Archive for April, 2010

SONGKRAN – New Year, Thai Style
April 22, 2010

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Thai style

‘Songkran’ is the name given to the New Year period in Thailand.  Its celebrated from 13th – 15th April, and I was in Chiang Mai – home of the most famous ‘Songkran Festival’, this year to get the gist of the celebration.  It falls at the hottest time of the year, which also marks the end of the dry season, and though the 1st of January is the mark of the new year in Thailand, Songkran is still a big occasion, a national holiday and called ‘new year’ (students are on holiday from school at this time, and when they return, it will be to a new school year).

Songkran is most famous in Chiang Mai – where celebrations go for six day,s or even longer, because new year was originally only celebrated in the north of Thailand.  It is believed the Burmese bought the tradition over the border, and during the 20th century, the festivities made their way south to include the rest of the country.

Traditionally, Songkran was a time to visit and pay respects to elders, friends, neighbours and family members and, being a Buddhist country, a time to visit a monastery to pray and give offerings to monks.  The pouring of fragranced water over Buddha images – at home and in monasteries, is believed to bring good luck and prosperity for the New year.  In many cities, including Chiang Mai, images of Buddha from local monasteries, are paraded through the streets so that people can toss water at them, bathing the images as they pass by on decorated floats.  Traditionally, the run-off was collected and used as ‘blessed water’ to give good fortune and luck to elders and family, by pouring over their shoulder and its this tradition, which has given rise to what Songkran is today – its traditional celebration, plus lots of water!  The streets are lined with revelers, armed and ready to wish a watery new year to others, be they beside them, passing by, on foot, by bike or in vehicles, which can also make for a very welcome respite from the unrelenting heat, which can get up into the 40s at this time of year, as I found out!

I arrived in Chiang Mai on Monday the 12th, and was staying just outside of town – I reasoned that if it was a super crazy week, Id still get some sleep when I needed to! On my way into the town that night, I had my first taste of Songkran – small groups of people, roadside, armed with water – hoses, water pistols and 44 gallon drums, with containers they could scoop out the water with and lob at passersby.  From the safety of my air-conditioned ride, I witnessed, and we didn’t get a drop on us.  The ones getting wet were those on scooters and, the other ‘groups’ – in the back of 4x wheel drive utes, they seemed to be everywhere!  Up to six or so, in the back with the trust ’44 of water’ for refuelling of water pistols, bowls and any other ‘arms’.  Those in the back of the tuk-tuks and open taxis were also targets.  The night market was safe, I can guarantee – anywhere with stalls means no water!

So, I was under an impression that maybe, Songkran wasn’t as big of a deal as I’d thought – it seemed to be youths only, involved, and they only targeted each other, however! Two days later I went into town to do a spot of shopping in the old city.  Forget it, very little is actually open! It didnt even enter my head as to what may be happening in town (and obviously, the staff where I was staying didn’t think to warn me either!).   So, off I went, on the 14th April,  towards the old town for some site-seeing and spending….

For those who haven’t been to Chiang Mai, the old town is bordered by a moat, and, in some places, remnants of a brick wall.  And as we made our way down one of the streets that borders the outside of the old city, we were right in the thick of ‘Songkran’.  Traffic was at a standstill, and on the river side of the street, party-goers were using buckets, tied to string, to scoop water straight out of the river and no-one was safe!  In parts, there was flooding starting to happen as drains struggled with run-off.  I, bravely, opened the window to get some photos in-between ‘rounds’ of water.  It was game on, for young and old, with locals and tourists alike, all in for the fun.  Eventually, our taxi driver gave up on trying to enter the old city, we were dropped off just outside, to make our own way in.  Well… we didnt quite do that, we decided on checking out a market – because it was open!, instead.  Waiting to cross the road at a busy intersection is where I received my biggest splash of ‘good luck’ – and I opened my arms up to receive!  It is a welcome break from the heat, and its all done in such a fun and good natured way.

While many of the smaller, local shops are closed during the week, the night markets still run each night, food stalls operate, taxis are easy to get (and they don’t charge more for new year like some places) and day trips and tours are all still happening.

I reached the conclusion, that if I came back again for New Year, the way to celebrate would be to hire a scooter and ride through the masses and just get really wet!  Or, take a tuk-tuk and your own stash of water so you can throw it back.  The drivers of the tuk-tuks we saw were well set up for it, covered from head to toe in plastic protection.

The 13th of April is the day to see the street parade of Buddha statues and floats, making their way down the main street in the old city – passing through the main gate and coming to a stop about another km down from the gate.  That night, there is a beauty pageant at the old gate – traditionally to celebrate beauty, but taken that step further with girls lining up to show themselves off.  While I didnt see this, Im told that the winner is picked by how many ‘admirers’ she has.  You can buy a necklace to show your support for the girl you want to win – whoever has the most ‘necklaces’ worn in her support, is the winner.

The last weekend of that New Year week is watery – seems the weekend players come out for the last go at wetting others.

But, its been and gone for another year, and Im still in Chiang Mai, but out of the city area now, and in the hills.

Sa wat dee pee mai’ – Happy New Year!! from Thailand!!


April 11, 2010

Singapore is not big, by any stretch, but busy! So busy. An international stopping off place for planes bound anywhere in the world – its not usually an island people spend much time backpacking in or traveling to, myself included – having only stopped over for a few hours on my way to Europe a few years back, so never left the airport. This time around, I picked 3 days only 3 days and feel I saw and experienced enough to get the ‘gist’ of what Singapore is all about.

Singapore is the only country in Asia with English as its first language, its also part of a group of 63 islands! As with most of the other ten million who visit each year, I spent my time on ‘the mainland’ checking out ‘downtown Singapore’. Busy, hot and happening, its a stopping-over, shopping mecca – but don’t expect too much out of the norm, I was a little disappointed to find shop after shop of the same shops we have in the west, in mall after mall after mall.. I think thats how the heat is tolerated – people travel on air conditioned metros, whose stations are next to air conditioned malls, so they can shop, eat and drink in air conditioning and escape the sweltering thats happening outdoors.
Orchard Road, famed for its shopping is literally a strip of malls. I only wanted to see the Apple shop, so didn’t spend hours on the strip. Things weren’t necessarily cheaper either, apparently the famous mid-year sales are the places to be to find your bargains.

With Singapore’s mix of ethnicity – Chinese, Malay and Indian, amongst others – comes the exotic local communities – from china town, little india to the arab quarter – with the western malls in between. Food is varied, cheap and tasty. I discovered the drink ‘chandol’ in little india – a mix of coconut milk, palm sugar and green pea flour mixed and rolled into small worm-like shapes. Im still not sure what their relevance is to the drink, but, its a drink that needs to be tried! My first impression from the taste was best described as the following – imagine if you were to eat a bowl of Nutrigrain with milk, eating only the Nutrigrain pieces, and then you drank the milk afterwards – its a very similar taste. But it really does have to be tried to be believed. Also, I discovered the gem that is ‘green coconuts’ – picked when they’re young, you buy them whole. The seller lops the top off them and inserts a straw and a spoon – so after drinking the liquid (which is not milky, its very watery) you can scoop out the flesh and eat it. Cheap, fresh and divine! And green coconuts (so called because they are picked when they’re young) are the latest ‘wonder food craze’, due to their health benefits – packed with magnesium, potassium, electrolytes – to name a few. Some experts are reckoning they will replace ‘sports drinks’ – what better hydration to have in the tropics!

In the Colonial district of downtown Singapore sits the world reknown ‘Raffles Hotel’. How to go past it without going inside for a nosy and to sink a ‘Singapore Sling’ in the famous ‘Longbar’. Im not sure how the rooms are set up now, from what I saw, all of the first two levels are now shops, and the courtyard they surround is a bevy of tables, waiters, palm trees … with a rectangular bar in the middle. Have a pricey beer in the courtyard before heading up to the ‘Longbar’ for an even pricier Singapore Sling – and don’t be alarmed at the state of the floor for this bar has ‘peanut history’. Peanuts, shells on, are placed on tables for your enjoyment – but here, you can eat the peanuts and then toss the shells straight onto the floor! It’s literally a ‘crunch fest’ underfoot as you make your way around the bar. Don’t forget to look up while you’re inside to check out the ‘ceiling fans’!

I took in Sentosa Island in a morning trip – Singapore’s answer to Australis Gold Coast. Easy to get to by a metro from Harbor Front tube station, its an island only meters from mainland Singapore. Made entirely from imported sand, its a mix of theme park, restaurants, accommodation and beaches – the beaches are ‘hemmed in’ by shark nets (Im not sure there’s sharks though), and right on the other side of the nets sits a shipping mecca, an array of ships, all shapes and sizes – either loaded up with cargo and leaving, or waiting to get into port to pick up their next load. The water at one beach we went to was really warm, and very polluted. However, go and see it – the busy, port side of Singapore life is worth seeing on its own.

Accommodation was a little harder to find in Singapore – there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground, its either hovel or high-class – however, I’d heard about ‘Hangout@Mt Emily’ so I investigated and did end up staying there, and Id highly recommend it to anyone else! Location, cleanliness, service, breakfast included, free tea/ coffee, laundry and free internet.. great value for the price. The roof has a chill out area, including a ‘standing pool’, which meant nothing to me, but, it is literally a standing pool, at about 1 inch deep and a meter square. So, if you’re hot footed..

Oh, and something worth noting is that Singapore will leave a small card of white paper in your passport, which you need to show when you leave, so try not to lose it like I did! It took about 20 minutes for myself and another to be loaded into the system with replacement cards, not so bad, but we had a bus load of people waiting for our return.. (on that note, they use the same system in Malaysia, so keep that bit of paper safe!)