The annual Songkran New Year Water Festival which welcomes in the traditional Thai New Year is one of those events that has to be experienced in person to begin to appreciate the enormity of the spectacle and the uniqueness of the occasion. In Thailand, Songkran is an annual nationwide party with playful water-fights breaking out in villages and cities the length and breadth of the country. Whilst it’s the water fights and party atmosphere that understandably captures the imagination of most tourists, there is so much more to the festivities. The Songkran New Year Water Festival is an event steeped in tradition and meaning for Thai Buddhists.
In ancient times the date of Songkran varied according to the solar and lunar calendar. The word Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit language and means ‘move into’, referring to the orbit of the sun moving into each of the houses of the zodiac. In Thailand, the word Songkran has come to be identified specifically with the sun moving into Aries in April marking the end of a 12-month cycle and the beginning of a new solar year. These days the dates for the annual Songkran New Year Water Festival in Thailand are fixed for April 13-15. These dates are also a public holiday in Thailand. Some areas (such as Pattaya and Chonburi) have extended celebrations to include the Wan Lai Festival, but the official Songkran holiday dates throughout Thailand are April 13-15.
Washing away your troubles
Today, Songkran is widely associated with water throwing. This can go on for just one day in places in the south, but can last for a week or more in areas of the north and east. It might not seem it when that first deluge of ice-cold water hits your face, but getting a good soaking is meant to be good luck. The water association has a number of meanings. Water is thrown to cleanse and purify all the ills, misfortune and wrongdoing of the previous year, thus providing a clean slate for the new year ahead. Throwing water during Songkran is also associated with fertility. It is a time when Thai people traditionally looked to bring on the rains for rice cultivation and ensure a successful and bountiful harvest. The festivities were also a time for courtship in days gone by and the trend continues today, though not always in quite such a traditional manner!
Choose your transport
Unless you stay indoors for the duration of Songkran you will get wet. It might be a little bit wet or it could be a thorough drenching. Whether you are walking, riding a motorbike, sat in the back of a pick-up truck or crammed into a ‘convertible’ tuk-tuk there is one thing for sure; somebody will want to splash you with water.
Water pistols, buckets and sunny Songkran shirts
If you want to ‘len nam‘ (literally ‘play water’) you are going to need a bucket or a water pistol. Once you’ve made up your mind on that one, splash out (see what I did there?) on a flowery shirt to complete your sanuk Songkran attire.
Get ready for a pasting
In many parts of Thailand, it’s a tradition to paste ‘din sor pong‘ powder on each other. The natural talc has ben used for generations as a protection against the sun and to help heal minor skin ailments. Modern-day products have seen the everyday popularity of din sor pong drop, but it’s always in demand over Songkran and if you’re in Thailand in mid-April you’ll see revellers (and their vehicles) covered in paste. Substitute powders are also sometimes used which when mixed with water can sting when the paste gets in the eyes.
Enjoy the cultural side of Songkran
On the first day of Songkran, firecrackers are often lit to send the old year on its way and ward off evil spirits, whilst homes and gardens are given a good cleaning. The most important aspect of the day is the cleaning of Buddha images. In many towns and cities in Thailand, important Buddha images from local wats are paraded through the streets. Local inhabitants gather to throw lustral water scented with jasmine flowers over the images. The general mayhem of water throwing begins on this day, with the streets of many towns thronged with people dousing each other with water from buckets, hoses and toy water pistols.
The second day belongs to neither the new year or the old year and it is thought to be particularly bad luck to argue on this day. Sand is taken to the wat to build stupas or pagodas which in turn are decorated with long colourful pennants. Many of these pennants bear images of animals from the Oriental zodiac. This day is also used to prepare food which will be given the following day to monks and temples for merit-making.
The third day is the equivalent of New Year’s Day in the West. Merit-making is particularly important on this day and many people visit temples to offer food to the monks, bathe Buddha images and place pennants on the sand stupas. It is also the last opportunity for people to let their hair down and the party starts early and continues until late.
As well as marking the New Year, Songkran is also a time for thanksgiving and reflection. Lustral water is gently poured over the hands of elders and other important people. Family is important in Thai life and never more so than at Songkran which is a time for family gatherings and reunions.
Traditional Songkran versus modern-day festival
Older Thais may bemoan the way the Songkran New Year Festival has developed over the years. There was a time when water was poured gently from silver bowls and the emphasis was more on the spiritual aspect of Songkran rather than the party. You’ll still see the silver bowls used in modern-day Songkran festivities, but water-pistols are a far more common sight. It seems that every year the Thai government of the day calls for a return to traditional Thai Songkran values, but the appeal falls on death ears amongst the party-goers.
The sad side of Songkran
Songkran is certainly sanuk for many people, but sadly there is also a less happy side to the festivities. Every year hundreds of people are killed and thousands are injured as a result of road accidents over the Songkran holiday period. Many deaths are caused by drink-driving and speeding. Some accidents are also caused by people recklessly hurling buckets of water at motorcycles. As the drivers avert their eyes, accidents happen.
Official road accident figures in Thailand for the 7-day period covering Songkran in 2015:
78% of accidents involved a motorcycle
Don’t be a Songkran muppet
It is easy for people, Thai and foreigner, to get carried away with the Songkran party atmosphere. And whilst most of the water dousing is accepted with a smile and good grace, don’t think for a moment that anything goes. Enjoy the party and let your hair down, but Songkran isn’t meant to be an excuse for men to prove how ‘macho’ they are. Every year, there are Songkran virgins popping their cherry by buying the biggest water gun they can find, dressing like Rambo and pretending they’re on military manoeuvres. But even in war there are rules of engagement.
Respect the fact that not everybody wants to play Songkran. It’s not true that if somebody is out on the street during Songkran they are ‘fair game’. Some people still have to work and carry on their daily lives as best they can despite the watery warfare going on all around. If somebody makes it clear they don’t want you to throw water, then don’t. Sadly, Songkran is a time when normally sensible people lose self-control. I remember a classic example of this some years ago in Chiang Mai. In a quiet area in the west of the city I witnessed a middle-aged Korean gentleman (old enough to know better) hurling a bucket of water at a motorcycle carrying an elderly Thai lady on the pillion. The Thai driver and the lady were both furious and the Korean man was lucky not to receive a severe beating from the other Thais who saw what he did.
When the sun goes down, that’s usually the unofficial signal to stop throwing water although it can vary depending on where you are. If you’re on Khao San Road in Bangkok or a bar-lined street in Pattaya or Phuket, the water-throwing may continue into the evening. Generally speaking, there is a ‘ceasefire’ in most areas in the evening and revellers apply some common sense. Throwing water in the evening over people dressed to go to dinner or who clearly don’t want to get involved isn’t clever and can cause trouble.
Songkran travel and hotels
There is an exodus from Bangkok for Songkran with many workers and residents in the city using the extended holiday to visit family elsewhere in Thailand. Buses, trains and flights are all busy for Songkran. It is advisable to book travel arrangements and accommodation well in advance, especially for popular Songkran destinations such as Chiang Mai.
Best locations for the Songkran New Year Water Festival
With many Thai residents and workers leaving Bangkok over the Songkran holiday period, the city is quieter than usual. The main Songkran activities are focused on Khao San Road and Silom Road.
In Chiang Mai, the cultural aspects of the traditional Thai New Year Festival are to the fore with street parades, religious ceremonies and merit-making activities at the many temples in the city. Revellers gather all along the moat which goes around the old city. In the lead up to Songkran the moats are usually drained and clean water pumped in, but getting a face-full of moat water can cause all manner of problems so protect your eyes. Thapae Gate is one of the main party areas, but traffic is gridlocked all around the moat during Songkran and impromptu parties pop-up all along the roads that ring the old city. Chiang Mai is hugely popular during Songkran with Thai tourists as well as those from overseas. Make sure you book travel and accommodation well in advance if you are planning to be in Chiang Mai for Songkran.
For some visitors to Thailand, partying in Pattaya during the Songkran New Year Water Festival is as good as it gets. If you like to party hard and long, Pattaya could be for you during Songkran. On the flip-side, there are plenty of Pattaya residents who hate the extended period of Songkran chaos and try their best to leave town until it’s over. Songkran in Pattaya is definitely a memorable experience, but on my visits there in mid-April I’ve found there is more of an edge to the festivities in the resort city compared to other areas of Thailand.
Located on the coast in between Bangkok and Pattaya, Bang Saen is a popular seaside destination for holidaying Thais. In addition to Songkran, the town also celebrates the Wan Lai Festival with stunning sand sculptures on the beach.
Songkran on the Thai islands
If you’re visiting a Thai island over the Songkran period you’ll have plenty of opportunity to party. From Ko Samui to Ko Tao and Phi Phi to Phuket, there are Songkran celebrations. However, Songkran on the Thai islands is far more subdued compared to places like Chiang Mai and Pattaya and the event also tends to be a one-day affair. This makes the Thai islands the ideal place if you want to join in the festivities, but don’t want the extended period of Songkran mayhem seen elsewhere.
Songkran sanuk all over Thailand
I’ve listed some of the most popular and well-know destinations for the Songkran New Year Water Festival, but wherever you find yourself in Thailand you will be able to experience the fun. There are many smaller towns and cities in Thailand which host special events such as the Hae Nang Kradan Festival in Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Happy Songkran. Happy New Year. Sawatdee pii mai!