In a couple of weeks, many foreigners will try to get out of Thailand temporarily in order to escape what most have come to see as an ordeal: the Songkran Festival, a.k.a. the Thai New Year or the Water Festival. If you don’t have any clue what Songkran is about, you can find more information about the festival itself and the way people celebrate it in one of last year’s columns (Water Wars, May 2006).
Songkran officially lasts for three days, from April 13 (Friday) to April 15 (Sunday), although many people start celebrating early and finish late. If throwing water and being doused several times a day is not your cup of tea, it might be a good idea to flee Thailand for a week or so. Here are some ideas on where to go.
First and most obvious, you could do as I will be doing this year, which is going on a long overdue family visit back home. Actually, I don’t consider the Old Continent home anymore, but just an expensive holiday destination. Staying with family and friends will thankfully lessen the damage the price of an airline ticket will do to my budget.
Less expensive alternatives are available as well of course. Unfortunately, most neighbouring countries are also into the water hysteria. Laos has its own Phi Mai, Cambodia its Chaul Chnam and Myanmar its Thingyan festival. These are all festivals similar to the Thai Songkran festival, so these places are to be avoided if escaping from water madness is your goal.
To the South of Thailand lies Malaysia. The nearest interesting destination is probably the island of Penang, with its historical Georgetown and Penang Hill as main attractions. There are some beaches and worthwhile temples to visit as well. One could definitely stay here for a few days without getting bored. Air Asia flies daily to Penang and fares are low. Another nearby possibility is Langkawi, a sizable island with sandy beaches where one can forget all the water misery. I haven’t been to Kuala Lumpur myself, but I guess it’s a safe bet if you’re into city trips and shopping. Singapore is probably a good alternative as well.
Moving just a little bit further from Thailand are Vietnam and Indonesia. Although Vietnam as a whole is a bit too crowded to my liking, I really enjoyed a three-day tour in the Mekong delta a few years ago. Just go to any travel agent in the backpacker quarter of Ho Chi Minh City to book this interesting tour for a ridiculously low price (I remember paying 25 US dollars for 3 days a few years back). If you’re into history, Hanoi provides some nice monuments and museums such as Uncle Ho’s mausoleum as well as the possibility to try out a dog restaurant (i.e. not a place where you take Fido to lunch, but a place where you have Fido for lunch). If you fly to Hanoi, you could go on a daytrip to the Perfume Pagoda (temple on a hill among beautiful karst scenery) or a two-day trip to Halong Bay. The latter is a wonderful experience, although I got a bit annoyed by all the floating rubbish when I was there. Better visit it before it’s completely destroyed.
If you’d like to visit the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, going to Bali is the most popular destination. Many visitors seem to like it, although I think it’s nothing more than a tourist trap. Sumatra would be my first choice, with relaxing towns such as Bukit Lawang (meet the orangutans up close at the rehabilitation centre), Tuktuk on the island of Samosir (in the middle of Lake Toba) or Bukittinggi (nice scenery and worthwhile daytrips) as the main draws. Alcoholics needn’t worry; local Bintang beer is readily available and fairly priced. Sumatra can be reached by ferry from Penang (Georgetown to Medan) or air (fly to Medan or Padang).
Other Asian getaways include China and the Philippines. There are different possibilities when going to China. Keep in mind that a visit to China doesn’t necessarily have to include megacities like Beijing or Shanghai. The South-West of the country has a lot to offer as well. Unfortunately, the province of Yunnan is to be avoided as locals are into water throwing as well.
I have personally never set foot in the Philippines, but I’ll definitely go there one day. Although the country seems to have a lot to offer, I have the distinct impression that the local flesh trade in particular still draws quite a number of tourists. Don’t be surprised if you bump into your Pattaya or Bangkok drinking buddy while visiting.
Japan and South Korea are other possible destinations, albeit much more expensive ones than all of the aforementioned places. They’re still on my wish list as well.
By the way, if you’d like to visit a Western country, why not visit Australia? Sydney, Melbourne, Alice Springs (Ayers Rock), Cairns (Great Barrier Reef) are all great places with lots of things to see and do. Unfortunately, having a good time there will cost an arm and a leg compared to the average Asian getaway.
The list of getaways is endless, so I’ll stop here. I think I covered the most obvious choices, although there are many more. Egypt is fantastic, yet quite affordable, for example. India is a vast countries with lots of possibilities. By the way, if you’re stuck in Thailand but still want to escape five days of water misery, going to Hua Hin might be what you need. The people there seem to get their Songkran celebrations over with in just a day (for more information on Hua Hin, read my August 2006 column).
I hope I gave all of you readers some inspiration on where to go if staying in Thailand during Songkran has become too much for you. More practical information is available on the Internet. I’m not a travel agent, so I didn’t provide timetables or prices in this column as these change all too often. Just remember that regional travel is usually convenient and fairly cheap thanks to budget airlines, although fares can go up a bit during the high season. Book as far in advance as you can. Alternatively, some of the discussed destinations can also be reached overland. Have fun.