With that major travel errand taken care of, we turned our attention to celebrating Songkran with the locals the next day. The Songkran festival honors the New Year based on Buddhist and Hindu solar calendars. Traditionally, people gently sprinkle water on each other to symbolize the washing away of sins and bad luck. Other related activities include a thorough spring cleaning of the house and the washing of Buddha statues, both with the intent of purification. Young people also traditionally pay respect to their elders and seek their blessings while bathing their hands with scented water.
While some communities have upheld the traditional version of the celebration more than others, Songkran has largely evolved into a multi-day water fight and booze-fueled party in recent times. Leading up to April 13th, we watched news clips of past Songkrans from the epicenters of celebrating like Chiang Mai and Bangkok. We had felt a little sad that we would not be in an iconic place to experience the holiday, but also relieved to not have to deal with the craziness of the crowds in those places, always being a bit crowd-phobic.
As it turned out, Ranong was the perfect place for our first Songkran. It was a compact "water war zone" confined to the town's one main street. It was also an efficient, yet still enthusiastic, party with things getting going around 11am and dying down by 5. With less than ten other foreigners on the street with us, we were in the thick of authentic Thai revelry. We were seeing a festival for the people by the people, rather than tourists splashing other tourists on Khao San Road, for example.
Armed only with our trusty collapsible camping bowls, we bravely hit the street and quickly figured out the format of the day: splash everyone and everything, young and old, people taking public transport, even police! Pickups overloaded with giant buckets of ice water and a minimum of ten people in the back cruised the street, while pedestrians fought back, and motorbikes wove in between it all.
Mother Nature wanted to take part in the festivities too and contributed a downpour all afternoon. This was one occasion where the "rain on my parade" saying really didn't apply as everyone was already soaking wet. Ironically, the only "cold" day since we had arrived in Thailand was also the only one where we had buckets of ice water poured down our backs. We were both amused and concerned for all of the shivering little Thai kids who had likely never been so cold in their entire lives.
While the chilling rain didn't put much of a damper on the spirit of the day, a bit of gang violence did. As Matt and I were heading down the street, we heard some yelling and soon saw a group of about thirty young people sprinting toward us, weaving in and out of the traffic and crowded sidewalk. We instinctively plastered ourselves against the locked door of a business in a shallow entryway. As they passed by, we observed that many of them had long knives in hand. When it was quiet again, we walked back to our hostel for safety until we knew more about the situation. The third-hand report was that there was some tension between rival gangs, someone said something to someone, who pushed someone, and then weapons were drawn. The water fight came to a stand still as everyone just stood around and watched the police ineffectively try to track down the perpetrators in their dispersed hiding places.
After a while, the party picked back up again, so we ventured out. We walked just a little way further down the road than where we hid from the gangs running by. This is when it hit home how close we were to really being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A couple of police were still questioning some witnesses next to a disturbing pool of blood on the sidewalk, while a teen girl in emotional shock was being hugged and comforted by her mother. There is no reason to believe that any violence would have been directed toward us, but had we walked that way just a few minutes earlier, we likely would have witnessed the conflict from the same vantage point as the traumatized young lady.
While chatting with the girlfriend of hostel owner later that day, she emphasized an excessive number of times that the gang members are not Thai. They are "Burma born." She expressed her anger that they were ruining the holiday for the Thai people. It is hard to argue with her feeling that her holiday had been usurped by violence spoiling the fun of the day. However, one has to wonder if local Burmese gangs would be a problem if Thais didn't discriminate against the very people they depend on for exploitative labor. (That doesn't sound familiar, now does it, America?) The vicious cycle of discrimination made another full-circle rotation as the Burmese behavior of the day reinforced her sense of Thai superiority and rationalized her racism.
To top off an already intense day, that evening I noticed a return of the tingling in my leg from micro-damage caused by decompression illness. Perhaps I had interrupted the healing process with too much activity on my feet, or the timing could have just been coincidental. We decided that a few rest days before getting back on the bicycles couldn't hurt, so the next day we caught a boat to Koh Chang. We arrived in yet another downpour and had no choice but to take a nerve-wracking motorcycle taxi ride on a narrow potholed path to the opposite side of the island where a selection of simple resorts are concentrated. For the third time in three days, we were wetter than wet. We found great amusement in settling in to a beach bungalow on a tropical island and immediately warming up with some hot chocolate (okay, just Milo, but we pretended it was hot chocolate) spiked with a hearty dose of Hong Thong blended spirit (whatever that is!).
Have I mentioned that the Ranong Province is the rainiest in Thailand? Given that it was also headed in to the monsoon season, we were actually quite fortunate to have several days of sunny weather after our wet welcome to the island. This little Koh Chang could not be more different from its larger namesake in the Gulf of Thailand. Beach "resorts" run on generators for a few hours after dark, pretty much the only other motors besides those on a few motorbikes. This Koh Chang seemed to be a glimpse into the past of what most islands in Thailand were like before they were "discovered and developed" in the last few decades. In the three days we had initially planned, we easily slipped in to a state of relaxation that we had never really allowed ourselves to have on this journey. I managed to sleep twelve hours each night and spent most of each day writing. Matt slept slightly less and read several of the Game of Thrones sagas. The only additional elements to this daily routine were watching sunsets on the beach with the classy sundowner of rum and Coke (since fruit juice was too expensive) and a nightly movie thanks to a collection of cheap downloads we bought way back in Kathmandu.
Under the premise of needing a little more time to recover, we extended our stay for two more days and relocated from our cabin in the forest at Little Italy to a beachfront one at Long Beach Bungalows. Time flies when you are "doing nothing" and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to little Koh Chang and get back to our bicycles.