Translator’s note: This is a different kind of new year story. Every year, Buddhist New Year is observed from 13-15 April. People tend to spend the holiday with their family and friends. One part of the holiday involves “playing water,” which means to throw water and flour on friends and community members in a joyful and playful fashion. In this essay, Noom Rednon reflects on the four Songkrans between 2010 and 2013 he spent behind bars. “Playing water” takes on a new meaning behind bars. His detailed account of Songkran inside the prison is a valuable, and harrowing, record of prison life.
Songkran Day is an important day for all Thais, including me. On Songkran, Thais happily splash and play water with the people we love. For me, every year, Songkran was a day that I spent with my son. We splashed water together and rode a motorcycle around the neighborhood where we used to live in Trai Noi district of Nonthaburi province.
The last Songkran before I was arrested and put in prison was in 2009. I was without joy in playing water during that Songkran. There was a dispersal of red shirt protestors at Government House and, for certain, many of my friends in “Red Non” [red shirt residents of Nonthaburi —trans.] were present during the dispersal.
That year, I had to perform my fatherly duty and take my son around the neighborhood to play water for Songkran the same as every year. But damn, I did not feel any happiness at all. My son noticed that something was off and asked, “Why aren’t you happy?” I answered my son, and said yes, you are right. I told him, “Many of my friends are in the demonstration, and I am worried that my friends are not safe.” This was how I felt about the “Bloody Songkran” of 2009, a Songkran I will always remember.
Who knew that this would be the last Songkran the two of us shared?
On 2 April 2010, I was arrested and placed in the Bangkok Remand Prison. At that time, the atmosphere inside the prison was lively and the scent of the Songkran festival was in the air. Prisoners who had been inside for a long time and had already adapted were happy that they would be able to celebrate Songkran. I myself did not know how I could feel happy at all. All I could think about then was being granted bail and released. All I could think about was going to be with my son. No one had come to visit me. No one had bought clothes for me and I only had one set of clothes. It was lucky that I met Ajarn Kethong, who took care of me during that time.
Waiting to be bailed out made the time on the calendar pass too quickly and all of a sudden it was my first Songkran behind bars. Really, can you believe it? If you ask people in the prison, there is likely no one who will answer that they like celebrating Songkran in prison. They do not like it because it is a long holiday. Not only Songkran, but other holidays — people in the prison do not want them to arrive.
Why? On holidays, prisoners cannot receive visitors and relatives who come to see them. What kind of happiness is there in seeing all of the usual people in prison? What kind of happiness is there in a life that revolves inside the four walls of the prison only?
Before Songkran arrives, there is a long series of holidays, such as the new year. The prison has regulations about carrying out raids of the sleeping cells, searching the lockers and various other areas in the prison zones. They do so in order to search for prohibited items, especially materials that could be used as weapons such as stainless steel spoons and spikes. They seized these as a protection against quarrels and fights during the long holiday periods. Yet even though they carried out inspections, there were fights every year, some serious and some not so serious. This was the status quo.
Every year, on the morning of the first day of Songkran, the large Buddha statues from each zone were carried to the center of the sports field. Then, monks came inside the prison so that prisoners could offer the dry food we had as alms to them. Before Songkran, prisoners who were charitable and Buddhists prepared things to give as alms, mainly Mama noodles, canned fish, Lactasoy brand soymilk, etc.
Before paying respect to the flag at 8 am, the prison allowed the monks to walk inside to receive alms from prisoners in each zone. At first, I thought this was exciting, because we were infrequently allowed to set foot outside our zones (sometimes we would feign ignorance and secretly go to meet our friends in different zones). Usually, one could not walk through and out the door of one's zone.
When the offering of alms was complete, the prisoners lined up in front of the flagpole. Then a representative monk came and poured water and blessed us. Over the loudspeaker, a prayer was spoken. During the prayer, the war of “liquid bags” among the zones began intermittently. That is to say, the war of plastic bags filled with liquid. Prisoners found bags in trashcans, added liquid, and bound them with rubber bands. These were thrown from one zone to another, accompanied with shouting and enjoyment. But let me say that this was not enjoyable in the sense that you would think it would be. Not at all. This is because we had no way of knowing what was in the liquid being tossed in the bags. If it was plain water, then one was lucky. Sometimes what would be thrown would be red-colored water (you had to put capital into it), fish sauce, or urine or rotten food. No one stopped it. If it landed on one's head, one was unlucky. At this time, no one could be stopped. Once paying respect to the flag was complete, this was the signal that “Songkran Day in the Prison” had officially begun.
Like I said, professional prisoners, those who have been with the prison for a long time and were frequently in and out of prison, treated Songkran as a day to enjoy. But for new prisoners, such as myself, we felt no happiness at all, truly. I chose to secretly go to the cafeteria in order to avoid having liquid poured on me. On the long holidays, the prison released the prisoners to freely do what they wanted. Some zones had internal sports competitions. It was fun and merry. Some set up a band and sang, or played bamboo, or drummed together happily. But to me, it was all noise. Wherever I walked, all I could hear was singing and the sound of pails being hit. It was completely deafening.
In reality, the playing water did not go on for very long in the prison. Think about the conditions. The area is small. No matter how you run to flee, you will collide [with your pursuer]. However you get wet, you will be wet like that. There are no young women on whom to throw flour. There are only kathoey [transgender women —trans.]. If you throw flour on a kathoey, you will run afoul of her partner. But to honest, Songkran Day can be regarded as a day of the kathoey. She will be especially tantalizing [to others]. Many kathoeys are pursued, venerated, flour-ed, and put in the bathing cistern, until some are hurt. But the majority, particularly attractive kathoeys, are likely happy because they are enveloped by men. But for homely kathoeys, they will not only be hit with water on Songkran. Some may be hit with things with which no one wants to be hit. You will come to know what they are hit with in the next lines.
When the splash of water comes, all that arrives with it is wetness. What else is there to play with that will make it more satisfying? That’s it! Trash itself! Especially food trash that is rotten and kept in a bin at the end of the zone to be taken for the pigs to eat (They call it pig food). This is what prisoners play with on Songkran. The truth is that on the morning of the first year, I myself thought that people would only play like this for one year. I thought that it would perhaps only be the experience of some prisoners who were cursed. But I passed four Songkrans in the prison. I can confirm completely that playing Songkran involves playing with trash every year.
Can you imagine? Food trash that is beginning to smell sour, sometimes with mold and sometimes sodden, is thrown and tossed onto people’s heads. What then is their condition? To think about it is utterly hair-raising.. But on that day, it was free-style. Bring it all completely on. Whoever was going to play, played. But for me, it was enough to escape from the trajectory of the bullets.
Nothing much more happened during the morning than I have already explained. Liquid was lobbed back and forth. Prison celebrities were hunted down and dunked in the water cistern (I was only hunted and dunked in my last year when I was in Zone 1, because I was regarded as a celebrity in the prison). People played with flour, played with mold, and the highlight, taking pig food and throwing it on each other. In my heart, I still think that it is lucky that shit was not used. There is a still a semblance of a culture of decency. Ee ee. Even if I only think about it, I will throw up.
At around two, three o’clock, we would get ready to bathe to go into the sleeping cells. At this time, the majority of the people would stop playing because activities still remained. When we went into the sleeping cells, this was the period of greatest suffering for me. On that day, the officials who searched the prisoners before they went into the sleeping cells were especially strict. They would not allow anyone to bring plastic bags into the sleeping cells because they could be used to make a loud sound. Everyone then had to carry their food and snacks up without using plastic bags. Even though plastic bags were forbidden, no matter, this did not stop the big “music festival” once we were in the sleeping cells.
The concert stage in each sleeping cell began immediately once the inspection and counting in each cell was complete. Then the “lock down” happened. God help us. Whatever voice one had, he would use it fully. People rapped on bottles. People beat on mattresses. People beat on buckets. There was no consideration for anyone else. You could say it was a competition. No need for anyone to try to watch a television drama, because the sound could not be heard at all. Even to hold a conversation, you could barely hear anything. The sound was clamorous. Noisy. The singing, making music, and dancing of the prisoners would continue until around midnight. Then it would stop. Perhaps it stopped because people were tired. Or perhaps they sang until there were no more songs to sing. Think about it, from four o’clock in the afternoon until midnight, they sang a whole lot, sang over and over again. They made music until they were exhausted.
Songkran, the new year, is a festival of true liberation of the tension of the prisoners. Usually, if anyone made a loud noise like this, he would definitely be punished. Loud noises are against the rules of the prison. The only exceptions are long holidays like Songkran.
The next morning, on the second day of Songkran, everything proceeds as it did on the first day of the festival. There is the throwing of liquid bags and playing with pig food. There is singing and making music. Songkran is three days in length. The days revolved like this. If one was bored, one could not get bored. There was no one to complain to that we wanted to dwell in quiet, so we had to tolerate it, and have the boring Songkran days pass as quickly as possible.
Songkran Day is also regarded as the Big Cleaning Day in prison. Typically, the different parts of the prison are not fully cleaned. Songkran causes the majority of the floors to be covered in liquid from the play of the prisoners. Therefore, on the evening of the final day of the Songkran festival, the warders will order the prisoners in each work unit to do a big clean. They say that every year there is one big clean, on Songkran Day.
I believe none of the “people of the prison” wish to celebrate Songkran behind bars. It is not fun. Many people put up with it to make it fun and have happiness, because it cannot be avoided. But I believe that the majority of people miss playing Songkran with the people outside. I myself thought about the people outside too during that time: “Who will my little monkey play with?”
Happy Songkran Day, everyone ^^
Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.