How a Country-Wide Water Gun Fight Made Me Love Thailand

Ok so I didn’t love the Thai islands. It’s true. But northern Thailand was a totally different world. Northern Thailand might have changed my mind about this country.

Chiang Mai Thailand

I flew from Krabi directly into Chiang Mai, and upon arrival, saw the same amount of western backpackers. But this time, it was calm, quite, and they knew how to blend in to a certain degree. It was refreshing, and the Thailand I had wished for.

I was only in Chiang Mai for a few days before the Thai New Year begun, also known as Songkran. And if you know anything about this holiday, you know that I was about to get very wet. What I didn’t know is that the locals decide that three days for the holiday isn’t enough. Songkran was to begin on April 13th, but as I was walking to lunch on the 12th, I realized that the children like to begin the country-wide water fight a day early. So much so, that not even five minutes into my walk, I was already soaked, had to buy a dry bag for my stuff, and joined in on the fun.

Before I had the chance to fill my water gun however, I had heard that khao soi was an absolute must-have in Thailand. And better yet, I heard a rumor that the very best khao soi was in Chiang Mai, so I knew I had to try it. Problem was, the place that I heard about was supposed to be pretty local and pretty difficult to find. After walking around the Old City, I finally came across the spot I had been looking for: a small white tent right next to the temple with a few tables and the menu only in Thai. I managed to order the khao soi and a lotus root juice in broken Thai, sat at a table next to some locals, and enjoyed one of the best (and cheapest) meals of my life.

So if you’re ever in Chiang Mai and want the best khao soi, head to Khao Soi Khun Yai on the north side of Old City. Look for the white tent behind the temple walls. And get ready for some of the best food in Thailand.

Songkran

Ok so back to the Thai New Year. This might be the absolute greatest time of the year in Thailand. What began with a cleansing of the Buddha statues throughout the country to begin anew turned into a country-wide water fight. If you’re lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai (or anywhere in Thailand) in mid-April for Songkran, here’s what you need to know:

Water guns?

Be prepared and buy water guns early. You can get them at Big C Supermarket or on the side of the road around the time of Songkran. If you do get them along the road, you can most likely bargain and get the price down a bit. But it’s important you buy them before Songkran begins because prices will absolutely skyrocket. Get one with a big water chamber because, while you can find places to fill up, some places will charge you or you will be filling up with the dirty moat water (which is a whole other topic).

Which city?

Chiang Mai is known to be the best place for Songkran in Thailand, and most of that is because of Old City. The Old City of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a wall and moat with gates at each end. And every side of Old City is definitely a different type of party.

East Side:

East end is where almost all of the tourists/Westerners go to party. This is where you’ll find the pool parties, the bars, and the crowds. It’s a great time to spend a day and you’ll meet a ton of people. But remember, it will be filled with people just like you, so while you’ll definitely have some fun, this isn’t where you want to be if you’re looking for the local-version of  New Years.

North Side:

North end of Old City is a good mix of both local and tourists. The most traffic is along here so the streets are packed with cars and crowds walking amongst them. There are a ton of street food vendors and some good music. Most of the Thai young adults hang here, so if you want a good local party without completely standing out, this is the place to be.

South Side:

South end is the quietest side of Old City during Songkran. This is mostly the side of the city that the cars can pass on without having to get stuck in traffic. While it is quiet, you’ll definitely still get wet walking along the streets here so don’t think you’re escaping the fun.

West Side:

My FAVORITE side of Old City was the West End. After partying on every other side of Old City, I had met a local friend at the hostel I was staying at that recommended I go to the west side. She let me know that I would be the only foreigner but promised it would be the most fun. And she was 100% right. Not only was I the ONLY foreigner but the locals welcomed me with open arms (and water guns filled with ice water). If you really want to experience the real Songkran, do NOT miss heading to the west end.

So yes, while the Thai islands didn’t win me over, the happiness I experienced during Songkran in Chiang Mai is something I will never forget. However, all good times come to an end, and it was time for me to head to Bangkok.

I’m Not a Backpacker; I’m Just Traveling with Backpacks

Quick note before I begin this post: This might be a little bit of a rant and I apologize beforehand. If you refer to yourself as a backpacker, if you are obsessed with the Thai islands, if you overly love to party, etc. be ready to be slightly offended. But it’s time you realize something, so read on.

Ok let’s get started. Unpopular opinion coming atcha. I HATED the Thai islands. Ok, hate is a strong word. And the Thai islands are some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. So maybe the word “hate” is a little much. But the Thai islands proved everything I had expected to be true about Thailand.

Let’s rewind a bit. I’m living in Indonesia. I had just come from Singapore and Malaysia and had a blast. And was falling in love quickly with the Asian culture. To be honest, when I was leaving Malaysia, I was absolutely not looking forward to Thailand. To me, Thailand has always seemed like a played out, overrun tourist destination for full-moon parties or honeymoon resorts, and that’s just not my style. But, as I was just an hour flight away, I knew I had to see it for myself to hopefully prove me wrong. I knew there was so much more to this country than what I was thinking, or so I hoped.

However, when I arrived in Krabi, I was greeted with everything I hated: loud Westerners with no regard for a new culture, already drunk, with 2+ massive checked bags a piece, and looking for the closest party. Major eye roll. Yea I know, if you’re reading this and you’ve been to the south of Thailand, you’ll say “Obviously Paige, what did you expect?” But I had hoped it wouldn’t be as bad as I’ve heard. Man, was I wrong.

Now listen. If you are looking to party with a bunch of fellow white, English-speaking people in gorgeous places, by all means, visit the Thai islands. But what I noticed was that the culture I fell in love with was missing from the second I landed (It also might’ve not helped that I almost didn’t land. Long story short, we hit a really bad storm; lightning hit the wing; we tried to make an emergency landing; the wind was too strong and right before we landed, the pilot had to go full-throttle straight up to avoid crashing; one of the flight attendants was crying; and I was ready to leave Thailand before I even actually got there. But I’m alive, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice).

Ok ok I’m done bashing the islands because I’m being cynical and totally didn’t hate them that much. I had a really good time to be honest. But there is one thing I realized about myself when hopping from island to island:

I am absolutely not a backpacker.

backpacker

Yes, I’m traveling with two backpacks and may look like one. But for the first time, I really was forced to spend time with the “backpacker” type. You know, the one that hasn’t showered for two days, isn’t wearing shoes, already has a beer (or two) in hand, and somehow manages to talk about the number of countries they’ve ever been to and how they’re “like sooo powerful man.”

I’ve learned a ton of patience while traveling. And I’ve learned that I have zero patience while traveling. Years ago, the backpacker term was truly that: stuffing your life in a bag and exploring a country as it was meant to be seen, leaving nothing behind. I don’t know if I’m just old now that I’m thirty but holy shit is this not the case anymore. These “backpackers” as they refer to themselves might travel with a backpack but they leave trash everywhere, they refuse to learn the local language, they get absolutely pissed drunk, are the loudest in the hostel, and expect everyone to love them.

But I’ve realized that while all of my belongings fit in two backpacks, I will never call myself a backpacker. While I haven’t showered in two days, it’s because I have been so busy hiking or exploring the city I’m in that I crash right when my head hits the pillow on my hostel bed. While I may not get the pronunciation correct, I’ll do my best to only speak the local tongue when I can. While I may like to have a few beers, I know my limit and know that I’m not in my own country and need to show respect (and know my way back to the hostel without stumbling around).

So if you are a “backpacker,” please be more self-aware. Please learn to respect a culture and blend in, not stand out (in a rather embarrassing way). And for god’s sake, it’s a 45-minute boat ride from island to island. I promise you, you don’t need to slam 10 beers before you get to the next stop.

On that note, I’m grabbing my two backpacks and softly saying “thank you” and “I’m sorry” in Thai behind every one of these “backpackers” to show not all of us are like that. I promise.