It's one of the most difficult decisions imaginable: Should you protect your crotch or the bowl of pad Thai in your hands? It was a really good pad Thai, so I just shrugged and kept walking as four trigger-happy diners aimed their super soakers at my nether regions. I regret nothing.
The food tables are right within firing range inside Toronto's northern Thai restaurant Pai, which this evening is celebrating the beginning of Songkran. The Thai New Year festival runs from April 13 to 15, though with any holiday that involves food, booze, and storewide discounts, it's not uncommon to see celebrations start prematurely on the 11th and stretch to the 20th.
Songkran is also known as the Water Festival as its main celebrations involve cleansing oneself of sins and bad luck from the previous year. In Thailand, monks and elders would gracefully and quietly rinse their hands and face with cool, fresh water at the temple. But considering April is one of the hottest months in Southeast Asia, the holiday has turned into a nationwide wet T-shirt contest as everyone pours on to the streets with water guns and buckets. No one is spared. (Sorry, people of California.)
But here in Toronto, or Canada for that matter, the holiday is much less celebrated, despite our affinity for pad Thai and green curries. The latest census shows that there are just over 2,000 people who identify as Thai living in Toronto, about a fifth of Canada's total Thai population. Here's a bit of trivia: The most famous Canadian-Thai is David Usher, frontman of the mid-90s alternative rock band Moist, and is currently making the rounds as a motivational speaker and creativity guru.
Of course, Songkran's lack of popularity in Canada isn't helped by the fact that, unlike Thailand, even the warmest of Canadian cities are just starting to emerge from the winter thaw. This is the first week when daytime temperatures in Toronto hovered above 10 C (50 F). But Pai's owners, chef Nuit Regular and her husband Jeff, have made the best of the situation by holding Songkran inside their restaurant.
"We want to be connected and be part of the culture and blessing," says Nuit, a former nurse who moved here from Thailand nine years ago after marrying a backpacking Jeff. "We don't have a big community here, but people still go to temple in Niagara Falls or [the suburb of] Richmond Hill. Thai people from different restaurants also come here to celebrate; there are no barriers tonight."
On one side of the dining room are tables piled high with more than a dozen Thai and Laotian dishes: papaya salad, grilled sausages, shrimp chips, wingbean salad, noodle and pork salad, fried rice, kao soi, and a few versions of pad Thai. "I made a special green jackfruit curry tonight," says Nuit. "The people in the Northern part believe that it's good luck to eat it for the New Year. Yesterday when I was cutting the jackfruit, I started to cry because it just reminded me of home."
On the other side of the room is the bar, a 15-foot gauntlet where bartenders armed with super-soakers and buckets of water are ready to cleanse the living daylights out of anyone that passes by. Nuit and Jeff's daughter patrolled that bar, clutching a super-soaker with an intensity akin to Linda Hamilton about to blow apart the T-1000. As soon as diners entered the main doors, aggressively festive shouts of "Happy New Year" and streams of cold water drenched them from head to toe. The ten seconds it took to refill my restaurant-issued water gun at the ends of the bar were excruciating. It was where I got to involuntarily live out my fantasy of being a football coach showered with gallons of Gatorade after winning the Super Bowl.
Strangers became allies, friends became enemies. Water-filled cups and glasses were being used to splash each other, like one big Real Housewives confrontation dinner. On more than one occasion I became a human shield for people carrying plates of food, trying to make their way to the private dining room that acted as the no-splash zone. It was where you'd find most of the middle-aged diners who were having none of this, and just wanted to be with their beef kao soi—and layers of bad juju accumulated over the last year.
The restaurant started to empty out by 9 PM. This was partly because parents had to get their kids ready for school the next day, but mostly it was because everyone realized temperatures had dropped a solid ten degrees since the evening began three hours ago. I changed into a dry shirt I packed with me and walked to the subway for an hour-long, shivering ride in my soaked jeans. The first thing I did when I got home: another watery cleanse in the form of a hot shower.