Song Kran Festival - Thailand

Chiangmai and PENANG - Woman Ukelele

And they do it with such care and pride – a small table, a glass case, a tiny charcoal grille or a wok with a gas bottle burner at the side – and the inevitable brightly colored umbrella.  One guy who set up a minute chicken stall on the pavement outside our condo, even brought little pots of flowers which he arranged along the front.
There’s something cat-like about the Thai’s, with all the contradictions and unpredictability of how they can be. They can seem the most unfeeling people you have ever met one day, then turn out to be as kind and altruistic as the best.  They can seem a wonderful friend one day, then look straight through you the next.

The Song Kran festival – it's the Buddhist new year, where people all soak one another with water in the street for four days – everybody, from grandmothers to little children, throwing water over each other.

For four days, the main streets of this city are packed with people throwing water at each other – with water pistols, from big drums of water in the backs of trucks, from huge fire hoses on stages where bands play from morning to night – a hail of water and laughter, during which the only business is food, drink and water pistols.

And why all this water?

Well, Song Kran being the new year, water symbolizes many things depending on what you do with it.
If you throw water all over someone (usually a stranger) then water symbolizes good luck … so you’re wishing them well by pouring water all them.

If someone throws water all over you, then the water symbolizes the washing away the old, to make way for the new.

And if two people throw water at each other, it symbolizes togetherness and mutual goodwill.
And though for sure, the water festival might seem simply a passive aggressive’s dream of being able to chuck water over whoever they like, nevertheless, I find the symbolism within it very beautiful.

There is something very touching about a total stranger thinking to bless you in this way, with a bucket of water over the head … and when, on being caught by surprise, one turns to see who did it, you’re met with a smile and a soft voice saying, ‘Good luck for you my friend … is good luck for you.”

And maybe it’s just another bit of Thai mischief - maybe he just wanted to douse the ‘farang’ with water. But I choose to believe what he said, that it is a blessing he has given me, a touch of one heart to another, a brief spark of interconnectedness.  Which makes it deeply touching in a way I have never felt during any other festival or community rite … and all in the spirit of mischief and good will.

Chiangmai ConcertAnd this festival expresses the beautiful Thai heart perfectly – their grace, quiet integrity and kindness, in combination with their mischief, naivete and love of the ridiculous.

And these same qualities come through in the way they do business – in the contradictions that make it such that one can never make an assumption about them, that won’t be completely controverted the next day.

For example, I once had a  bargaining match with a street merchant on Sukhumvit road – it was over a shirt, which I ended up not buying because I thought the man rude and disdainful.

Yet, ten minutes later, as I was walking away through the throng, I heard this voice behind me, “You you, mister!”  When I turned, I found this same street merchant running toward me through the crowd  – he was waving my wallet, which I had left on his stall.

Needless to say, I was extremely thankful as he handed it to me and I wai’ed to indicate my respect for his action.  He smiled, wai’ed back, then turned and walked away without a word.

He could have kept the wallet – it had a lot of money in it, and I didn’t realise I had left it there. But as rude and obnoxious as he had been as we bargained, he had felt compelled to return it, revealing the deep bedrock of integrity that I’ve constantly found within the Thai heart.

But the one thing they all have in common is an utter self possession and confidence in who they are, which I find refreshing, because in even the smallest exchange, I always know I am dealing with someone who believes to their core that they are my equal, or better, and behaves as such. So there is none of that icky obsequiousness with which Westerners often manipulate each other to get what they want.
A Thai will say yes, or he will say no, and not only will they mean it, but they will know exactly why they said it.

Their cat-like quality also comes through in the combination of extraordinary grace, mixed with the most gleeful sense of mischief I’ve ever come across. Indeed, they can be as imperious and haughty as the worst kind of aristocrat, until something surprises them or makes them laugh and they turn into puckish children.
And all of this is in combination with a wonderful fearlessness when it comes to business – because EVERY Thai is having a go at some kind of business on the side. For them, business, even on the smallest level, is like breathing – everyone in this country is a potential entrepreneur … though most are overly reliant on valiant improvisation rather than canny planning. As such, one can see business ideas in shops as well as street stalls come and go with frightening rapidity.

The first you know a Thai has a business idea, an odd improvisation of stuff will appear by the side of the road – a wooden bench, a gas cylinder and a pile of stuff unloaded from the back of a motorbike, and a Thai woman, or man, will construct their little vision of prosperity right there on the sidewalk.

With people patiently stepping around them, they build their little shop, then climb a lightpole to clip a power lead to the grid, so they can light up the party lights they have arranged so carefully around the edge of the umberella – and maybe to power the little television set they have  brought for their child to watch as they work. Then they light up their tiny charcoal grill (about A4 size), open an Eskie, pull out some kebabs and arrange them on top.

And then they sit on a stool, and wait.

And they wait.

And they wait so well – no fidgeting, no looking up and down the street for prospective customers.  No pleading with their eyes.

They simply sit, their eyes fixed to a neutral space, and they wait.  And of course, most times, nobody buys their little kebabs, because there’s already so many other kebab stalls all over the place.
Woman and Girl in Chaing MaSo they wait all day. Then, at the end of the day, they dismantle their little stall and pack it onto their motorbike and disappear – to reappear the next day and do it all over again – with a few little innovations ( you can tell they’ve thought about it that night)  – perhaps a blackboard with a brightly chalked picture of chicken kebabs arranged across a plate of rice, and a frilly pattern around the edge.

And they wait all over again.

And this might happen for two days, perhaps three. Each day they appear on the sidewalk with their little stall and wait …and then they disappear.

And this haphazard hit or miss style of business doesn’t just happen with little street stalls.

Whole shops get rented out, decorated, stocked and staffed with large numbers of kids dressed in special T shirts (one of my favourites was a ‘slimmers network’ selling special packaged slimming food … banners, shop-space, painting, decorating, stocking, and whole shifts of specially uniformed kids all checking their messages on their phones as they waited …

….waited for what?  To sell slimming food to the slimmest people on the planet?
Needless to say, the shop disappeared soon after.

Another brave enterprise appeared one day in an open shopfront downstairs.  A family of young Thais filled it a whole lot of rickety tables and chairs then set up glass case out front, within which they hung a steamed chicken.  One insipid chicken hanging from a hook.

But it wasn’t just hung.  It was sort of arranged with its wings to either side, as if waving hallo, or crucified.  And that pathetic chicken hung there in the hot sun, all day.

And there was a blackboard leaning beside the door with a drawing of a chicken on it … and a price … 20 baht (about .70 cents) And that was it.  That whole shop had been rented, fitted out, for only one dish – chicken on steamed rice.

I never saw anybody enter that shop.  And the chicken would hang there, and the sun would cross the sky and shine upon it, then set.  Then the chicken would disappear and the shop would close …
… to open the next day, when they’d crucify another pale chicken in the glass case, to wave insipidly at passers by as it sweated and went grey in the sweltering heat.

We  called this brave little enterprise “The One Chicken Café”. For the month they were there, each day another chicken appearing in the glass case to wave at passersbys until dark and then disappear – but we never saw a customer in that place.

But it didn’t seem to phase the Thai family who spent their days waiting.  They entertained friends, slept, lounged about staring into space and prepared themselves meals.  They even painted a big picture of a a dinosaur on one of the walls, which gave us pause as we wondered what a dinosaur had to do with a chicken.

Then the shop stayed shut –  the ‘One Chicken Café’ was gone.

It seems as if each morning, any number of Thais wake up with a business idea, small or big, and they don’t stop to think, “Is this a good idea?” or “Are there already too many chicken stalls?”.

They get their idea and they go out and do it … and their optimism is as touching, as is the grace of their failure, in which they don’t whine get angry – they simply wait until its obvious their business isn’t working, then they disappear.

Enterprise is everywhere here, because everyone is used to the idea that they can do anything if they want, simply because they can. I saw one guy making money at the market by balancing bottles on their edges on the footpath.

Each business a dream, a sense of pride, a possibility of success, the chance of a man or woman happy and fulfilled. Every space of Chiangmai has a business in it, even if it’s only balanced on a single stool in an unused doorway.  They come and go like a vast field of flowers.

And we rarely see a policeman in this town – or a police car. There are no officials checking or fining, or ticketing or making people stop and the powerlines are a mess of tangled cables going wherever people want them to go. It’s all deals … they take power and water from wherever it is, slipping money to the shops behind their stall and everybody’s happy.

And as the sidewalks fill with these little businesses, nobody complains that they’re in the way, or points a finger at the tangled electrical cords scattered everywhere, or shouts out, ‘that’s dangerous’ … they simply step around and leave them be.

There is no stopping here. No-one saying, ‘you can’t do that’.

It’s a wonderful place to be.
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