Ben van Wijnen
SPLASH UP: Drenching each other with buckets of water symbolises the cleaning of sins
and the washing away of all misfortunes.
PETALING JAYA: A CAUCASIAN youth dressed in a brightly coloured Hawaiian shirt and matching Bermuda shorts was walking into the Thai Buddhist Chetawan temple when a man suddenly ran up to him and poured a bucket of water all over him.
Startled, the unwary tourist shivered as the cold water drenched him thoroughly.
Onlookers laughed and cheered as the man was taken aback by the sudden unprovoked, water-based "attack".
Bill Rodderick, 30, from the United States, who was on vacation, said that locals had told him to visit the temple on April 14 to soak up the atmosphere of some big festival.
Not knowing what it was, Rodderick realised too late that the Songkran Water Festival was an annual celebration where Buddhists would bless one another with "water" to usher in the traditional Thai new year.
The drenching with water symbolises the cleansing away of sins and the washing away of misfortunes.
"My Malaysian friend, Peter, loves to play pranks and he didn't warn me about the high possibility of being drenched today. All he told me was that I was going to be in for a surprise. Well, I'm surprised all right.
"Now I understand that this is part of the tradition to "bless" the devotees of this temple with good fortune, luck and prosperity by splashing water on one another. I'm having a fabulous time even though I'm thoroughly soaked," he said.
The fun water festival kicked off early in the morning on Sunday with a series of prayers. Then, it was time to get wet and wild as hordes of devotees took over the temple grounds with "guns".
The "firearms" included water toy pistols and water cannons which were used with maximum effect.
The streets in front of the temple as well as the main road was chock-a-block with traffic and those who wanted to park creatively, as Malaysians call them.
People parked anywhere they could find an inch of space.
There was a carnival-like atmosphere as enterprising devotees set up stalls all along the street outside the temple's main gates, selling everything from Thai food, water guns and DVDs, right down to ice-cold Thai beer.
A "war" broke out in the vast open space outside the prayer halls.
It saw different groups of people embroiled in "battle", shouting and yelling with fun and gusto.
The armies shot at one another hitting and running while innocent "civilians" like me and other unsuspecting tourists were caught in the crossfire and had to take cover.
We were considered collateral damage.
Being a reporter on the field certainly didn't provide me with the luxury of a reprieve from being "shot" at by war-mongering "snipers" and "soldiers" with water guns and I had to worry about my digital tape recorder getting hit by the water as I ran and made my way through the "war zone".
I must admit that I had the time of my life at the event even though I was on official duty.
In fact, I had so much fun even though I was repeatedly hit by devotees with water guns that I said to myself that I had to come back next year to join in the fun and this time I would bring a Nerf brand water gun to exact revenge.
And certainly the next time around I would make sure I'm not dressed in office attire.
"The Songkran Festival is one of the biggest and most anticipated annual festivals in Thailand. The activity most associated with it is drenching people with water.
"It symbolises the cleansing of sins and washing away of misfortunes while ushering in the new year with an abundance of blessings and good fortune," said the temple's Rev Panyapipo Woon, 40.
The temple is in Jalan Pantai, off Jalan Gasing.
Everyone was in a good mood. Coordinators of a student trip to the temple, Tong Chun Cheuh, 30, and Aliphian Johansah 26, said that about 40 Thai students who were on a student exchange programme with Erican College had a whale of a time.
Kenny Chan, 29, a familiar face for journalists as he works for Sin Chew Daily's marketing division, was one of the devotees at the festival.
"I came here with my friends David Yap, 28, and Amy Siew, 30, and we're all having a fabulous time," he said.
John Lark, 71, and his daughter Natasha, 30, and granddaughter Mila, 11, were among the tourists in the crowd who were clearly having a fantastic time.
The boom of loud Thai music turned our attention to devotees in a mosh pit who were dancing and moving along to the beat of live music from a band on stage. Judging from the enthusiastic "rock concert" like setting, the crowd was clearly enjoying the music.
A kind-hearted musician who realised we could not understand a word of the Thai lyrics handed us a song sheet and we learned that some of the following songs were played: Medley Asanee Wasan, Rak Tho Ra Hod, King Ka Thong, Sau Lan Na, Wanipark and Mah Deun Kaw.
Food and drinks were also on sale that day ranging from alcoholic beverages such as Singha beer and Spy Wine Coolers to soft drinks such as Coca-cola and Thai delicacies.