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The Lure of Chiangmai

by Gin Phillips

Strangely enough, no one cowered in fear of two Western women packing double-barreled, pump action water rifles and a water pistol on each hip.
It was Songkran, the Thai New Year, and in Chiangmai, it is a water fight of epic proportions, a weeklong festival that shuts down a city. A delicate sprinkling of water, a sign of renewal, is the gentle side of Songkran—that’s what you might find in Bangkok, a financial mecca leery of scaring off business travelers with unseemly soakings. But there’s nothing gentle about Chiangmai in mid-April — streets are swamped with the all-day celebrations.

A Thai tour guide, Mi (Thai for “teddy bear”), had offered to give my friend and me a real taste of the festival. He met us with a pickup truck and matching pairs of brightly tie-dyed Thai pants, worn knotted at the waist. After strapping water tanks to our backs and holstering our pistols, the two of us climbed into the bed of the truck with Mi at the wheel. A few Charlie’s Angels poses later, we hit the streets. 

We were unprepared for the sheer scope of the event. The streets were so packed that traffic never moved more than five miles-per-hour. Escape from superior forces was almost impossible. Three generations, from grandparents to small children, would sit hip to hip in a truck bed, wielding guns or, more often, dipping ladles in brimming barrels. Some drove vans with stripped flooring, so the passengers could throw open the sliding door, mafia-like, riddle victims with water, then slam their protective door shut.

Mi omitted a few important details. First, Westerners do not normally partake in the events so blatantly. They hide water pistols under their napkins at outside restaurants and surreptitiously spray passersby. Second, everyone has at least four people in the back of a truck, and sometimes more than ten. We had two people. Third, our pants were see-through when wet.

War was brutal. We’d run out of water and be forced to fill up at someone else’s barrel, which was like wearing a neon bull’s eye. And it was apparently just more fun to spray us than fellow countrymen. By the end of the day, we were sitting in two inches of water in the back of the pickup truck, eyes squeezed shut against the torrents.

The average stay in the area is much drier ... and far less combative. With a low cost of living, incredible natural beauty, and a much milder climate than Bangkok, it’s a chance to sample the best of Thailand without losing the benefits of fine dining and endless activities. The city moves at a slower pace, so you can take your time exploring the north country, with its abundance of safari trails, untouched forests, gleaming temples and towering Buddhas. Take a turn at riding elephants, visiting the hilltribes, or enrolling in Thai cooking or massage classes.
And if you happen to get wet, don’t worry. It’s never cold in Chiangmai.

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