This bus ride was an interesting one. Taking one vehicle from our hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia we arrive at the border and cross on foot. After getting our visas stamped we walk into the no-man’s land between Cambodia and Thailand. The bus attendant says we have to wait for 30 minutes before we are allowed to finish the crossing. Why? We have no idea but oblige.
Soon we are ushered across, quickly get all the paperwork done and given the Thailand special, a “colored sticker” affixed to our chests letting the bus companies know who belongs to whom. Soon the red sticker group, us, is walked down the street to a non-shady area to wait for some mini-vans. After about 15 sweaty minutes, we all cram into the vans, are driven to an area to wait for a bus. Here we are given new yellow stickers and told to hold tight. Another 30 minutes goes by and the mother of all songthaews arrives. Seriously, the thing is huge and on we go. We ride, bumping along for about 25 minutes until we are dropped off, yet again. This time we stop at a hotel, are told to wait in the lobby, and (of course) given new stickers. At this rate we should arrive in Bangkok some time next week!
Finally, the actual bus to Bangkok shows up, and it was so worth the wait. I am completely overcome with joy when I see that we will be boarding the “Little Mermaid” bus. Ariel, Flounder, and a bunch of other sea creatures are spray-painted on, decorating the outside, and inspiring Scotty and I into a spirited rendition of “Under the Sea!” (I wish Emery was here, she would have surely known all the words and not have had to make some up like we did.)
Once in Bangkok we head straight for the “Prasuri Guesthouse.” Though we did not stay there the last time we were in town, the place was always full, we did scope it out and knew that it was cheap and decently clean. An English girl we met on the bus called ahead and secured rooms for us. We were worried that they would be full again and were happy when they had availability; we soon found out why!
It is Thai New Year, or Songkran festival (a three-day event) and the water fight antics are in full swing. Though it is already late, most of the water is flung during the hotter day-time hours, we decide to avoid Khoa San Road where we are likely to get doused. Not so much fun when you are carrying everything you own in a water-permeable pack on your back. We take Thanon Ratchadamnoen Klang, the wide east-west boulevard towards the Democracy Monument.
The usually busy street is bustling, but not with cars. The Democracy Monument has been overtaken by the protesting Red Shirts. The street is completely blocked off to any traffic and people are camped out everywhere. I see a man squatting in plain view on the sidewalk and am sad that I have not worn my close-toed shoes. Loud speakers blare on-going Thai tirades, and though we cannot see the speaker or understand the words, the emotion in the voice is unmistakable: anger, outrage, and a call to activism.
We turn the corner onto the street that will lead us to Prasuri and are greeted by 3 dismantled tanks in the street! The scene is unsettling. (We will later learn that the day before our arrival, protesters got into a armed conflict with military police leading to 21 deaths.) There was graffiti on walls, broken glass, remnants of torched vehicles, posters, and photos of the those recently killed or maimed in the conflict on display. One man was having a go at the tank with a large piece of wood. I was surprised how much damage had been done to the tanks at the protesters hands.
We take a right, literally, a block from where the protester area stops. Regardless of the calamity outside, we register for a room. No sooner do we drop our bags that Scotty wants to go outside for a look around. I reluctantly agree, but once we hit street level, I quickly change my mind and head back. I make him promise to be back by a specified time, lest I freak out from worry. I want to see what is happening too, but would rather have a look in the light of day and not in the shadows of night.
When he gets back, he assures me that everything is fine. An enthusiastic male Red Shirt even took him around encouraging him to snap photos of the proceedings. Though the man did not speak any English, Scotty got the impression that he was happy to have tourists present; an international audience to acknowledge their cause.
The next day we decide to bypass the protest and head to a demonstration of another kind, water festival madness. Songkran is traditionally a time for cleansing and renewal. The throwing of water was originally a way for people to pay respect. After pouring water over the Buddhas for cleansing, they would capture the water and use this “blessed” water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on their shoulder. Now young people celebrate by dousing each other and strangers.
Things start out mildly with thin streams of water from water guns. But this does not last long. Soon we are completely doused, water flying around from all directions, speakers blaring upbeat dance music, and people squealing with delight. So you figure that once your body reaches 100% saturation then that is it right. All that is left is to stroll and enjoy. But that is not the end of it at all. Completely soaked or not, nothing can quite prepare you for a bucket of ice-cold water down the back. Even when you learn to recognize which people have access to the really cold stuff, even when you anticipate the icy liquid hitting you, the reaction is the same: stunning! Like someone knocking the wind out of you, but less painful I would guess.
The Thais add another element to the water festival by incorporating talcum powder or chalk into the celebration. Originally monks used chalk to mark blessings, but the Khao San revelers have adopted their own methods. People make a sludge-like substance out of chalk pellets and smear the stuff all over any and every one in the vicinity. Some of those celebrating gently wipe a slimy palm of chalk across your face and wish you a happy new year, while some mischievously pour cups-full right over the top of your head. The worst is the particularly naughty bunch of folks who use prickly heat powder instead of regular talcum powder or chalk. For those who haven’t used prickly heat before, it is like Tiger Balm or IcyHot but in powder form; it burns!
Our stay in Thailand is brief but packed with exciting imagery. The water festival was fun for a day and the protests outside our door do not make for the most relaxing environment. I am not sad when our brief stay in Bangkok is over and we head out, in the still dark morning hours, to catch a plane to Myanmar.