The Songkran New Year's Festival is from 13-16 April. The Thais really know how to party - four days of drunken tomfoolery! Apparently, way back when, the tradition was that you would pour a small amount of water on a passer-bys' feet or forehead as a sign of good luck for the year ahead. It has escalated since, and is now a 4-day water fight.
I arrived in Chiang Mai, having had a delightful overnight train ride from Bangkok, on what seemed to be the only carriage filled with locals and not backpackers (something I quite enjoyed), and set about finding somewhere to stay. At the train station, as has been the case in most of central and northern Thailand, I was pounced upon by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, as well as guest house owners, each offering various deals. In the end, I went for Safety in Numbers and befriended a nice Scottish bloke named Barry. He and I shared a taxi, and on our way into town saw the craziness of the first day of Songkran.
[They look so innocent... Look what happens when they grow up, below]
Chiang Mai has a "new town" and an "old town," the latter being an area surrounded by a moat. The main street running north to south along the eastern side of the moat (where the taxi dropped us) was full of people with brightly-coloured super soakers and buckets full of water. People were sitting in the back of utes, huge garbage bins full of water (some with ice blocks inside - for an extra kick), buckets in hand, pelting pedestrians. This was a lot of fun to watch from the safety of the taxi, but once we were out in the open and completely defenseless, it was a bit of a different story...
Barry and I ended up agreeing to stay in a guest house together, and it has been quite nice to have some company (but a little interesting trying to co-ordinate times to meet up as we only have one key).
On Friday, my first day in Chiang Mai, Barry and I wandered around together for a while before going our separate ways. Not a good idea. I got horribly lost trying to make my way back from Wat Chiang Mun (the oldest Wat in Chaing Mai, built in the late thirteenth century):
[Wat Chiang Mun]
It didn't help, of course, that my map was becoming more and more saturated. I tried to take the back roads in an attempt to avoid being doused in water, but this just meant I was the lone target to small children with buckets, and teenagers with long, brightly coloured stick-looking things that could project water an awfully long way! At first it was a lot of fun, but after a while, it got a bit old. I was soaking wet, and getting more and more grumpy. There are only so many times you can say "thank you" to someone for pouring water on you (sometimes at close range and directly into your ear, at one stage). I shouldn't whinge, but it was a little much after a while - all the locals thought it was funny to pour water on the soaking white girl, and all the foreigners thought it was funny, too.
I went back to the guest house, soaking wet, and showered and changed for the second time that day. I had intended on wandering the streets to find a cheap Thai massage, but was too scared of getting wet again, so went to the place across the road. 200 Baht for 1 hour seemed like the going rate, anyway. I'd been told by Anja that Thai massages were the Greatest Thing On Earth, but I have to say that the jury's still out... I'm still not sure whether it was enjoyable or painful. Afterwards, it felt as if I'd gone for a long run and forgotten to cool down - my calf muscles were so tense from the hammering she'd given me!
After my massage, Barry and I ventured back into town to explore the night markets, by which time everyone had calmed down considerably. The markets were HUGE, but I didn't buy anything - too many weeks of being a penny-pincher in the lead up to my trip have made me a little frugal. This is bound to change, though, given time...
On Saturday I attended a Thai cookery class, which was a lot of fun - and I was somewhat glad just to be out of harm's way for a while! We did a tour of the market with our instructor (who said his name was "Meow - like a cat"). We saw all kinds of exotic fruits and vegetables, and watched a woman turn a coconut into coconut cream and coconut milk. I will think twice the next time I buy a tin of the stuff from Coles!
["Meow" at the market]
[first she ground the coconut to a pulp...]
[...and then pressed it into cream, and then, after adding some water, into milk.]
[The Buddha at the market, for Songkran blessings.]
The cooking class itself was great! I made six dishes (including Green Curry, Pad Thai and Sticky Rice... mmmmm). I also met a nice girl named Jackie (we bonded over our vegetarianism) who has suggested I look her up when I get to London.
[Yours Truly, cooking up a mean Pad Thai]
[The Green Curry didn't make it into a photo... I ate it too quickly.]
When I returned from class, and - bursting at the seams with self-made goodness - didn't really have the energy to do much at all. If it hadn't been for Barry coming in and out a couple of times, I would have been asleep by 8:30!
Today - Sunday - I have spent leisurely day exploring the Day Markets (buying mangosteen [?] and rambutans), and getting doused (but not as badly) by the locals. It seems they're calming down! There was also a bit of a procession down the main drag, with people all dressed up in traditional Thai outfits, brandishing banners for their hotels, day spas, etc. I would have taken photos, but was too concerned for the well-being of my camera!
Tonight I hit the night markets, and tomorrow it's off to Elephant Nature Park for my week of volunteering! Can't wait!
Oh - and Mike, if you're reading this - I just stumbled across good old Mike's Hamburgers (Converting Vegetarians Since 1979). Too funny...
P.S. As per Gemma's suggestion, I've updated my settings so now anyone can comment on my blogs.