Chiang Mai, Thailand – Water Kiosks and Songkran

April 2012 – Access to clean water is a topic of conversation in every community across the world but the urgency of the discussion is always more immediate in developing countries. Thailand is rapidly rising on the global spectrum of national development where countries ascend and descend according to their level of  development and progress towards modernity.  Access to clean water is a perfect indicator of Thailand’s mid-level developmental status.

Most homes and buildings in Thailand have direct access to clean water through blue plastic tubing. This water is clean and clear yet most Thai people prefer to drink water that’s specifically purified for drinking. Drinking water is either individually delivered through reusable plastic containers or is obtained by local clean water kiosks that are common sight in Chiang Mai neighborhoods.

These kiosks use reverse osmosis to clean the water and offer 1.5 liters of water for roughly 3 cents. Access to clean drinking water isn’t as simple as turning a faucet, but it isn’t a daunting task either – the kiosks are placed frequently enough that nobody has to journey too far for water. Hitting the road for water brings people onto the street where they have a chance to engage with their community and strengthen neighborhood networks.

This added hurdle, or step toward convenience depending on what side of the development spectrum you are on, makes people more mindful of the water they use because they have to build water into their daily schedule.

In developed nations, we can easily become detached from the process of how our water arrives to us. We often forget that water is precious and sacred and that it took a lot for that liter of clean water to pour out of the faucet. Receiving a water bill every month is rarely enough to remind us how lucky we are to have so much water, so easily, whenever we want. We become detached, oblivious and unappreciative of the privilege we have. I think it’s important in rich nations that we remind ourselves of the importance of water and that we try to keep clean water access and sustainability in our public discourse.

Thai people celebrate the new year in mid-April with a big festival called Songkran. Songkran invites the rainy season after a long stint of dry months, it’s also a time when people return to family, pay respects to their elders and make merit.

Songkran kicks off a three day water fight in the streets of cities across Thailand. Rather than water fight, my students would say ‘play Songkran’ which attests to the friendly intent and playful nature of the water celebration. Dressed to get wet, armed with a water gun and a bucket of white powdered cream, people roam the streets of Chiang Mai looking to ‘play Songkran.’ The majority of the action takes places along the perimeter of the historical city center where a moat provides an endless supply of ammunition. Some people choose to stake out a home base where they have a decent water supply and can soak anyone who passes by. Others choose to go mobile and base out of pickup trucks, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and on foot. The scene is hectic with music blasting, water coming from all directions, people and vehicles packing the streets yet there is still a light and playful feel to the whole event.

At school, we celebrated other aspects of Songkran such as making merit and paying respect to elders. One particular ceremony was quite special. Along with other teachers, I sat facing my students with a desk in front of me and two big bowls of jasmine scented water resting on top. One by one, students would approach my desk, kneel, wai me with hands together and use a decorated cup to take water and pour it over my resting hands. I made a blessing for each student and gently and respectfully wiped my wet hands along their face and hair. I was able to exchange something wonderful with my students, each individually, that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to share with them during day-to-day class routine. It was truly a wonderful experience, the kind of special experience that makes traveling worthwhile.

Whether used for play, for ceremony or for drinking, water is something that nourishes life and should be treated with a sacred honor. By inviting the rainy season, Songkran has become one of Thailand’s most important festivals, and for a deserving reason.

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