The Songkran Dilema – Chiang Mai and Thai Visa Extension

The Songkran Dilema – Chiang Mai and Thai Visa Extension

This time last year I was finishing up my first month in Thailand. Livi (my sister) and I had been adamant that we would spend just a few days in Thailand, only because Bangkok was so easy to fly into and we could head straight for Laos, not wanting to debase the purity of our trip with the iniquities synonymous with the country. Like with most assumptions we made beforehand though (that the trip would be sober, celibate and we would have no need for ‘nice’ clothes) we were totally wrong, less than a week in and we had both fallen head over heals in love with the tropical Eden of Koh Tao.

Despite daily prompts to move on to a new place from our mum back home we spent the best part of our initial month living the high life on that little island like the rest of the world didnt exist. The trip North would take three days, stopping in Bangkok, then Sukothai and finally Chiangmai where we would catch the slow boat into Laos, we gave an extra three days to explore Chiangmai before we left. All of this we had booked in advance as Songkran was fast approaching and with Chiangmai the origin of the watery festivities the city becomes packed, but they sure know how to celebrate!

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Songkran is a four day holiday up north, away from the islands where water conservation is ironically higher on the agenda despite being surrounded by the stuff. The city takes to the streets, in utes brimming with water in leak-proofed boots, with bins full of ice cubes accessible out the front of all shops and bars and families from 80 year old grandparents to 4 year old kids stationed outside every home with water guns at the ready. I’ve never in my life been surrounded by so much joy and lust for life.

We thought we would arrive a day early, to save our bags being soaked on the way to the hostel, but it turned out we’d miss-planned and the roads into the city were already cut off for the most part and inside our open backed tuk-tuk we were sitting ducks. Two lovely Japanese boys who had echoed our journey from Bangkok to Chang Mai with a stop at Sukothai, taking all the same buses as us, helped us to get our bearings in the city and cover our bags to keep most of the water out. This was their third Songkran in the city. With the little English they spoke they guided us to our hostel, just within the city walls and left me and my sister each with a lucky 5 yen ‘friendship’ coin, conveniently with a hole through the centre so I could add it to my bracelet.

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Most people saw our bags and let us escape to safety unscathed. However, living up to their reputation as ‘Brits Abroad’, a group of British men in their early 20’s who said they’d let us pass after I explained I had an expensive and unprotected camera, then threw a bucket of water on my camera bag at point blank range. Somehow it was undamaged. The hostel was unphased by our bedraggled, wet rat look when we arrived, they themselves being almost as wet as us and showed us to a non-aircon, 4 bed dorm. Our damp clothes turned out to be a survival line in the swealtering box of a room as droplets of water escaped the fabric, taking some of our bodily heat with them in the fans breeze. From then on, in any non-aircon hostels I slept with some form of water by the bed that I could sprinkle onto myself, in hope of relief long enough to fall asleep. We took this one step further in Sukothai, when our room was 43 degrees C at 2 in the morning and I genuinely thought Livi might die; plunging into the cold shower fully clothed and then leaping straight into bed, star fishing to keep prickly limbs away from each other and begging the sandman to sprinkle some of his dust our way as we rapidly soaked the springy mattresses. By the by, that was the cheapest room I ever stayed in, just £2 a night for a double, private room!

Equip yourself with water pistols and a waterproof phone case (both readily available and plentiful on the streets) and take to the streets. Or settle in a roadside bar with access to an icy bin of water to ambush passers by. But be prepared to be totally soaked, makeup is futile and there is no point in doing your hair, you may as well be dunked in a swimming pool. Some people take the watery onslaught a step further and attack with a chalky, water based paint which didn’t stain any of my clothes, but because of this I wouldn’t advise wearing anything treasured. And stay away from the city moats if you have sensitive skin, the water dredged from them is stagnant and stinking, I did not want it anywhere near me!

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Throughout the festival the northern wall of the city (Manee Nopparat Road) is festooned with big stages of live music with quirky Thai men babbling away backed by an assortment of female dancers in outfits not always entirely appropriate for the family orientated festivities. Even on foot it is painfully slow to get around on this road, it’s a clamouring assault of noise and most of the water thrown on you is from the moat so after one visit I steered clear for the rest of the festival. Leaving the city from Tha Phae Gate onto bar lined Tha Phae Road finds visibly (if not actually) cleaner water, requires less traffic dodging and has easier access to Chang. Like most Backpackers, I preferred this area and as a result found a fair few new friends to cavort through the day with. If you follow Tha Phae Road for about 15 minutes away from the city you will also find the night market where there are the usual stalls of tat, but also a veritable feast of assorted Thai food waiting for you gorge yourself in exchange for relatively few baht compared to inner city eating.

A friend we had met in Koh Tao lived in Chiang Mai and had invited us to join him for a pool party at Deejai Backpackers. The pool was already packed by the time we arrived and looked far from clean with multiple plastic cups floating in it and people in various states of dress and varying stages of making out. I scored a lucky Chang (the alcohol % isn’t regulated so every now and again you get a high % one; a Lucky Chang) and it didn’t take long until we were drunk enough not to care about the state of the salty water and dived in. A thick bamboo pole stretched the length of the pool and as everyone became more intoxicated, attempts to cross it as a tightrope became more and more pathetic until the boxing gloves were drawn out and it became a platform for people to straddle and bash each other from. Jeering and water throwing ensued from the partly submerged audience. I’m proud to claim I made it the whole way across the pole before we left in search of somewhere that would feed us in our drenched state.

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It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of things will be closed for the entirety of Songkran, including pharmacies and the immigration offices. This turned out to be a real issue for Livi and I as the longer we were away from Koch Tao, the more we craved our island comforts and despaired at leaving Thailand after so little time there. We rashly cancelled our slow boat tickets into Laos for the last day of Songkran without considering that the three days left on our visas were not enough to last us through the end of Songkran and the adjacent weekend until the immigration offices were open again. We considered visa runs but these would only give us an additional 15 days by land, and flights out and back in were too expensive, overstaying our visa could mean being fined or blacklisted (in reality you have to seriously overstay for this). Not ideal when Bangkok would be a stop atleast 6 times during my 7 months traveling as a stop off between various flights and boarder crossings.

Two nights were spent damp and sleepless from the days water fighting and the stress of the decision whether to overstay or leave as initially planned. The ending of Songkran was vaguely spoilt by this decision niggling at the back of my mind constantly. We were addicted to island life so in the end the decision was easy; over stay and risk the consequences. The embassy had been closed from Tuesday to Friday for Songkran then Saturday and Sunday for the normal weekend closure; Thailand has a lot of holidays for which the immigration offices close so if you’re wanting to extend your visa make sure you take these into consideration. 550 Baht bought us seats on the Saturday night second class bus and 10 hours later we opened our eyes in Bangkok. The Sunday passed in a frantic mess of activity sewing up the huge rip in my only skirt suitable for giving off a respectable impression at the embassy and obtaining visa photos and photocopies of every official document we could think of.

The immigration office is open from 8.30am-12 then 1pm-4.30pm Monday to Friday but by 8.30am we had heard the queue would be pretty long so we opted to arrive at 6.30am. A smart move as by 8.30 we were third in line of a queue that would probably take 4 hours to get through! We allowed an hour and around 250 baht for the taxi to get us to the offices and had strictly abided to the policy of no flip flops, shorts, strappy tshirts or cleavage; opting for as demure a look as possible. As we had brought with us pre-filled in application forms, we were ushered straight through into the application room whilst others wasted precious time filling in their details. After a short interview and the handing over of our passports and 1,900 baht each we acquired a big extension stamp in our passports and were ushered out with 30 more days in country, in the generous spirit of Songkran no one had even questioned our two day overstay!

Before the day was out we were aboard another bus and heading south again to the Neverland of Koh Tao.

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