I recently reached a major life milestone that came in the form of full-time employment - something that I thought I wouldn’t get (and didn’t want) for a long time. Besides every kind of inner life crisis you can imagine comes with the sudden requirement to wear shoes and a blouse every day, this new job has also seen me relocate overseas for a while, to Bangkok Thailand actually. So suddenly here I am, working that nine to five grind for the first time ever, in a country where I know no one, totally immersed in a culture that (until now) I knew virtually nothing about.
Being unceremoniously dumped in Bangkok for three months - as a working resident and not just beer-drinking blow in like past trips - has been an interesting exercise. Because it turns out that free time and friends are the two essential elements that make being in a new country manageable. Considering I now work all day for a living, I have much less of both. And so moving here has meant suddenly spending a lot more time alone. Before I sound too pathetic, it’s worth noting that this story isn’t about being lonely or sad or even particularly bothered. In fact, it’s mostly about sampling exquisite foods, but I’ll get to that bit later. It’s about experiencing a place differently, simply because there’s nothing else to do except really take it in.
For me, living alone in Bangkok so far could be likened to holding my breath underwater. The culture presses in on me from all sides, but without the language, all I can really do is spectate. And so I’ve just been soaking it up, all the strangeness and the wonder, with the knowledge that eventually I’m going to have to come up for air. It’s been pretty amazing, because I'm experiencing what it's like to really live in a new country, with none of the pressures that come with permanently immigrating there. I’m not setting down roots so instead I’m living a kind of 3-month long social experiment. I’m free diving the Thai culture.
It’s hard to explain what it feels like to be in a place so steeped in ancient tradition, but also hurtling at top speed towards a capitalist boom. And even if I wanted to I couldn't because I don’t even get it, I’m constantly missing the social norms that establish order here; walking on the wrong side of the train station, forgetting to give up my seat to monks or buying what I think is food and turns out to be face product. No one quite gets what I’m asking and no one really knows where I’m trying to go. Which is why I spend most of my weekends wandering around eating face product.
So all I’m going to do is describe it to you. And I’ll start with my first impression of Bangkok within a week of my arrival, thrown into the midst of the country’s biggest celebration, and possibly the world’s largest water fight.
'Songkran' is the Thai new year celebration that takes place all over the country for three days from the 13th of April, marking the astrological passage of Aries. Traditionally, this event is celebrated by pouring water on Bhudda statues to ‘wash away’ sins and bad luck. Many Thais spend the weekend with their family visiting temples.
These days however, it also means that every corner, side street or traffic intersection is a messy free-for-all. During this celebration, buckets of water are dumped over any stranger who is unfortunate enough to be within throwing range. The transformation of the city is incredible. Firstly, Bangkok empties of any locals who like their possessions to be dry. As they leave, the tourists and young people pour in. Armed with super soakers and fluro eyewear, they set up water stations with hoses supplied by hotels, while music blasts from every bar. It’s a relentless, city-wide siege of water, it falls from the sky, from the back of trucks or out of windows. Everyone is involved in the fight, families, tiny kids, teenagers, grandmothers and ladyboys. They're all on the street throwing icy buckets down your back and smearing white powder in your face. Everywhere, all day, for three days.
The most fascinating part of this celebration was the transformation I saw in the Thai people from a typically reserved and respectful culture into something completely feral. Usually, people will apologise for brushing your arm on the train. During Songkran, strangers were grabbing my face and smearing it with powder, with even more vehemence the more I protested. It was a little bit demented, but so much fun. I spent most of the weekend burning around in a tuk tuk snipering small children with a water gun. But I also spent an afternoon with a waterproof disposable camera at Kho San Road, Bangkok’s notorious party town that transforms into a 24-hour wet t-shirt contest for the celebration.
It’s definitely not my best photographic work, in fact these photos turned out looking like they were taken on a moving train with my eyes closed. But I think the blurry shots at least convey the kind of chaos that only thousands of soaking wet bodies crammed into an alleyway can create.
Sonkran was wild, but I was only just getting started. Stay turned for more cultural free-diving in Thailand.