear shots. Elliot and Michael focused on eyes. We had great system! When someone was attacking our group, we could hit the enemy’s ears and eyes and send them running. We also used this tactic in recruiting our team for our next Songkran! Anyone who kept focus even with us hitting their eyes and ears is a candidate to be on our dream team next time we’re in Bangkok for the Thai New Year.
We also started picking one person to team up on! We’d pick the person, then all six of us would surround that person and soak them. Our target would usually start by returning water to the first member of our team that made contact. The target would quickly realize that we weren’t amateurs and would cower until we moved on! The problem with this tactic was that some of our targets were also rolling with a crew. We got into some intense clan wars when we’d team up on a person who had six friends with super strong guns. Wild times.
After a few hours of water gun fights on Wednesday, we wanted ice cream. We quickly learned that families were covering the sidewalks dumping water on everyone they saw! We hung out with one of these families for a few hours. They had two kiddie pools and two barrels filled with cold water and ice and sprayed passing cars, motorbikes, and, the most fun, Tuk Tuks. The family had lots of buckets, so we got to throw buckets of ice water on any vehicles on the road.
The family and we added splashing passing city buses to our game. Our eyes grew huge with excitement when we would see a bus coming down the road and get ready to throw buckets of water into the open windows. A guy born and raised in Akron who was also hanging with the family realized the potential. Ohio pride. Whatever we doing stopped the moment we heard him yell, “BUS!”. We filled our buckets, lined up on the side of the road, and spray water through the bus windows.
White paste is another Songkran tradition we experienced. One of the oldest Songkran traditions, many people carried bowls of a white powder that they turned into paste with water and would spread it anyone’s face walking. Like the water splashing, nobody was safe from the white paste spreading!
I usually playfully blocked any paste-covered hands coming for my face, but the paste carriers learned my trick and started swiping me behind my back.
The Songkran adventure continued on Thursday. We explored more of Bangkok, danced down Khao San Road, and had more fun splashing everyone we could with water.
Before flying back to Bangkok Friday afternoon, we visited Bumrungrad International Hospital, the hospital where I spent about three weeks in October. My heart pounded with exhilaration as we waked through the hospital doors. I visited the recovery room I moved to on October 25th after time in ICU. I spent time with some of the nurses working on my recovery floor. I saw Bangkok again through the huge window on my floor. It was incredible to be back in hospital that has such an enormous role in my life. No fear, no worry, no concern, when visiting the hospital last week. Nothing but excitement and the happy memories I have from what I remember of my time in the hospital.
We flew back to Hanoi Friday afternoon, and after bahn mi dinner I loaded a train and rolled into Dong Hoi early morning on Saturday, April 16th. Our three days in Bangkok were a blast. We loved spraying everyone we saw with water, meeting new people, trying all the Thai food we could, learning about Songkran, and getting to experience it first hand. Happy days!