The New Year festival of Songkran is a big deal in Thailand. Held each year in April, it’s a national holiday for Thais, and many return home to spend time with family. Similar in many ways to China’s Lunar New Year, it feels like the whole country is in the midst of a chaotic, mass migration as millions make their way home to celebrate. The most popular modes of transportation are booked up months in advance.
We have a friend who lives in the Northeast of Thailand, near Ubon Ratchathani, a city close to the Mekong River and the border with Laos. Back in February, before our trip to Hong Kong and Japan, he invited us to spend the New Year festival with him and his family at their home. Though we were trying to arrange things two and a half months in advance, every train ticket was already booked, flights were scarce and expensive, most buses were already full. That left us with one option: a daytime trip on one of the government’s long-distance buses.
We bought bus tickets with some help from a travel agent in Bangkok. She explained that if we lost the tickets she wouldn’t be able to get us new ones; there would be nothing left. Heeding her warning, we safely tucked our Ubon bus tickets away before we left for Hong Kong.
We returned to Bangkok from Hong Kong and Japan very late on April 12, and spent the first day of Songkran getting organized for our journey to Ubon Ratchathani. The next day we got up at 4:00 am to head to the large bus terminal of Mo Chit.
After negotiating a price, we got into a tuk tuk at 5:00 am. The driver was a careful maniac, racing through Bangkok’s deserted city streets as we hung on to the handrails and took in the wonderful smells and birdcalls that greet early morning in Asia. Careening over the high bridges that cross some of the khlongs (canals) in this city, we nearly left the pavement a couple of times. We felt like the Dukes of Hazzard in a three-wheeled General Lee.
We hit dense traffic as we approached the bus station, a sign of the madness to come. Our driver didn’t bother lining up with other vehicles. Instead, he dodged and weaved among the cars, trucks and buses, moving fast to get around the traffic jam, even if it meant jumping a curb or two. His impressive driving skills got us to Mo Chit in less than twenty minutes, an insanely fast time and our driver was obviously very pleased with himself. We tipped him extra and wished him a happy a new year.
Mo Chit is a large, sprawling old bus terminal, two stories high. We had our tickets already, so we located our departure bay, then got some coffees and something to eat while we waited.
5:30 am and the bus station is filling up
Our bus left promptly at 7 am, but we were not prepared for the traffic that greeted us. If there is ever a natural disaster that requires Bangkok’s evacuation it will be a calamity. Three hours after leaving Mo Chit terminal, we were barely outside Bangkok’s city limits. Henry texted us to say the news was predicting five hour delays for our bus. Knowing then we were going to be setting personal bests for longest journeys, we settled in for a long bus ride. We arrived in Ubon Ratchathani at 8:00 pm.
Henry was there to greet us with his warm trademark smile. His Thai name is Wutthikrai, but we’ve always known him as Henry. It had been over a decade since we last saw him and it was wonderful seeing an old friend again. We met Henry in Toronto when he attended weekly group sittings and volunteered at the meditation centre near Barrie.
Henry, Aaron, Bill and Erin circa 2008 at the Ontario Vipassana Centre
He and his family have all attended Vipassana retreats here in Thailand. He and his mother in particular are active practitioners. Henry had just recently finished a three-year stint managing the Vipassana centre at Suvannah in Khon Kaen. We couldn’t think of a better way to spend New Year’s than with him and his family.
It had already been a long trip, but it turns out Henry’s family doesn’t live in Ubon Ratchathani. They live a couple of hours away in a small village called Na Tan. So we got a bowl of noodles for me from a local market then headed back out on the highway.
When we got to Henry’s home, we’d been on the road almost continuously for 17 hours. We felt surprisingly normal. After a few months of moving around Asia, I guess we have our travel legs under us. We chatted briefly with Henry’s mother, who graciously got up to welcome us into the house and to show us our room. Then we went to bed.
THE WATER WARS
Songkran is a time of change and purification. It marks the transition from the hottest time of year to the wettest and the start of the rice-growing season. Tradition includes the performance of meritorious deeds, visiting Buddhist temples, washing Buddha statues, honouring ancestors and the elderly.
Songkran’s best-known tradition however is the water festival, with long days spent “purifying” each other and washing away bad luck. To this end, anything that carries or deploys water becomes a ritual tool. Buckets, super-soaker cannons with backpack tanks, kiddie pools in the back of a pickup, hoses, or even just hands. This is obviously most popular with kids and teenagers.
People set up battle stations on the street outside their homes or shops, and soak anyone who comes past, especially anyone on a motorbike. Others form mobile gangs piled in the back of a pickup and armed with water. They roam the streets looking for targets. When they pull past a roadside battle station, mayhem ensues until everyone is soaking. This is carried on with great fervour for three days.
The absolute worst place to be during Songkran is anywhere near tourists. The festival is a favourite with the foreigners who use it as an excuse to get very drunk and run around splashing everyone without awareness of the polite Thai rules of engagement. They irritate Thais (and at least two other Canadian foreigners…). Fortunately, we were about as far away from foreign tourists as you can get and still be in Thailand. So we got to see the authentically glorious watery battles between gangs of teens and little kids. And we made sure we didn’t irritate anyone.
Na Tan is a small agricultural village about 120 kilometers from the major city of Ubon Ratchathani. It is the historical home to many generations of Lao speakers and ethnic Chinese. It’s a place of quiet natural beauty, with several national parks nearby.
We all got up very early our first day there in order to get to the most famous place in the area, a park called Sam Phan Bok. It’s a natural wonder created by the powerful current of the Mekong River. Henry’s nephews – Fulong and Dalong – joined us, even though they were eager to get started on the water wars with their friends. In English, their names mean Little Dragon and Big Dragon. It made me wish I had a name like that.
Henry arranged a longtail boat and a young guide to help us navigate our way along the rocks and gullies that are exposed for part of the year until about June when the river will rise dramatically in the rains and drown the entire area.
It’s a spectacular site, popular with Thai visitors and virtually unvisited by foreigners. We got there early enough to have the place mostly to ourselves for a couple of hours. We wandered around exploring the place, marvelling at the exotic forms created by the river’s whirlpools. Then we rode in the longtail boat up and down the Mekong before heading back to the upper shore to have breakfast.
Breakfast after our morning visit at Sam Phan Bok
Afterwards, Henry took us to meet his brother and sister at their respective stores in town, and we got to meet more of the family. At one of the shops we stood and watched battles rage across the street as a large gang of kids attacked vehicles as they drove by. You couldn’t help but laugh as you watched. The kids go at this with such obvious joy. Dalong and Fulong left us here to join the fray. They started off by pouring buckets of water over their own heads before flinging themselves into the battle with abandon.
We returned home with Henry and caught up on some rest. We sat and meditated with Henry and his mother in the late afternoon before we all headed out to be treated to a night market and traditional Thai dancing in the nearby town of Khemmarat.
Henry’s mother is part of a large group of volunteers who practice traditional dance, performing at various community events. That night there was a performance at the night market. We wandered around, watched the performances and took in all the fun of the market with the rest of the family. We even got to meet the youngest and newest member of the family, Mochi! She is everyone’s favourite.
Moji!! and her mumma
Henry’s lovely niece Luming waiting to get treats at the night market
After such an active day, we took the next day off to rest. It was hot. Even Thais complain about the heat and humidity. Somehow, this gives us comfort that we are not just whingeing tourists. For Canadians, it’s like burning in hell. It’s very easy to understand the enthusiasm for water fights.
Karen saw a little girl at one battle station sitting in a kiddie pool. As far as the battle went, she was just phoning it in from her coveted (and cool) place in the plastic tub. If a target came within striking distance, she’d just fling some water from the pool using a small bucket. She didn’t seem to care whether she landed a hit or not. Karen admired her approach and thought about getting her own kiddie pool.
ICE AND BASS AND THE MYSTERY OF HAI LAI
Because it was so hot, we waited until early evening before heading out to another natural wonder along the Mekong River called Hat Chom Dao. It was there we encountered the mystery of hai lai.
We were the only visitors that evening at Hat Chom Dao, though there were three young local guides who lived nearby. They spent most of their time hunting for berries produced by bushes that thrive underwater for part of the year. When the water recedes, the bushes sprout leaves and berries. It was these berries the children coveted.
It was a perfect evening and the light was incredible. There was even a cool, pleasant breeze blowing over the rock valleys. Each of us wandered on our own to explore and enjoy the quiet evening.
I was joined by a little girl who looked seven or eight. She spoke at great length to me about a seemingly diverse range of topics. However, I could make out only a couple of words: hai lai. She repeated this often enough, pointing somewhere in the distance, that it stood out for me. The rest of her long discourse escaped me entirely. I didn’t want to appear rude, so I crouched down close to her and pointed to Karen who was wandering around alone about 200 metres away. “That’s my wife,” I said to the little girl. Not knowing what else to say, I waved to Karen who waved back and shouted, “Hi!” The girl smiled quizzically at me, then decided I was a total waste of her time. She resumed the more important work of berry-hunting.
Soon after the girl left, I was joined by two young boys. They looked a bit older than the little girl, maybe eleven or so. They also spoke to me quite a bit, and like the girl they pointed off in the distance and said the same thing, “hai lai! Hai lai!”
I took their photo as they clambered over the chasms and stopped to pick berries. Then they took charge and started to lead me very deliberately, all the while saying “hai lai.” But I started dawdling as I came across features I wanted to photograph, so they soon gave up and raced ahead to where Henry was hanging out.
I got myself turned around a few times and had to backtrack to find a way over watery chasms. Then it occurred to me that perhaps hai lai meant “wrong way” or “danger”. I made a note to ask Henry about it if I ever caught up to him.
I eventually made my way to where the three of them were sitting, Henry, and the two boys. Henry was laughing. He told me their names were Ice and Bass. They had joined Henry on a high outcrop overlooking a large pool of water.
The sun was setting in the distance and it was a little windy. Glorious. As they sat there chatting, Ice and Bass had been discussing something that was puzzling them. Ice had turned to Bass and asked, “Do you know what hai lai means?” He asked.
“Nope,” said Bass. “I just say it to people because the tourism guys said to.”
He turned to Henry and asked what hai lai was. Henry didn’t know either. He asked Bass what he was told to say. Bass said the people from the government tourism board had trained the local kids to act as guides and explained to them how the river made all the various features in the rocks. Then they described this spot as the hai lai and told them to tell that to visitors. Suddenly Henry understood! The kids had been told that this spot was the highlight of Hat Chom Dao. Highlight! The kids had no idea what that meant, so it became Hai Lai.
The view from the Hai Lai
Henry asked how I would explain highlight? I said it was the best part, the most interesting. When he explained, Ice and Bass laughed in relief and then happily started throwing rocks. I noticed Karen had backed herself into a trap and was stranded on an outcrop trying to find a way to join us. I asked Henry to tell the boys she needed help. They sprung into action and sped off over the rocks to lead Karen skillfully back to us. Then we all sat and quietly took in the wonder of the Hai Lai. It was a perfect end to the day.
OUR LAST DAY
Our last full day started as it had every day we were there: we meditated with Henry and his mother on her bedroom verandah. It’s an idyllic spot overlooking the neighbouring farm and several acres of rice paddies. We meditated together as the sun rose, with the birds and insects waking up across the countryside. Occasionally, the gongs from the local temples nearby would sound.
Morning sunlight at Henry’s place, as we went out on the balcony to mediate in the morning
This day would be a day of merit with a visit to a special monastery temple known to Henry’s father and mother. The head of the monastery was revered as a devout and spiritually attained monk who meditated in a cave close to the present temple. He had recently died just a few years ago. His preserved body now lies within a stupa at the monastery. The place is known as Wat Suan Hin Pha Nam Khoy, and it’s located deep within a national park.
It took us a couple of hours to get to, with a long drive along red dirt roads in jungle forest. The journey was worth it, despite it being a blazing hot day. After a couple of hours at the temple, we made the long drive back, stopping for lunch at a nice spot overlooking the Mekong. In the evening, we joined the whole family in Khemmarat for a final dinner at a beautiful riverside restaurant.
Our riverside dinner view
It was our last day with Henry and his family and we were a little sad to leave. But we have preparations to make for our next journey so it was time to head home on the bus. Henry drove us to Ubon Ratchathani at 5:00 am the next morning. There, we got on our bus bound for Bangkok. This journey set a record for our long-distance bus rides. We left the Ubon Ratchathani bus station at 8:00 am and arrived back at Mo Chit near midnight. More than 16 hours on a bus and a personal record for us.
Karen getting snacks at the Ubon bus station
We’re in Bangkok resting and making plans to leave Asia.
We head to Tel Aviv on April 29; our destination is the West Bank in Palestine.
For a few months now we’ve been working with local meditators in Palestine who are organizing a non-centre course in the West Bank. While the Palestinians there have people able to organize the course and students who want to learn meditation, they need teachers to conduct the course, so we volunteered.
More on all of that later.