With a certain degree of terror, I went there yesterday to see how my bookselling friend Victor (http://www.orchidbooks.com) was holding up with Songkran raging all around him. The subway I took was crowded with teenagers brandishing multi-colored water-fueled AK-47s, all headed to the same spot that I was. What they were wearing was barely tolerated on the beach when I first came to Thailand--skimpy shorts and tank tops and flipflops were only worn by my gay male friends in public at the turn of the last century. And even more surprising to me was that these kids weren't wearing their public masks of polite formality; they were goofing around as though they were in their own living rooms--and that to my barbaric American point of view looked great.
When we reached our destination, they headed for the open street while I took refuge in the skybridge walkway that links the subway to the Skytrain and to the shopping center where Victor works. As I peered cautiously over the edge, the only vendors on this sidewalk that is usually thronged with goods of all kinds were selling bottles of water and bags filled with pellets of compressed powder. The pavement itself was invisible, covered with moving bodies that were daubed with chalky powder that had been mixed with water to the consistency of whitewash.
The sounds of disco music pulsed through the crowd, and on the street in front of Burger King, was Soi 2 in broad daylight. In the olden days, this gay male enclave was a night world, even during Songkran--it didn't wake up until around 10 pm and nobody I knew went there much earlier than midnight. Its music and craziness and Songkran water warriors, who were more vicious than any I'd ever seen amywhere else in the city, all were concentrated in this short little alleyway, and its companion neighborhood of Soi 4. I often thought that was a shame because the life and color of this neighborhood could do a lot to liven up the rest of the city. And now it was.
As I watched, I realized that where the disco music played was where the heart of the Silom activity was going on--dancing, battling, flirting was all happening right there, like a mini-Mardi Gras--an integrated, uninhibited, full-tilt party. The teenagers moved through and beyond the noise and the funk and the warfare, slowly in an almost ritualistic procession, reaching out to smear each other's faces and bodies with paste, shooting and splashing and hurling water as they walked in an almost orderly fashion.
There had to have been thousands of them filing along this long main street where last year tires burned and people died. For the three days of Songkran, Silom was theirs. From all over Bangkok, these kids put on their most informal clothing and grabbed their water guns and shut down the heart of the city. Their numbers allowed Soi 4 to come out into daylight and be crazy, caused stores to shut down, and covered the street with a chalky, egg-shell, powdered finish.
This particular Songkran scene is light-years from the one I experienced two days ago on the canals. The teenagers I saw on Silom are almost a different species from the students I used to teach who seemed frozen into formality by a rigid code of etiquette. Thai culture is being transformed and transmogrified and where that will take the country is anybody's guess.
More than anywhere I have ever lived, Thailand is held together by family. The glue is that particular unit--starting from the very top, with the King's birthday celebrated as Father's Day. The grouping I saw yesterday was a unit I never saw before here--thousands of teenagers on the loose, taking a tradition and turning it inside out. These are the people who are going to determine the future of this country; they are going to change it.
I'm old enough to recognize and salute their energy, while also feeling very sad for what is being lost. And as I peered down into the disco inferno in front of Burger King, I was grateful for the privilege of being removed from all of that by the gift of age.
Victor, I discovered, had stayed home.