I thought I would try an experiment. I equipped myself with a silver bowl and two small silver cups and set out for the Tha Phae Gate, after lunch, on the Saturday of the festivities.
Due to parking difficulties I had to walk from the Chiang Mai Gate. As I strolled, rather nervously, along the moat I was quite surprised to realise that I was remarkably dry. It seemed as though people were deliberately avoiding throwing water at me because I was carrying a silver bowl and cups. I managed to arrive at the Tha Phae gate almost completely dry.
I took a seat outside the Black Canyon cafe and ordered a beer whilst I awaited my photographer, Khun Tan. I had my silver bowl in front of me and the restaurant kindly filled it with water.
A sweet little old lady, selling garlands, popped up in front of me, gave me a delightful, almost toothless smile, and asked if I would buy a one. Being of a fairly mean disposition I declined the offer at which point this delightful old lady picked up a cup of water from my bowl and hurled it in my face. Don't worry, her amused expression showed that she had done this in fun rather than anger… I think.
Khun Tan arrived and we took a picture of myself and Khun Kansinee, the manager of the Black Canyon, pouring water on each others shoulders in the traditional manner. Personally, I find this ceremony delightful as it is a good way off cementing relationships with friends or making new ones.
When I used to run the Thai Arts Foundation in the UK we used to arrange performances of classical Thai music and dance at corporate events in order to raise money for our unpaid events and the Thai Dance Academy. At these events we would usually invite members of the audience to have water poured over their hands into a bowl by a beautiful Thai dancer. We would explain that this ceremony would wash away all the trials and tribulations of the past and enable the participant to start their life again, fresh and clean, with all the bad luck having been washed away. I'm not joking but I have seen captains of industry cry at the beauty and emotion contained in this very simple ceremony.
Well the time now came for us to brave the water blasting crowds on the other side of the gate. We knew we were going to get wet so Tan wrapped his camera very carefully in a series of plastic bags and I put my mobile phone in a specially purchased waterproof bag which hung around my neck underneath my shirt. Only later did I find out that it did not work and my phone had been swimming in water for several hours. Off we went, into the throng, only to find that, once again, we both stayed remarkably dry. Tan's camera and my silver bowl seemed to be talismen against a real soaking.
This was a photo opportunity! We intended getting a picture of me in drenched by the water Rambo's who obviously showed no respect for the old traditions. It just did not happen. By now, we were getting wet, but this was more to do with us being caught in the over spray aimed at other people. Eventually, a man with a very large hose, decided to give me a good drenching and I was glad that he did because, by then, I was incredibly hot.
As we went about our tour I offered to pour water over the shoulders of both foreign tourists and native Thais. As I walked to the tourists I was able to explain a little bit about the traditional blessing ceremony between friends and family but what was truly amazing was the fact that the Thai Rambos leant slightly forward and proffered their shoulder as though they had been trained to do so all their lives. In fact I suspect that's exactly the case.
Another amazing experience was that the bowl never needed filling. Water guns and the like have to be refilled frequently yet the over spray was so much that my bowl never emptied itself, it was almost like a miracle.
Having taken our pictures and amused ourselves sufficiently, Tan and I parted company and I set off for Hang Dong. Over the years I have come to know many of the people working in the market and so I performed this simple ceremony with those I knew best. Their reaction was remarkable. They seemed genuinely pleased at my offer of watering their shoulder. I, in turn, felt it was forging even stronger links between myself and these people I see every week and consider to be colleagues.
My conclusion from this experiment is that there are two, equally relevant ways of enjoying Songkran. For the adventurous adrenaline junkie, entering into a fierce water battle with thousands of other people is exciting and highly enjoyable. But I have also proved to myself that pouring a little water, gently on someone's shoulder, creates a human contact that is not possible in a water battle. Both ways are enjoyable and which you choose is, as the Thais say, "Up to you".
A Geography Lesson
On Tuesday I was invited to go to school for a geography lesson. It the school was the Varee International School and the lesson was given by two Americans who are currently circumnavigating the globe, mainly on the surface, and doing something very interesting.
Darren and Sandy Van Soye set off from California about three months ago, took a boat to Australia and are now working their way north via Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and now Thailand. They will continue to Nepal, parts of Africa and Europe and South America before eventually returning home in about another year. What is special about what they're doing is not the trip itself.
Having spent most of their working lives in IT they are both very computer and Internet savvy. They are using this technology to do something very useful indeed. In schools throughout the world geography is becoming less and less available as a subject for study. The Van Soyes did some serious travelling in 2003 with their daughters who were then 10 and 12 years old. They discovered that their daughters’ e-mails to their friends had been devoured by their schoolmates and had stimulated a great interest in understanding the world and its people. The wonderful project they have developed uses modern technology in the form of small computers and cameras to make regular contributions to their website and Facebook pages. Schools throughout the world are now following their trip and so could you. Their website is http://trekkingtheplanet.net and their Facebook page is http://facebook.com/TrekkingPlanet.
On these two sites they regularly post photographs, videos, newsletters and worksheets. These sites look as though they will become a very useful resource for teachers and parents all over the world.
But that is not all. I mentioned earlier that they gave a lesson in geography at the Varee International School. In this they explained where they had been, where they were going and the purpose of the project but perhaps the most interesting point was that they had collected questions from schoolchildren both in person and on the net and they were then able to ask the Varee students to answer these questions.
I hope they manage to develop this idea further and start to twin schools with each other and also perhaps, when they return home, develop the website so that other people may also contribute; a sort of Wikipedia of geography perhaps? Personally I feel it is likely important that children recognise, very early on, that the world is a very diverse place with many people with different cultures and beliefs. Too many children think that the world is composed of people like themselves and this does not help international relations and understanding. It can also allow a form of nationalistic complacency to develop which tends to sap the energy of a nation.
I was delighted to meet Darren and Sandy, I admire what they're doing, and I wish them all the luck in the world.
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