Many times over, I have had friends and acquaintances tell me that Chiang Mai was made for me….temples, history, vegetarian food, yoga, hippies, big comfy pants….the list went on and on. When my friend Konstantina suggested that we be in Chiang Mai for “one of the best things to do in Thailand,” meaning Songkhran, the Thai New Year, I was sold.
The day after our arrival to Chiang Mai happened to be the once-a-year pilgrimage parade of the Buddhist relics that reside in one of the major wats here. I noticed the sign the night before, and we made sure to head to the starting point an hour before the scheduled start. Already the beginning of the route was lined with men, women, and children…many from local hilltribes and dressed in traditional clothes for the event. Everyone had baskets and bags of brilliant yellow flower petals, and I was extremely pleased when a random woman passed by and presented me with my own bag!
Right at 9 o’clock, a signal sounded from the temple and everyone started spreading the flower petals onto the mats that had been laid in the street, creating a line stretching kilometers around the city. Every square centimeter of mat was covered with petals, and then they began to chant along with the monks. The senior monk rolled past in a truck, venerated by the crowd and giving blessings left and right. Next, the chanting rose to a fever pitch as the truck carrying the holy relics, decorated in bright colors and silk, began its journey around the city. The truck was attended by more than a thousand monks, dressed in the same orange robes and carrying the same objects…lined up from oldest to youngest. As they passed, the devout crowd continued the same single word chant over and over…this went on for almost an hour!
At the end of the procession, everyone gathered the petals back into their bags. Regular people also helped the coordinators to roll up the mats. Later that day and week, I saw shops and yards strewn with the petals that had been blessed by the passing feet of all those monks. It reminded me of the famous quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel… “I felt like my feet were praying.”
As we continued to visit different wats and temples all week, we noticed all the decorating and cleaning that was being done in preparation for the new year. Some temples were even offering free food to those who passed through. In Chiang Mai, it feels like the history of these temples is alive and still breathing in the daily activities. Especially at festival time, when they were strewn with colored ribbons and cloth, filled with local volunteers working with monks to get everything ready.
Some of the other aspects of Chiang Mai also enchanted us. The street art scene is alive and…often political. We found it in every alley and main street, enchanted by the variety and colors it brought to our wanderings through the back ways. Our first hostel was also located very near the North Gate Jazz Co-op where live shows happened every night…and you could just sit on the grass across the street, next to the moat, during the day and listen to the musicians rehearse. Also, as it was “party season,” there were typically impromptu dance parties in people’s garages and yards at all times of the day and night.
Uh oh…Songkhran was supposed to start on the 13th, but as early as the 11th, we saw people with squirt guns practicing on their friends. By the 12th, everyone was already in full water fight mode! We were ambushed by three little girls that day, and returned to the hostel properly soaked a whole day early! Of course, on the morning of the 13th, we were ready. We bought two buckets at a street stall, one of the hundreds set up along the streets and the moat. The buckets even come with a long plastic string attached for throwing the bucket into the moat to get a full load of water to drench the next person to walk by. On Moon Muang Road, just a minute’s walk from our second hostel, the fighting was in full force. Many families or groups of friends ride in the back of trucks or in tuktuks and scooters, with their own barrelfuls of water to throw at the people lining the street to dish it right back to them with their buckets and squirt guns. If you have ever enjoyed a water fight in your life, we recommend Songkhran. Highly.
After water fighting from dawn to dusk, the city put away (mostly, anyways) the water, squirt guns, buckets, colored powders, paste, bubbles, and all the other elements of the water fights….and the Songkhran night market started. There is typically a plethora of markets around town on any given evening…but many merchants descend upon the stretch between Tha Pae Gate and the heart of the Old Town. There are artisans, clothing stalls, loads of souvenirs, performances, buskers….and FOOD! We forgot all about restaurants the last three nights of our stay and simply stuffed ourselves at the market each and every night.
After a week in Chiang Mai, we were surprised at how familiar and comfortable it felt… and we knew we would miss the friendly mix of Thais and expats that live and work there. It is certainly a backpacker’s paradise, but it is also an international community that stays grounded in the rich traditions and history that built the city. On the last day of Songkhran, we packed our bags and caught a very early bus (to avoid most of the splashing)….but we are sure that one day, we will be back.