Squirt Guns & Buddhas

The Buddhist New Year, Songkran, is celebrated by several countries in Southeast Asia, but especially in Thailand. I was told by my Thai professor that it is religiously observed with a tradition in temples where the monks pour water over their buddha relics, cleansing them of sin and refreshing them for the New Year. Somehow over the years, that tradition morphed into the country-wide squirt-gun fight that is modern Songkran.

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While Thais celebrate the calendar New Year (January 1st), the Bhuddist New Year doesn’t actually occur until mid-April, which is extremely lucky as April is by far the hottest month in Thailand. I was told by friends to buy my squirt gun a week or two in advance, as the demand for them can be so high that it becomes impossible to find one. I was also told to make sure I didn’t bring my phone out unless it was in a waterproof case, and to be on my guard the entire week for rouge squirt-gun assassins.

This was all very good advice.

Children (and a decent amount of adults) roamed the streets with buckets, ready to attack anyone foolish enough to get within reach. I was hit several times while running to buy groceries, and even once while speeding down the road on a motor taxi.

During the night, the streets with bars and clubs turned into swimming pools, with thousands of people, all soaked, running around with hoses, buckets, squirt-guns and anything else that could contain any amount of water. One of the major streets in Bangkok was shut down for the festivities one night, and THOUSANDS of people turned out to get soaked and listen to the free concerts with Thai pop stars.

It is probably the biggest holiday in Thailand. I can’t even compare it to how Americans revere Christmas, because it felt much bigger than that. Everyone walked around the streets, soaking wet and smiling.

My friends and I also visited a temple during Songkran to see the religious side of the celebration, and watch the monks wash their buddhas with golden cups of water.

I was so glad I was able to have this experience. I had never even heard of Songkran before, but couldn’t believe what a big deal it was. I had an absolute blast and it was probably one of the highlights of my trip.

Holiday in Cambodia

My first trip outside of Thailand was with a friend of mine, Juliette, to Siem Reap, the capital of Cambodia. We had decided to travel there for five days, because our visas required us to leave the country once every three months in order to remain valid. But really, that was just an excuse. We desperately wanted to get out of Thailand and see how the rest of Southeast Asia compared, and it had also been a dream of both of ours to see Angkor Wat. The flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap was very short, and before we knew it we had landed and were taking a tuk-tuk to our ($3-per-night) hostel. The difference between Siem Reap and Bangkok was very striking. While Bangkok was a bustling metropolis, it still seemed somewhat less modern compared to European and American cities, but Siem Reap made us realize exactly how modernized Bangkok was compared to its counterparts in the area. Many of the roads were unpaved, the sidewalks were few and far between, and there was a noticeable lack of streetlights. Despite this, our hostel had an incredibly fun and relaxed environment and we enjoyed swimming in the pool and getting to know the other guests before heading off to bed.

The next day we woke up around five a.m. to get ready for our sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. I will never forget driving around the corner and seeing Angkor Wat against the barely-lit horizon. Our entire tour group sat still and watched the sun slowly crawl up behind the temple before our tour guide ushered us on to go explore the inside. The structure was ancient, and absolutely amazing to look at. It reminded me of Thailand’s temples, but somehow also seemed reminiscent of ancient Aztec and Mayan temples I had seen pictures of before. Juliette and I were incredibly glad that we booked a sunrise tour, not only for the view, but because of the fact that after 10 a.m., it became almost unbearably hot, so the sunrise tour gave us a few hours of exploring the temples without melting.

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Angkor Wat at Sunrise

The area of Angkor Wat is actually incredibly large, and covers about 500 acres with dozens of ancient structures on it. Our Cambodian guide told us about the history of the buildings, which was interesting to hear. The most striking part of it for me was physically seeing how the Khmer Rouge regime in the 80’s had destroyed some of the buildings during the Cambodian Genocide. We saw several temples with bullet holes in the walls, areas where land mines had been detonated, and even one temple that had been almost completely intact for hundreds of years until the Khmer Rouge destroyed it in the 1970’s.

Later in the trip Juliette and I went to a museum in Siem Reap dedicated to the history of the Cambodian genocide and military struggle surrounding it. It was a simple museum, mainly consisting of tanks, deactivated land mines, and other wartime memorabilia sitting in a mango grove, but it was amazing in the sense that every single one of the guides had personally been through the genocide. I had been to war museums before, but never one like that. One guide was missing an eye a limb and several fingers from fighting in the military during that time. He spoke about his experiences, which included killing a khmer rouge soldier. Another guide spoke about how he watched his father murdered with a shovel during the genocide, and how his grandfather had disappeared and was never heard from again.

I can’t stress how amazing, and horrifying, it was to hear firsthand accounts of a historical event such as this. It was even more amazing to see the effects from it that were still around today, from the physical damage of temples and buildings, to the extreme poverty and political corruption that is still very present in the country, to the column of  real human skulls that sat near the center of the city, many of them bashed in or filled with bullet holes, all of them unidentified.

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Seeing living history like that was not easy, but I had such a greater appreciation for the country and its people after seeing how they have begun to progress from that dark period.

Bangkok to Phuket

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It was nearly midnight on New Year’s Eve when I stood in line at Thai immigration to get my passport stamped and be officially welcomed into Thailand. After nearly 27 hours total of flying, on top of a fifteen hour time difference, I thought I would be absolutely exhausted, but as I stood around looking at the holiday decorations throughout Suvarnabhumi Airport I couldn’t have been more excited. I finally made my way to the front of the line and had my passport and visa stamped by a friendly immigration officer who wished me a Happy New Year before ushering me towards baggage claim. I glanced at my phone on the way and saw that the date now read January 1, 2016. I had begun the New Year nearly 8,000 miles away from home.

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A Ronald McDonald statue sitting outside the McDonald’s near my apartment doing the “wai”, a traditional Thai greeting and sign of respect

Bangkok was going to be home for the next six months, and I can honestly say that I fell completely in love with the city after only a few days. It’s certainly rough in some places, rightfully known for it’s atrocious traffic and filthy streets, but all of that is completely forgivable once you taste the food, meet the incredibly kind locals, and see your first glittering temple or golden Buddha amidst the concrete buildings.

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The Grand Palace is not only the historical home of the Royal Family, but Bangkok’s main tourist attraction. Dozens of buildings and temples sit in the complex, all covered in glittering tile and intricate mosaics. 

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A golden Buddha meditates at the Grand Palace.

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These are just a few of the buildings that form the Grand Palace.

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A pair of massive demon guards stand by the gate to the palace.

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Spires at Wat Pho, located next to the Grand Palace. The Wat Pho is one of the most famous temples in Thailand and was historically used by royalty.

While Bangkok was where I spent most of my time, I also was fortunate enough to explore the rest of the country as well. I traveled with a large group of friends to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, where we rented motorbikes to drive through the mountains, hiked and even got to meet some friendly elephants.

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A meditating buddha rests under lanterns at a temple in Chiang Mai.

I also traveled down to the Southern Islands of Thailand, probably the most visited and recognizable area of the country. It was a bit cloudy during my trip, but that didn’t make it any less stunning. We snorkeled, boated, swam and took in everything we could from Phuket and Koh Phi Phi.

All of these places were gorgeous, but one of my absolute favorites was a small island called Koh Samet, which was accessible from Bangkok by a three-hour bus and ferry ride. I went here twice during my semester, once with my exchange student friends and once at the very end of my trip with my boyfriend. Koh Samet had the most beautifully colored water I had ever seen, amazing bars, and even had fire shows for entertainment on the beach at night. Besides Bangkok, Koh Samet was probably my favorite place in all of Thailand.