Making a splash in steamy Bangkok

IF YOU think Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year feels like an open-air mortuary, you should have been in Bangkok last week for Songkran, the Thai new year. The city emptied from Tuesday night, which I suppose is an unhappy reflection on the city itself. The traffic for 40 kilometres north, east, south and west was described in the local press as 'the mother of all traffic jams'.

Some people took 12 hours to do 60 km. Others spent up to 20 hours in their cars attempting to reach beach resorts or the family village. Even government ministers were entombed for half a day in traffic that moved a metre every five minutes. The result was an utterly deserted city with shutters clamped down; Phnom Penh in 1975 might have felt a little like it.

Out in the provinces and the seaside resorts, hotels that normally gasped for 30 per cent occupancy on a bog standard day were turning people away, which was one reason why I stayed in Bangkok. There was nowhere else to go, or at least nobody else who would have us. I idled away my time in places you would not take your maiden aunt to (they never close) and over lunches in the staggeringly exclusive - and therefore costly - Normandie Grill of the Oriental Hotel.

A brilliantly light restaurant overlooking the Chao Praya River, the impression is one of yellow silk and Louis Seize. The waiters are largely more distinguished than the clientele. That was certainly the case where my party was concerned.

There was one exception to that rule on that deserted Wednesday: I was joined there by the Khunying Malinee Chakrabandhu. A beautiful and unusual minor royal lady in middle age (not that one could tell), she told me in her Marlene Dietrich voice: 'No darling, I am not going out of Bangkok for Songkran. The traffic is too dreadful.' She proved prophetic: the jams outside Bangkok were history making. Trade in urinal bottles at filling stations along the jammed highways was epic.

Back in Bangkok, there was little or no traffic at all. The sun roared down on to parched streets without relief and taxi air-conditioners strained to compete with it and then gave up the unequal struggle. We were, however, not denied one of the more famous features of the Songkran festival: I call it 'water chucking', although I am sure the Thais have a proper name for it.

It features regularly in the pretty picture propaganda that backs up the Thai tourism trade and people who have never set foot in the kingdom are probably well aware that for four days a year, the Thais chuck buckets of water over strangers yet do not expect to get smacked in the face.

What a great wheeze, everyone thinks. My goodness, these Thais are really cool fun-lovers. Isn't it called 'Sanoog', say the foreigners, breaking into indulgent smiles.

Well, keeping cool at this, the hottest time of the year, may give some background to the reason for this bizarre tradition. It does however have considerable drawbacks for those who are not feeling particularly revelsome who come round a corner to meet up with two litres of water all over their suits. This has particular implications for people travelling light, but those on business are not in the position to send entire outfits from knickers to to silk ties to the hotel laundry every evening.

There was a certain visible hysteria to the sight of grown men and women throwing water at passing traffic. Specially attractive to these roisterers was the addition of white or coloured powder to the water buckets. There was barely a taxi in the city that did not look as though it had just driven through a snowstorm.

A friend of mine went to a disco-cum-bar that Wednesday evening. Apart from being drenched with water from the first floor balcony, he had enough beer thrown down the back of his neck to keep the Singha Brewery in business for a week. Even bartenders were literally throwing drinks at the customers.

The main water-chucking culprits are an interesting mix. Pack leaders are young working class men who roar around in the back of pick-up trucks. Their skin is of the slightly wrong texture, their hair faintly dyed and they may have a solitary earring. They shout and scream and beam endlessly but, like Hong Kong triad-based lion dance teams who crash around in the back of lorries scaring domestic animals, they are up to no good.

Even more extraordinary are the women, raucous and under 40, who certainly throw Asian female decorum to the winds. They actually man street corners with huge buckets of water which are dispensed, litre by litre, on to passing traffic by the metal bowl or plastic scoop. Four of them were on guard outside my hotel throughout the holiday. The only way my guest and I avoided a thorough drenching every time we left the establishment was by arrangement with the management who let us use the rear service door.

But the worst water-chuckers are the farang tourists, ever over-keen to identify with local custom and practice, and clearly not at all concerned with hotel laundry bills because most are riff-raff who come only with a pair of shorts and flip flops. They enter into jovial warfare with the lads in the trucks, and the streets are sodden as a result. And so too are the Hong Kong tourists who arrive on the eve of Good Friday and wander in blissful ignorance of what that hose pipe lying quietly on the pavement has in store for them.

Yet even more remarkable than screaming water-chuckers are two Thais who will be welcomed back after their expulsion from Israel. There, as contract workers, they repeatedly climbed the fence of a children's zoo and systematically ate the contents. That was not so much 'cool' as fascinating.