Thai protesters hit tourist hub with guns - of water

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The Independent Online

As revellers splashed each other with water and daubed their faces with clay, it was hard to believe three days earlier Bangkok's most famous tourist street had been the scene of deadly clashes.

Thai protesters and foreign visitors alike ran around Khaosan Road on Tuesday brandishing water guns, close to a memorial for the victims of the weekend's violence that left 21 people dead and more than 800 hurt.

They came to celebrate the New Year water festival, a three-day annual event held as Thailand's tropical summer gets underway.

But this year's "Songkran" was nearly abandoned after the country's bloodiest civil unrest in 18 years erupted on Saturday as security forces attempted to end a month of rallies by anti-government "Red Shirts".

"Today I'm coming to play Songkran, I'm going to the (political) rally, and to pay respect to the dead," said 45-year-old protester Noy Moonchapirom, from Nong Khai province in the rural northeast.

Budget travellers staying at guesthouses in the historic quarter said their spirits had not been dampened by the political violence.

"I heard about it a few days ago but then decided to book a ticket to Thailand anyway just because I really wanted to be here for Songkran," said 18-year-old Tom Marsh as he took a soaking from a nearby water bucket.

"I think lots of people have been put off coming to Bangkok... because they think it's going to maybe put a downer on Songkran," said the Briton.

"But I don't think it's of any direct risk to people who aren't protesting."

Khaosan Road was a riot of colour as drenched party-goers filled the street wearing a full spectrum of shades, including bright red - symbol of the populist political movement campaigning for immediate elections.

The crowd thronged the backpacker street lined with cafes and guesthouses, with young and old Thais mingling with travellers from overseas in one big water fight.

The New Year festival is also celebrated in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, but is best-known in Thailand, where most revellers in the capital head to Silom's business district or Khaosan Road.

But some said the political turmoil had taken its toll on the festivities.

"In the past it was more fun. I'm quite disappointed," said 30-year-old Meehai Naksaya, from central Supanburi province, who was attending the capital's celebrations for the first time.

Thailand's political problems also interrupted last year's New Year celebrations when Red Shirt riots again turned violent, leading to the 2009 festival being coined "Bloody Songkran".

But water-gun seller Saranya Torcharoenwat, 39, said the effect of politics on her trade this year was far worse.

"Compared to this time last year it's not good. Sales have dropped dramatically," she said.