Songkran‘s dates fluctuated depending on the solar and lunar calendars in ancient times.
Songkran is taken from the Sanskrit language and means move into,’ alluding to the sun’s orbit going into each of the zodiac houses. In Thailand, the term Songkran has come to be associated with the sun entering Aries in April, signaling the conclusion of a 12-month cycle and the start of a new solar year. The famous Songkran New Year Water Festival in Thailand is set for April 13-15 this year. Thailand has a public holiday on these days as well. Although some localities (such as Pattaya and Chonburi) extend the festivities to include the Wan Lai Festival, the official Songkran holiday dates in Thailand are April 13-15.
What is Songkran?
Thailand and the rest of the area, including Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and portions of China, celebrate the New Year with water, prayer, and rituals every year. Songkran is the Thai equivalent of this water festival, and according to locals, there is no better spot to enjoy the epic water battle than the streets of Chiang Mai (if you poll just me, I’d have to agree!).
The water battle most likely grew into such a huge deal because the weeks leading up to Songkran are generally the warmest of the year, and the exhausting, energy-sapping heat induces a drowsy stupor. The calm waters of Songkran offer a nice break as well as a delightful way to celebrate the Thai New Year.
Where to Celebrate Songkran?
There are famous festivals in both Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and you can’t go wrong with either.
Having all that, Chiang Mai celebrates Songkran with the kind of fervor that I normally save for, well, nothing. Nothing in the United States compares to the three to five days of water battles and rituals that take place during Thailand’s Songkran festivities.
If you’re in Bangkok, the most boisterous festivities will be on Khao San Road, however, the whole city will be enjoying the Bangkok Songkran Splendours Festival, which begins on the 13th at Wat Pho. Parades begin on the 12th in Chiang Mai, and things will be in full flow by the 13th. Spend Songkran with friends or other travelers, leisurely strolling around the square moat (it will take you hours to complete)—this is where the major activity takes place. Start at Chiang Mai Gate or Thapae Gate, which are typically busy during Songkran, and then stroll the moat from there, or proceed toward the Ping River on another day, where there are always celebrants waiting to hurl water.
(To be fair to India, the Holi the Festival of Colors comes near to Songkran’s intensity, but falls short since, although Holi occurs in the early hours of a single designated day, Songkran lasts for days and days of mayhem and water-themed mischief.)
What Happens During Songkran?
Mayhem. What do you mean, mayhem? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes
Thai New Year celebrations erupt in wild, extravagant celebrations, like damned water bursting from its confines. This is true for almost every day of the Songkran celebrations, including Songkran Day, the first day of the Thai New Year. Songkran Day was formerly estimated by astrologers, and the festivities changed dates every year to reflect the Lunar calendar, but today you can plan since the official dates are always the 13th to 15th, with different forms of events taking place depending on where you celebrate.
The first day is not only about flinging water—though there is plenty of that—but villagers also clean their houses, ritually wash Buddha images, construct sand pagodas, and have parades and processions for the monks.
The 13th of April is traditionally the first official day of Songkran, and everyone, including me, was eager to participate.
I started toward friends already celebrating at a nearby gate on the moat around Chiang Mai’s inner city, where most of the Songkran action occurs, with my water pistol full and slung crossbody-warrior style (so I could quickly whip it out when water-assaulted on the streets).
My dry clothing lasted just a few seconds until a pickup truck full of Songkran revelers drove by, laughingly flinging buckets of ice-cold water at me, while I responded with a well-aimed torrent of water directly in the face.
Locals were able to drench tukuks and groups of celebrants farther down the road by using hoses as replacements for the short-ranged water cannons.
Children danced into the streets with sloshing buckets aimed at me, darting and dodging from my water pistol, expecting my Western sensibilities would rescue them from a thorough soaking but secretly thrilled when I discharged a stream of water into their retreating back.
Hours flew by as I joined the thousands of Thai revelers who gave visitors a taste of the city’s joyous New Year’s celebration.
The water ran nonstop, and if a barrel of ice water wasn’t accessible, moat water served as a backup—long lines linked to the buckets were the ideal dipping mechanism! Many faces were covered with clay and talc handprints, and music throbbed from vehicle speakers as traffic flowed slowly around the outer moat road.
Discovering the Spiritual Aspects of Songkran
Huge citywide (and countrywide) water battles may continue several days, with the first revelers hitting the streets about 10 a.m. and ultimately holstering their water guns and buckets for the night around 6 p.m. Between water battles, the streets are flooded with shouted “Sawat-di pi mai” greetings or rather Happy New Year wishes, and jubilant laughing pervades the city.
However, the other side of Songkran, the one that inspired the massive water battles of ages ago, utilizes this event to show respect to elders and monks and to mark the beginning of a new year in a more sober and contemplative manner.
Buddha statues from temples across Chiang Mai are paraded through the streets, and revelers take a break from their revelry to delicately sprinkle aromatic and cleaning liquids over the Buddha sculptures. During Songkran, stationary Buddha statues are also washed, and this fragrant water, now blessed from having touched the Buddha statues, may be utilized to bring good fortune to seniors and family members. Beautiful sand pagados are erected in temples across Bangkok, each one adorned with flowers, incense, and other colorful materials.
Merely the monks are usually immune to the passionate pummeling of water, and even then, it’s only a recommendation, not a demand. If a monk gets suddenly caught in the crossfire of revelers, they frequently crack a smile as well and cheerfully embrace the reality that being out in public during Songkran means getting soaked. Attend the opening ceremonies to properly understand what Songkran means to the Thai people. In Chiang Mai, they begin at dawn at Thapae Gate, with a ritual and the distribution of alms to monks dressed in beautiful orange robes.
Should You Attend Songkran?
Festivals are among my favorite aspects of traveling—I like the theatricality of other people’s festivities and festivals. They provide direct entry points into the culture, either as a curious spectator or, more often than not, as tourists are invited and welcomed into the moment, welcomed to engage in the experience and culture if only for a day or a week.
Songkran in Chiang Mai is memorable; I kept thinking to myself, “my gosh, we could never do this in the US!” Although that same notion crossed my brain for the whole five days, I nonetheless lifted my water cannon each morning and started into town. It’s spiritually beautiful in the same way that Loy Krathong is, but it’s also a lot more fun.
Songkran’s contagious joy gradually permeated into my consciousness, until the continual smiles of delight on the faces surrounding me echoed on my own. In many ways, the festival is a wacky and odd tradition, and by the end, I was so ready to walk out my door without fear of buckets of ice water being thrown at my face, but there were moments of pure and childlike joy mixed in there as I washed away the worry and fear and lived completely within the moment—alive and joyous and so happy for opportunities and the notion of a clean and fresh start to my coming months.
Washing away your troubles
Songkran is now often linked with water flinging. This may last just a day in the south, while it might linger for a week or more in the north and east. Although it may not seem so when the first downpour of ice-cold water strikes your face, receiving a good soaking is considered good luck. There are many interpretations of the water relationship.
Water is thrown to wash and purify the previous year’s afflictions, misfortune, and misdeeds, creating a clean slate for the new year ahead. Water throwing is also connected with fertility during Songkran. It is a season when Thai people traditionally strive to call on the rains to secure a successful and plentiful harvest of rice. In the past, the celebrations were also a time for wooing, and the custom continues today, albeit not usually in precisely the same way!
Choose your transport
You will get drenched unless you remain inside for the length of Songkran. It might be a little downpour or a complete deluge. Someone will want to sprinkle you with water whether you are strolling, riding a motorcycle, sitting in the back of a pick-up truck, or jammed into a ‘convertible’ tuk-tuk.
Water guns, buckets, and bright Songkran shirts
If you want to ‘len nam’ (literally ‘play water,’ you’ll need a bucket or a water gun. Once you’ve decided, splurge (see what I did there?) on a flowery shirt to round off your sanuk Songkran ensemble.
Prepare to be pasted
In several places of Thailand, it is customary to smear ‘din sor pong’ powder on each other.
Natural talc has been used for millennia to provide sun protection and to aid in the healing of minor skin diseases. Din sor pong’s daily popularity has declined, but it is always in demand around Songkran, and if you’re in Thailand in mid-April, you’ll find revelers (and their cars) plastered in a paste. Sometimes substitute powders are used, which, when combined with water, might hurt the eyes if the paste gets in them.
Enjoy the cultural side of Songkran
On the first day of Songkran, firecrackers are often let off to send the old year away and fend off bad spirits, while houses and gardens are thoroughly cleaned. The washing of Buddha pictures is the most significant component of the day. Important Buddha images from local wats are paraded through the streets of numerous Thai towns and cities.
Locals assemble to pour lustrous water perfumed with jasmine blossoms over the portraits.
On this day, the general mayhem of water tossing starts, with people dousing each other with water from buckets, hoses, and toy water guns in the streets of various cities.
The second day is not associated with either the new or old years, therefore it is regarded to be extremely unlucky to dispute on this day. Sand is brought to the wat to be used to create stupas or pagodas, which are then decked with long colorful pennants. Many of these pennants depict animals from the Chinese zodiac. This day is also utilized to prepare food that would be sent to monks and temples for merit-making the following day.
The third day is the Western counterpart of New Year’s Day. On this day, merit-making is very significant, and many people attend temples to feed the monks, wash Buddha statues, and set pennants on sand stupas. It’s also the final chance for folks to let loose, and the celebration begins early and goes till late.
Songkran is a time of thankfulness and contemplation, as well as a celebration of the New Year. Elders and other prominent persons have their hands gently poured with lustrous water. Family is very important in Thai culture, and this is especially true during Songkran, which is a time for family meetings and reunions.
Songkran's Dark Side
Songkran is surely sanuk for many people, but there is a darker aspect to the celebrations. Hundreds of people are murdered and thousands are wounded each year as a consequence of vehicle accidents during the Songkran vacation weekend. Drunk driving and speeding are responsible for many fatalities. Some accidents are also caused by persons tossing buckets of water at motorcyclists recklessly. Accidents occur when drivers’ eyes are averted.
Official road accident figures in Thailand for the 7-day period covering Songkran in 2015:
- 364 deaths
- 3,559 injuries
- 3,373 accidents
- 78% of accidents involved a motorcycle
Don't be a Songkran wuss.
People, both Thai and foreigners, are prone to get carried away in the Songkran party environment. And, although the majority of the water dousing is welcomed with a grin and good humor, don’t imagine for a second that anything goes. Enjoy the celebration and let your hair down, but Songkran isn’t supposed to be an excuse for males to show off their machismo. Every year, Songkran virgins make their debut by purchasing the largest water gun they can find, dressed up like Rambo, and claiming to be on military maneuvers. But even in conflict, there are rules of engagement.
- Respect that not everyone wants to participate in Songkran festivities. It’s not true that if you’re out on the street during Songkran, you’re ‘fair game.’ Despite the aquatic combat going on all around, some individuals must continue to work and go about their everyday lives as best they can. If someone expressly tells you not to throw water, don’t.
- Unfortunately, Songkran is a moment when generally rational individuals lose control. I recall seeing a perfect example of this a few years ago in Chiang Mai. A middle-aged Korean dude (old enough to know better) hurled a bucket of water at a motorbike carrying an elderly Thai woman on the pillion in a peaceful location in the city’s west. The Thai driver and the woman were both upset, and the Korean guy was fortunate not to suffer a harsh beating from the other Thais who saw what he did.
- When the sun goes down, it’s typically an unofficial signal to stop throwing water, however, this might vary depending on where you are. If you’re on Bangkok’s Khao San Road or a bar-lined boulevard in Pattaya or Phuket, the water-throwing may continue into the evening. In general, there is a ‘ceasefire’ in most places in the evening, and revelers use common sense. Throwing water on folks dressed for dinner or who don’t want to be engaged in the evening isn’t smart and may create difficulties.
Songkran hotels and travel
There is a mass exodus from Bangkok during Songkran, with many city employees and residents taking advantage of the long break to see relatives in other parts of Thailand.
Songkran is a busy time for buses, trains, and airlines. It is best to schedule travel and accommodations well in advance, particularly for famous Songkran locations like Chiang Mai.
Bangkok‘s best spots for the Songkran New Year Water Festival
Due to the departure of many Thai residents and employees over the Songkran vacation weekend, Bangkok is quieter than normal. The largest Songkran celebrations take place on Khao San Road and Silom Road.
Chiang Mai (Thailand)
The cultural features of the traditional Thai New Year Festival are highlighted in Chiang Mai, with street parades, religious rituals, and merit-making activities at the city’s numerous temples. Revelers congregate near the moat that surrounds the ancient city. The moats are normally emptied and clean water pumped in before Songkran, but receiving a face-full of moat water may cause a variety of ailments, so protect your eyes. Thapae Gate is one of the primary party sites, however during Songkran, traffic is congested all around the moat, and spontaneous parties spring up all along the roads that encircle the ancient city. During Songkran, Chiang Mai s very popular among Thai and international visitors. If you intend to visit Chiang Mai during Songkran, be sure to arrange your travel and accommodations well in advance.
Partying in Pattaya during the Songkran New Year Water Festival is as good as it gets for some tourists to Thailand. If you prefer to party hard and for a long time, Pattaya could be the place to be during Songkran. On the other hand, many Pattaya locals despise the prolonged Songkran pandemonium and attempt to avoid the city until it is gone. Songkran in Pattaya is surely a remarkable event, but on my excursions there in mid-April, I’ve noticed that the celebrations in the resort city have more of an edge compared to other places of Thailand.
Bang Saen, located on the coast between Bangkok and Pattaya, is a popular beach resort for Thai tourists. Aside from Songkran, the town also celebrates the Wan Lai Festival on the beach, which features spectacular sand sculptures.
Thai islands celebrate Songkran.
If you visit a Thai island around Songkran, you’ll have lots of opportunities to celebrate. Songkran festivities may be found from Ko Samui to Ko Tao, and from Phi Phi to Phuket.
However, compared to areas like Chiang Mai and Pattaya, Songkran in the Thai islands is significantly more modest, and the festival is generally often a one-day affair. This makes the Thai islands excellent if you want to participate in the celebrations but don’t want to cope with the lengthy period of Songkran mayhem observed elsewhere.
Songkran sanuk is celebrated across Thailand.
I’ve selected some of the more famous and well-known Songkran New Year Water Festival venues, but you may enjoy the festivities wherever you are in Thailand. In Thailand, many smaller villages and cities conduct unique festivals, such as the Hae Nang Kradan Festival in Nakhon Si Thammarat.