Running Guns In Koh Phangan

Brian Spigel

It was nearly noon. I had overslept. That happens when you go to bed at sunrise. I was sweating whiskey under the intense sun as I raced along the dusty jungle roads at an entirely imprudent speed. My surly, tangled mop of rusty red hair lagged behind as I screamed the chorus to “House of the Rising Sun” at the top of my lungs, loud enough to hear it over the strained whine of my poorly tuned motorbike. That bike got angry when I passed 60 kph, which might have been what kept me alive on those curves. But I had to push it. I was late, and I had to get to Thong Sala to buy guns.

I had awoken 10 minutes earlier fully clothed, which is to say that I had on cargo shorts and a shirt that was unbuttoned. My stomach bulged beyond its wiry frame after many days of gluttonous living. I wore a collection of necklaces and leather knickknacks around my wrist that told of the fact I was young and free and at one with my tropical island home. I threw on my aviators and ran out the door to my motorbike, which was parked in front of my bungalow a stone’s throw from the beach. I kicked the pedal down with the gas already floored, which left an arc of gravel and a cloud of dust behind me all the way up the path to the road. I was uneasy that, due to the time, I would show up to the gunfight unarmed.

I had my answer when I reached the first outlying village. It was nothing more than a cluster of houses on the landward side of the road, all of them concrete and whitewashed with bright tile roofs. This was also the first straight stretch of road on the way to Thong Sala, and to the seaward side the trees gave way to an unfettered view of the divinely clear waters of the Gulf of Thailand. For several hundred yards, farang drivers would scarcely glance at the road because of this commanding view of the sea. The locals, well aware of this, had been gathered at the roadside since dawn. I had been warned that to speed past such a group could trigger a predatory response, and that they might take a more savage approach to those who could not hide their desire to flee unscathed. It hardly mattered, I didn’t even notice them until I turned my head away from the sea and saw that I was already upon them. The first shot rang true, I had no time to react.

I was struck in the face from the side, behind the aviators on the verge of my eye. Immediately I was blinded and, in a panic, I applied the brakes and set my feet out to brace for a fall. What came instead was the front of a parked truck, which I was able to recognize through my other blurry, teary eye just in time to pull my limbs into a 10kph cannonball and bounce off the grill with a resounding thud. I landed so flatly on my back that my breath left me in a flood. For a moment my lungs were deflated and life was as silent as the sunken Kursk as I waited for the valves to reverse and the air to return.

With a gently rocking truck eclipsing half my view, a young Thai girl stepped into the other half, smiled, and delivered the coup de grace. 

“You stop motorbike, or big trouble for you,” she said with a wai (the Thai bow, delivered with hands together in a prayer gesture).

My head lay in a pool of red. Some of it was liquid and some a congealed paste that slid from my face and plopped onto the shoulder of the road. All around was the sound of joyous laughter as every passing motorbike would slow to a stop in front of these locals. The drivers, obviously initiated to the rite, would throw their heads back and their arms out and gleefully receive the bucket of water that doused them and the bright powdered dyes that painted their bodies in vivid swaths of color. This was the Songkran Festival, the traditional Thai New Year, when Buddhists of all ages took to the streets to play with water and wash away bad luck. The powdered dyes set on one’s wet skin and oblige you to seek out more cleansing water, thus perpetuating the cycle. I was the first of the day’s casualties in what is surely the Guinness record of water fights.

My body ached to the bone from the collision, but I pulled myself up to cheers from the children, as if they were congratulating me for surviving the ordeal. 

“How utterly Thai that is,” I thought -not to care when I was down but to be happy when I rose. I got another shot from my executioner to clear my face, gave an awkward farang wai to the group, and continued down the coast with my pastel red badge of courage splattered on my neck and chest.

I crossed the bridge into Thong Sala and into an orgy of fun and revelry. The streets were packed with celebrants. There was not a path or lane through the crowd, so I parked my bike and walked directly into the friendly mob and was absorbed as if through a membrane into the swirling, chaotic celebration of rebirth and renewal. There was water, water everywhere, but not a drop fell from the sky. Names were unknown, faces obscured by a rainbow of impossible skin tones. Naked babies were sheltered in their mothers’ bosoms, girls were on boys’ shoulders, grandparents stood along the storefronts enjoying respectful, gentle showers from passersby, and pickups inched through the masses as their passengers dispensed rapid-fire buckets from large tanks in the beds. The only color common throughout this benevolent riot was the flash of pearly whites on shooters and targets alike.

I was ejected from the cell a couple hours and several streets later. I had found an open shop that still had water guns in stock and I bought three. Two pistols were tucked into my waistband, hidden by the back of my shirt. The big gun, a Thai rip-off of a Super Soaker called The Happy Wet Dream Maker, rested over the handlebars of my motorbike, with the trigger sitting securely in my lap. There was whiskey to be drunk at my bungalow, and a party on the beach that would last until dawn. But not yet. Not yet. I was a living Technicolor dream coat of New Year’s wishes, and I was off to find a certain little girl and shoot her.