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Water-pistols and real guns on Bangkok’s restive streets

We got out of the taxi in the early Bangkok evening and stared down the barrel of a gun. The surrounding street was alive with shrieks. That might seem an unnerving welcome to a city making negative world headlines for street violence.

In the days before, as we lounged away the hours on hammocks on the blissfully quiet fishing island of Kho Yao Noi in the south of Thailand, the news from the capital was getting worse and worse. 21 people had been killed in political violence at the weekend, mostly red-shirted protesters but also soldiers. 900 people had been injured in what was being called the worst violence Thailand had seen in a generation. On the day of our arrival an uneasy ceasefire was said to be reigning, with both sides reeling from the bloodshed but blaming each other for instigating the violence. The red-shirts had been parading coffins of the victims around town. So I wasn’t, understandably, in the mood for guns.

But I wasn’t scared of this gun. It was made of garish yellow, green and red plastic and my assassin was grinning from ear to ear.

“Happy New Year Farang!” she said. And then she soaked me in warm, smelly water. My sniper’s friends shrieked with laughter and came to give me a wet hug, inviting me to join their team.

Neither the political crisis nor the drought in the north could stop the youth of Bangkok celebrating Songkran, the annual water-squirting festival that brings in the Thai new year. The country is in disarray? ‘Mai pen rai’ – never mind. Soon the Narathiwat road, where I was standing, was so full of water that the taxis made waves on the flooded asphalt as if they were ferries chugging down the Chao Phraya river. Even the red-shirts of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, camped at Ratchaprasong intersection, took time out to cover each other with buckets of water.

The lucky squirters were those who had bagged seats in the backs of pick up trucks and were now cruising the city in an orgy of drive-by soakings.But the gangs on the pavement were fighting back with spirit. True, they were sitting targets for the trucks, but many of them had hoses at their disposal and weren’t shy of using them. We begged for mercy as one hose was pointed at us. Mercy was granted: only our legs were drenched.

The open-sided tuk-tuks, Bangkok’s most charismatic chariots of the road, had no chance, of course, as we were reminded early next morning. We were heading out to the glittering spikes of the pagodas of the Wat Phra Kaew complex, so beautiful that W. Somerset Maugham wrote they make you “laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.” I’d dreamed for years of seeing them – but the realisation of my dream was delayed by half an hour: We were so drenched by the water hit-squads who targeted the tuk-tuks that we had to walk two circuits round the block in the searing sun until we were dry enough to be allowed to see what lay within the white boundary walls. As vehicles are sprayed all over Thailand during Songkran, it’s not surprising that the rate of road accidents soars.

It’s the youth of Bangkok that dominate the festival, but you are never too old to misbehave. As we headed to uncharacteristically quiet China town a skinny gentle looking old man popped out from behind a food stall and put a bucket of cold water down the backs of our necks. He was 70 years old if he was a day, but he was grinning like a naughty school boy.

Among all the merry water throwing, it’s hard to imagine that some of these areas were real battlefield just a matter of hours ago.The play fights might seem like bad taste under the circumstances. Many injured Thais are still in hospital and some are still in intensive care. The violence came very close to the backpackers heaven around Khao San Road – that “decompression zone between East and West” that Alex Garland wrote of so vividly and lucratively. Songkran should be a busy period for the area, but many travelers have upped and left and rooms remain empty. A guest house worker told the Bangkok Post that “some of the tourists were very scared and some of them were crying.”

Thailand was always exotic light – the relatively safe gateway to the East. This wasn’t meant to happen. An imagine disaster can quickly turn into a significant economic disaster for the Land of Smiles where the tourist dollar is badly needed. It was even unseasonably quiet in the south as Westerners had cancelled their flights to Thailand.

Later in the day, we went off to see a smaller Wat, open to the public only for the New Year. The guide who met us at the door and proudly announced that he had spent three years at the London School of Economics spoke to me about the violence as I quizzed him about areas best avoided. He said he thought the blood-shed on Saturday was mainly down to a misunderstanding. He said the government just wanted to clear the central tourist areas for the New Year’s celebrations. They wanted the protesters to stick to their base around the Ratchaprasong intersection, which is further out of town and away from the shrines of Buddhism and tourism. The protestors thought the troops wanted to suppress their right to demonstrate. “A misunderstanding, you see,” the guide repeated, eager that I didn’t go away thinking ill of Thailand, a land where losing your temper in public – showing ‘jai rawn’ or a hot heart – is a major disgrace. I asked him if the violence would reignite in the coming hours and days. “After what happened on Saturday, there is too much bad blood. Without Saturday, I would have been optimistic. But…” On Saturday the lid was opened in a dangerous chest of passion, and as with Pandora’s box, it might be hard to put that lid back on again.

Among the hottest days of the year, let’s hope the colour and cameraderie and sheer innocent joy of Songkran has helped cool some heads.

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