A Tale of Two Cities—of Angels

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Faceless Priests: Songkran in Los Angeles

When I tell friends that the name of Thailand’s capital translates as  ‘city of angels’, they usually ask me, often with a smarmy little grin, “Which is the ‘Bang’ and which is the ‘kok’?”  It doesn’t work that way, of course, since the real name of the Thai capital is Krung Thep, more properly pronounced ‘Grung Taip,’ with a long falling tone on the ‘Taip.’

Given the city’s seedy rep as an R&R retreat for GI’s and a watering hole for ex-pats, the name ‘Bangkok’ is an easy mnemonic device, though, so is hard to shake, even among first-cousin Laotians and southern Thais accustomed to Malay admixtures, the ‘bengkak-bengkok’ of a winding river possibly the name’s origin, olive groves notwithstanding.  But all that’s academic.  This is holiday season: Songkran.

Holy Week in Latin countries is a real hoot, featuring the full range of feasting and fasting, and in some places even including the ritual dousing of water, in addition to the usual palms and ashes.  But none of it compares to Songkran in Thailand, sometimes described as “the world’s largest water fight.”  That it is, but it’s more than that, too, much more than simply cooling off in the summer heat.

Songkran in Bangkok

They call it “Thai New Year” of course, and in the other Theravada Buddhist countries as well, it’s “Cambodian New Year,” etc, all conforming to the Indian astrological calendar, entry into the month that corresponds to Aries, if I remember correctly.  The Western and Eastern astrological systems both derive from the Mesopotamian original, apparently, though the actual dates seem to be offset by about three weeks, the corresponding months overlapping by only a week.  Thailand celebrates all New Years btw, including the Chinese, the Western one on 1 Jan, and another one in November, I believe, corresponding to an aboriginal Mon-Khmer system.

If the water starts at least a week in advance in the countryside, and peaks in the 13-15 April period in the cities, the real significance only occurs about a week later, around 18-19 April, when it’s time to go home and make the rounds and visit extended families, in order to “dam hua” (bow heads) to the elders and receive blessings for the year to come.  If you happen to live 8000 miles away, then this can be done over the phone.

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Buddhist Priests Begging at Songkran LA

All of this evolved over time, of course, and not too long ago consisted of the gentle pouring of water over the shoulder of your neighbors and friends and even complete strangers if they happened to wander by, something of a baptism, renewal, cleansing of the soul.  Even in the early years of my involvement with Thailand, back in 1992, there was hardly any activity in Bangkok itself, since ‘real Thais’ lived upcountry and the few who remained had little focus for their activities.

Then came the tourist and backpacker influx centered on Khao Sarn Road which has transformed the country and which is where most of the Songkran pictures come from now.  Too bad.  It used to be a nice place.  It still has its moments, of course, but it’s still best in the villages IMHO.  Chiang Mai used to be a nice compromise, but it’s largely a tourist colony now, too, and you’re not likely to hear the northern dialect very often.  You’ll hear English VERY often.

It’s interesting to compare all this to the largest Thai community in the US, aka jangwat (province) 77, centered east of Hollywood in the little-known village of Los Angeles, that other “City of Angels” across the earth’s gaping Empty Quarter.  Here the festivities take on a more sober tone, since a water fight probably wouldn’t conform to the city’s fire regulations.

Beauty Queens Dodging H2O at Songkran in Bangkok

Here it consists of street food and booths, both cultural and commercial, with some pretty tame entertainment—by Thai standards—and highlighted by ever-popular Thai boxing.  It’s all over by dark, about the time Thais back home are just waking, with appropriate adjustments for time zones and hangovers.

Thailand’s is a culture seriously adrift, no direction home, and the demographics here in Thai Town, USA, illustrate that well.  A typical ‘Thai’ family here has three generations, the oldest Chinese-speaking, the middle one Thai-speaking, and the youngest English-speaking.  That speaks volumes.  Aboriginal tribal Tais live in the outback of China, Laos, and Vietnam, the Lao dialect maybe most central to them all.  There were 321 deaths and 3040 injured in Thailand during the holidays. Any further comment would be superfluous.  Happy New Year.

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