I’m already drenched to the bone when a bucket of ice-cold water is dumped over my head and a water gun-toting marksman scores a direct hit right between my eyes. The wild (and very wet) Songkran party at Bangkok’s legendary Tawandang German Brewery is in full swing and, at least for a few hours, the fun-loving locals here to ring in the Thai New Year have effectively washed their minds clean of the violent protests that had plagued their city for days.
That was nearly a year ago. But while the demands and rhetoric of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship–better known as the “Red Shirts”–may have since changed, their presence will again loom large over Bangkok’s Songkran celebrations. Songkran unofficially starts today and could last through next Sunday: that’s because the “official” April 12 start date falls on a Monday, so most Bangkokians will either get a headstart on their vacation and hit the road this weekend (the city is noticeably quieter due to the exodus), or take to the streets armed with water hoses, water guns, water balloons, mentholated talc, and, of course, cans of Leo beer and bottles of Sangsom whiskey.
Religious observations do remain, but the water fights—which obstensibly represent cleansing and renewal—have become a bigger and bigger part of Songkran over the years. By and large it’s good-natured, sometimes-raucous fun, and locals and tourists alike can expect to get wet at some point.
Red Shirt protestors did not stop any of those annual Songkran rituals last year, but had effectively shut down some parts of the city, notably in the Din Daeng district where soldiers engaged with some protestors after they’d set fire to buses and threatened to do more. I heard sporadic gun pops in the distance from my apartment on Petchaburi Road, above the Platinum Fashion Mall, and from my balcony could see small tire fires at the intersection of Petchaburi and Ratchadamri Roads. Despite being so close to the action, at no point did we ever feel the slightest bit endangered; I suspect this year’s protests present similarly little trouble to anybody who doesn’t go looking for it. This was not and is not an entire city under siege.
Though the Red Shirts were (and are) easily avoidable, we were unsure how much they’d impact Bangkok’s Songkran festivities. In the end, the answer was very little, and hopefully that happens again this time. With Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva recently declaring a state of emergency (protestors are demanding that parliament be dissolved and that new elections are held), there could soon be movement towards a resolution. A clash between the military and the protestors is starting to feel somewhat inevitable (tear gas and water cannons have entered the picture), but let’s hope the use of violence, on both sides, does not further escalate. We’ll see.
Regardless, though, you can bet that like last year, like every year, the Songkran party will go on relatively unmuted in most corners of Bangok, including at Tawandang.
Thailand Meets Germany on Songkran
Located at 462/61 Rama III Road, just a few miles outside the city center, Tawandang is a beer-barrel shaped funhouse and Bangkokian nightlife institution that’s equal parts restaurant, bar, and concert hall. Its army of loyal patrons swear by the suprisingly authentic Thai fare and guzzle house-brewed Bavarian beers from 3-liter tall plastic towers, but the boisterous, over-the-top performances are what keep them coming back and dancing in the aisles late into the night.
Classic tunes such as “Copacabana” and “One Night Only” are highlighted by lavishly costumed dancers whirling through well-choreographed, campy routines. Spirited renditions of traditional and modern Thai hits are rolled out one after the other by a cast of singers and the brewery’s rocking in-house band, Fong Nam, who by midway through the night collectively provoke hundreds in the audience into a smiling, bouncing frenzy, the always-attentive, always-friendly wait staff included.
Tawandang’s festive atmosphere was buzzing even more than usual on that Songkran night last year. Dressed in the brightly colored Hawaiian shirts popular with Thais during the festival, the staff had an extra glint in their eyes as they launched into a coordinated dance procession that wound through the sprawling dining area, past the stage, around the massive golden vats of brewing beer, and out the front door.
For their part, the beer drinkers in attendance seemed to be draining those tableside towers of suds quicker than usual, while the whiskey drinkers were busy pouring glass after glass of Johnnie Walker Red mixed with soda water—the cocktail of choice in Bangkok. Yes, we were all getting quite knackered, a fact which naturally contributed to the audacious water fight that ensued.
Let the Water Battle Begin
I hadn’t noticed anybody toting or even concealing water guns before, but as I took another sip from another glass of frothy Hefeweizen it suddenly seemed like everybody had a water gun—big ones. And buckets. And huge plastic bags. And large plastic cups. If it could hold water, it was fair game.
There’s been much written about wild Songkran waterfights, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this, in a wooden-floored restaurant, no less, with an electric band rocking out just a few feet away. (Not a drop of water hit the stage from what I could tell.)
Everybody was getting in on it: a middle-aged Chinese guy wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat; a wily, senior-aged Thai gentleman with a spray bottle which, judging by the alcoholish smell of the water he shot me in the face with, had been very recently filled with glass cleaner; a table full of twentysomething girls with a seemingly limitless supply of water hidden underneath the table.
We danced and laughed and shouted and, yes, drank for hours. We were soaked. Everybody was soaked. And pretty much everybody was soused. Red Shirts? Protests? What protests? This was Songkran, and that was all that mattered.
Photos © Brian Spencer