Better Know A Holiday: Songkran

AKA: Thai New Year, Water Festival, Pi Mai (Laos), Chaul Chnam Thmey (Cambodia), Thingyan (Myanmar), Water-Splashing Festival (Chinese Dai minority)

When? April 13 to 15 officially, though celebrations may last longer

Public holiday in: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar

Who died? Nobody.

Reason for celebration, then? The sun has begun its northward journey into the constellation of Aries. Otherwise known as the solar new year.

Origins: Songkran was originally a pious event. Thai Buddhists would go to temple early in the morning and offer alms to the monks. Then they would sprinkle lustral water on Buddha statues. Young people would collect that water, which was now blessed, and symbolically wash the hands of their elders. The water was intended to wash away bad omens. This still happens today, but the spiritual aspect has largely given way to a party atmosphere, much to the chagrin of certain Thais (see below).

How is it celebrated now? A massive, nation-wide water fight that lasts several days, generally with lots of drinking involved. Everyone in the street is fair game for a soaking.

Other ways to celebrate: Releasing fish back into streams, freeing caged birds, bringing sand to temples to symbolically replace dirt that has been removed throughout the year.

Craziest venue: The northern city of Chiang Mai, where the celebration continues long after the holiday is officially over, is considered to be the best place to carouse.

Watch out for: Elephants and pick-up trucks. Both have a very large carrying capacity and high-pressure discharge.Associated commercialism: Songkran today means big bucks for the tourism industry. The government actively promotes the festival on its party merits, much to the consternation of traditional Thais who think the celebrations have gotten out of hand. What was originally a respectful celebration of family and elders has turned into an excuse to get drunk with friends rather than spend time with family. The hand-wringers will have a difficult time convincing the tourist board to change its tune, though: tourists will spend over $1 billion this year during the Songkran festivities.

Associated food: Khanon tom – sticky rice and mung bean balls; khanon krok – miniature coconut rice pancakes; and of course, the ubiquitous pad thai

Best side effect of the holiday: With the mercury bumping up against 100 degrees in much of Thailand at this time of year, a dousing can be a welcome relief.

New rules this year: During Songkran festivities last year, over 300 people died, and there were over 3,000 road accidents. Drunk driving is a major problem. Police have stepped in to curb the chaos this year. Traditionally, pick-ups roamed the streets with massive barrels of water and a team of bucketeers and gunmen in the back, dousing anyone they came across. No longer. They have been banned, along with overloading vehicles, drinking in certain areas and putting ice in the throwing water. The Bangkok Post has published a helpful “10 Commandments of Songkran” for those who need a media edict from within Songkran jurisdiction.

Likelihood of these rules being followed: Slim.

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Check out more holidays around the world here

[Photo Credit: Flick user Wyndham]

Gastro-diplomacy and the politics of food

Food has been a trending topic in travel circles for some time now. But though a good meal can tell a traveler much about the local culture, it’s not often that food is thought of as a force for political change at home. Yet, in a recent article for the Jakarta Globe, writer Paul Rockower makes just such a claim, part of a growing school of thought called Gastro-diplomacy.

Increasingly Asian nations, including South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, are turning to their national cuisines as a way to promote their country’s brands abroad, gaining increased attention and burnishing their image among the international community.

As the argument goes, people are more likely to relate to other cultures in terms of its cuisine, resulting in economic and political gains. In many ways, the effort seems to be working – the Thai government’s “Global Thai” campaign, which successfully helped open thousands of new Thai food restaurants in the U.S. alone, is seen as a model for other nations now following similar strategies.

So does a bowl of noodles create new paths to cultural understanding? At first-glance, Gastro-diplomacy does make a simplistic linkage between food and genuine cultural understanding. After all, food can just as easily become a stereotype (rice in Asia, tacos in Latin America) as it can be used to deepen cultural knowledge. But there are some signs that gastro-diplomacy has had success – Sushi, anyone? In the years ahead, look for politicians to not just try to win hearts and minds, but also stomachs.

[Via @EatingAsia]

[Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt]

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The Khao San

All this month, Dim Sum Dialogues will be bringing you stories from the road. The first destination: Thailand – from Bangkok to Ko Phan Ngan…to discover the hype behind the legendary Full Moon Parties.


It’s approaching midnight fast, and the immigration lines in Suvarnabhumi Airport are long. Walking through the modern, sprawling airport, I remind myself not to touch anything in the Duty Free stores, thanks to a Gadling article that I read a few weeks prior to my trip.

The immigration official examines my passport. “First time to Thailand?” he asks. I nod my head. He points a small, futuristic Logitech camera in my direction, presses a key on his keyboard and waves me through. I skip baggage claim. All I’ve brought is a backpack, a camera, and a sense of adventure – my ideal vacation.
Once outside the airport, I scan the sidewalk for the signs advertising the A2 Airport Express – which I had been told would take me to a place called Khao San Road. Everybody recommended the area. “It’s really the only place you want to stay in Bangkok”, friends had told me.

I find the bus at the last minute, pay my 150 baht and find an empty seat among a few young people that look well-traveled. I settle in to the large seat and stare out the window as the bus merges on to a large, elevated highway. The cleanliness and engineering quality of the highway takes me by surprise. I had heard that Thailand was a developing country, but the bright LED lights that adorn the skyscrapers seem to suggest that Thailand is a little more prosperous than the other developing countries I’ve been to. But then again, the view from the highway can be deceiving.

After 45 minutes of driving through the expansive city, the bus rumbles to a stop at the end of a busy street in the Banglamphu neighborhood. I step out of the bus and am immediately overwhelmed with the amount of activity buzzing at this hour on a weeknight. Hundreds of people are milling around one long street that’s lined with neon signs and advertisements for hostels, bars, and restaurants. Vendors peddle goods out of small road side stalls and mobile carts: t-shirts, hats, pirated DVD’s, fake driver’s licenses, jewelry, souvenirs, falafel, pizza, beer, pad thai, even fried insects – crickets, beetles and worms are all available for purchase.

A boom of tourism in the 1980′s gradually made the area known as a place for cheap accommodation with easy access to the Grand Palace and temples that are popular with tourists. Now it’s a destination in its own right, touted as “The Gateway to Southeast Asia”.

The first few hostels I wander into are fully booked, but there’s a seemingly unlimited number of options in the area, and I’m able to find a basic room with a fan, a bed, and not much else. I set my bags down and head outside to explore the rest of the scene. Every type of traveler imaginable is represented. The street is full of dreadlocks, tattoos, Havaianas sandals and oversized backpacks. New arrivals look lost and overwhelmed. They blearily rub their eyes while thumbing through guidebooks in search of a place to sleep.

Taxi & tuk tuk drivers are everywhere, discreetly offering passengers rides to ping-pong shows or late night clubs. As the night gets later, they all seem to be offering rides to the same place – a late night club called “Spicy”, which apparently pays taxi drivers commission to wrangle tourists to the club with a cheap fare, so they can command an exorbitant cover charge upon arrival. I wander down the road frequently stopping to chat with welcoming groups of people sitting on the curb of the road. They sip large bottles of local brews – Chang or Singha – and swap stories of their recent adventures of tubing in Laos, trekking in Chiang Mai, or diving off Ko Phi Phi.

An especially engaging American tells me about a 3 month motorcycle trip he just finished. He bought a Russian Minsk in Hanoi for $400 USD and rode with a friend through the north of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, eventually selling the motorcycle for nearly the same price when they had reached their destination. The following month he plans on riding a bicycle through India & the Himalayas.

Patrons of the sidewalk bars are momentarily interrupted from conversation by a young Thai girl that begs them to buy roses so that she can go home for the night. She can’t be older than 8 years, but is already an expert saleswoman – offering to place bets on a game of thumb-war when the roses are declined. A few moments later, an old woman with a bag full of cheap Thai souvenirs comes and places a funny hat on a tourist. Everyone laughs and takes pictures, but no transactions take place and the woman moves on down the road.

I’m completely taken in by the stories, the laughter, and the energy of the place. It’s a paradise for backpackers with a passion for meeting new people and making spontaneous travel plans with new friends.

Things begin to quiet down around 2.30 in the morning, and I decide to call it a night. Several people around me have made plans to go to the full moon party – and we exchange phone numbers, promising to find each other when we get to Ko Phan Ngan. If that plan fails, then we agree to track one another down on Facebook so we can be best friends for the rest of our lives…