“This way looks pretty safe,” I say, marching ahead around the corner and straight into the trap: six, maybe seven Thai teenagers, eyes full of malice, fingers already on the triggers of their pistols.
I freeze. Behind me, my companions are backing away, about to take their chances ducking through heavy Bangkok traffic, but there’s no way I can outrun our assailants. There’s too many of them, they’ve got me cornered, and I’m wearing badly thought-out footwear. Few farang* are out in this part of the city tonight, and a pale-skinned blonde that’s fresh off the plane is a prime target.
One girl sniggers.
“Ah, come on,” I plead. “I’m not even armed!”
They edge closer.
My heart’s pumping pure adrenaline.
We stare each other out, one by one. All that’s missing now are a couple of cowboy hats and a Morricone soundtrack.
And then, with what is intended as a war cry but comes out as an embarrassingly girly squeal, I hurtle through the middle of the semi-circle, teenagers cackling with glee as they fire after me with their water guns and soak me with buckets of ice. As I trip, drenched, to the end of the soi, a tiny old man potters up to me and smears both my cheeks with white clay.
It’s my first night in Bangkok and I’ve landed in the final hours of Songkran, the water festival, or Thai New Year. Traditionally a Buddhist holiday in which people symbolically wash away the sins of the year before, in more recent years the festival has evolved into a country-wide waterfight and giant street party, with music playing and people dancing at every turn, kids running wild with water guns and even serene looking grannies sneaking up on unsuspecting tuktuk drivers with fire hoses.
When we stop for a bowl of fiery fish-ball soup from a street vendor, a whole family across the street – three generations of it, as far as I can tell – have shut up shop for the night and are dancing like maniacs to Rihanna songs, bumping and grinding against a lamppost and whooping at taxis that beep at them as they pass. When I pop across to ask directions to the nearest beer shop, a clay-caked middle-aged woman in hot pants jumps up mid slut-drop to point me breathlessly in the way of a 7-11 before, rather incongruously, putting her hands together in a traditional Thai bow.
It’s nuts, it’s exhilarating, and I’m thrilled to have caught the tail of it before the freshly washed streets return to business-as-usual early tomorrow morning. The city sweepers are already lining up, and in a few hours there will be no trace of the chaos at all.
By the time my dorm-mates and I head home in the early hours, well-nourished on street food and Chang beer, I’m so thoroughly soaked that my make-up has washed clean off, my cigarettes have disintegrated in my pocket and I feel very much ready to make a clean start to my own New Year.
Until, that is, we get back to the hostel, where two men are seated at the tables outside, nursing beers in haunted silence.
“Are you alright?” I say, flopping into the next seat with a squelch.
“Not really,” says the first boy, a fellow Londoner. “I went to a Ping-Pong show.”
“It was just… really upsetting. And we were the only ones in the audience, so after every act, we’re just sitting there in silence, awkwardly clapping on our own. And then at the end, I gave the girl a load of extra money because I felt so awful about it all and she seemed really annoyed with me. I don’t think I gave her enough. And then I felt even worse.”
“Oh,” I say, a bit deflated.
“It was just horrible,” agrees his German friend.
Another man from the hostel, a Dutch guy, emerges with a beer in hand and hovers nearby, brooding into the road.
“You went to the Ping-Pong show too, right?” asks my dorm-mate.
“I’m really traumatised,” he nods, looking genuinely bewildered. “And to make it even worse, because we were the only ones there, all the ping-pong balls are flying at us, and I’m trying to bat them away, but one went in my drink. Right in my whisky! I’d just bought it! I was like, oh, man! Not the whisky!”
“Oh well,” I say. “Shall we get another round?”
Eight Thai whiskies, a bottle of rum, a bottle of tequila and many drunken stories later, we call it a night and I crawl into my bed in the spinning darkness and blink at my phone: 5.30am.
Hmm, I think to myself. I guess the “clean start” starts tomorrow.