Village Voice

Amy Salmon's E-Mail from Thailand (Part 3)

I've been off this past week due to the madness that is the Thai New Year, otherwise known as the Songkran Festival.  It's a Buddhist festival that begins as a very nice ceremony where people line up and give tons of gifts to Buddhist monks of all ages, women ride by with paper umbrellas on bicycles, and it's very civilized.  I got up early on the day it started (6:30 am) and went down to Thapae Gate where the ceremony was with some Canadian friends, and we got up on top of the gate and watched and then went down and ate in a restaurant outside on the parade route.   

Shortly after the parade and the pomp and circumstance, the madness begins. 

Apparently it's some sort of blessing/celebration of the fact that it's hotter than it has any right to be thing, but the main way Songkran is celebrated is by throwing water on people.  Not joking or exaggerating.  People drive by in pickup trucks and throw entire buckets of water on pedestrians, and the pedestrians chuck their own buckets right back.   The streets are lined with people selling all manner of water guns and buckets, and barrels full of ice water for people to reload and keep right on firing.  Everyone participates -- men, women, and children of all ages.  I've never seen anything like it in my life.  The closest I can come to describing it is a crowd and atmosphere like Times Square on New Year's Eve, except that they're all throwing water.  Constantly.  It got even worse when you got near the moat, which becomes nothing more than ammunition.  The moat makes Chiang Mai the most popular place in Thailand for Songkran, so the city swells to several times its normal size with people all wandering around like crazed maniacs and jumping into the moat at every possible opportunity.

I don't mean to sound negative.  At first -- for the first six or eight hours -- I had an absolute blast.  Haven't had so much fun in years!  I got a bucket and a water gun and was flinging water with the best of them.  But the problem is that not only water but alcohol is flowing like a river.  So it turns from good harmless fun into drunken revelry in pretty short order.  By the time I was ready to go home I had no choice but to walk, because the streets are not passable -- they're full of people -- and there's no way to walk even two steps without being completely drenched.  It probably took me at least an hour to walk home, with the crowd becoming increasingly restive and rowdy.  And it was 2:00 in the afternoon!  The mall beside my place and the main road leading up to it were like Florida during Spring Break.  MTV was there, along with the requisite drunk dancing girls in wet t-shirts and waist-high speakers blasting rap music so loudly that I could hear it from inside my apartment.  It's not so insane in the rest of Thailand, which I got proof positive of the next day when I went to Mae Sai to do the visa run with my friend Jenn. 

It was a much less eventful trip than my last time in Myanmar...I took the VIP bus right up to Mae Sai and back from there, and we had several hours in between to kill.  We did get a little wet from kids in pickup trucks driving past and flinging water at us, but compared to Chiang Mai, it was nothing.  That was the most exciting part of the visa run this month, but only because Jenn (who is eight months pregnant) didn't go into labor.  And I found the little yellow anti-nausea pill, which is a miracle drug as far as I'm concerned.  On the way up we were in the back row of the bus and it was really bumpy, but I wasn't the least bit sick.  Poor Jenn didn't fare as well - she can't take anything because of the baby and he was not liking the ride at all.  She said he didn't stop moving all day long. 

School opens again tomorrow morning, and I'm teaching 20 hours in four days in several different locations, then four hours a day for Thursday and Friday and two on Saturday.  This is a private school/academy called New Zealand Education Services, or NES.  As far as the level of English spoken here in Chiang Mai, it's pretty spotty.  I don't think English is taught in Thai public schools.  It's taught in the private ones, and in separate entities like NES, of which there are many all over the country.  But Thai society is very hierarchical, and it seems to me that English is a privilege rather than a right...the kids I teach are pretty well-off.  I think the tuition at places like Chiang Mai International School and NES is out of reach of the average Thai. 

Some employers send their workers to places like NES to get some basic English skills, especially in places like Chiang Mai that see so many farang and where tourism is such an important part of the economy.   Since Chiang Mai is the northern tourist center and the place where people come to go on treks all over northern Thailand and get visas to travel on into Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar...and even China, for that matter...there are a lot of jobs in tourism, but most of them require English skills, especially for trekking guides and the like. 

People like the tuk-tuk and the taxi drivers don't have much English at all.  You pretty much have to have your destination written in Thai to give to them, or go with something recognizable like "Thaepae Gate".  You can bargain with them (and it's pretty much expected that you do) but in very limited fashion.  OK, this has turned into a dissertation on life in Thailand and I'm starving, so I'm gonna close.  However, all is not lost when there's a Pizza Hut next door.

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