Songkran is Thailand’s traditional new year celebration. It is one of the largest water festivals in Southeast Asia, and it happens at the height of the summer season from 13 April onwards. It goes on for anything between two to seven days (head to Chiang Mai if you want to prolong the festivities). But what was once a more laid back affair of water and cleansing ceremonies, is now a full-fledged water fight all over the streets of Thailand. That’s not to say the original festivities aren’t observed; they still are, and they are as tranquil and beautiful as ever.
Once upon a time, Songkran was a lovely celebratory affair, with the soaking constituting more of a dampening. Images of the Buddha would be bathed in water, while youthful Thais would pour scented water over the hands of their elders in a ceremony known in Thai as ‘rod nam dum hua’ to gain the elders’ blessings and is still performed today. Traditionally, the elders would then be presented with a ‘phanung’ and a ‘pha khao ma’ for a male or a ‘pha hom’ for a female (types of traditional clothing to be worn in this case directly after the ritualistic new year bathing). These days, they are instead presented with a towel, handkerchiefs, soap, scented water and other such gifts. After this, the elder bestows their blessing and best wishes for the New Year.
Another age-old Songkran tradition involves a white powder which is formed into a white paste – usually with scented water – which is then spread on people’s faces, foreheads, necks, bodies, etc. Intriguingly, the paste is a sign of protection and promises to ward off evil for anyone that wears it, though once the paste is applied, one is expected to leave it on until it washes off of its own accord. Not everyone gets to give out the paste – unlike the water. Instead, the person with the paste is often an elder. Again, this tradition has been carried through to the modern times and you’ll see plenty of people walking the streets covered in paste.
An intriguing and perhaps little discussed fact (outside of Thailand at least) is that each and every year (until modern times) – just before the advent of Songkran – the royal astrologer would present his calculations or forecasts to the King. Based on the lunar calendar, the dates and length of the festivities would change from year to year. The royal artist would then paint a picture based on the astrologer’s predictions and the painting would be hung in a convenient locale within the Royal Palace precincts for the people’s information. Alhough this is no longer practised, these days you’ll still see the odd printed calendar sheet for the year which depicts such predictions in the traditional method so look out for them. Another interesting practice that’s survived to the present day is that on the eve of Songkran, Thai people clean their house and burn old and unwanted items as well as any trash, in the belief that anything bad belonging to the old year will be unlucky if left and carried on to the coming New Year. Think spring cleaning but with a spiritual element.
Another tradition born from the past which still goes on today happens early on the first day of Songkran. People, both young and old, attend their local Wat (temple) or monastery to offer food to the monks. A long table is built inside the wat and the monks’ alms bowls are lined up on both sides of the table. The people then add boiled rice, food, fruits and sweets and a feast ensues.
While much of what we’ve already discussed is still visible at the modern Songkran festivities, the one major difference between then and now is the addition of vast water fights. What’s there to say? You’re going to get wet! Expect a battleground. Expect to be absolutely sodden as couples perform drive-by soakings from tuk tuks. Expect buckets of water over your head while ordering a quick ‘pad kra pao’ and brace yourself for an explosion of water-bombs on your back. There’s one golden rule to remember whilst attending: if you’re on the street, then you’re fair game and you will get wet, so wear a smile and join in!
Another part of the celebrations, which are mostly observed in the south of Thailand, is to release birds and fish from captivity into fresh water. Perhaps the best place to see this is Phuket where the winner of the Miss Songkran beauty contest starts the proceedings by letting the first of the fish go free.
Where to celebrate Songkran?
Celebrations happen quite literally all over the country. However, most visitors will notice that Bangkok is considerably less busy than usual. This is because many people use the holiday as an excuse to visit family. So if you plan to celebrate Songkran in Bangkok then you’ll find the best spots are in the more heavily tourist-focused areas such as Khao San Road, Silom Road and Banglamphu.
The islands are awash with water fights as are the streets of most major cities (think Phuket, Pattaya and Koh Samui) so these are always safe bets if all you want is a little water fight fun or ‘sanook’ as they would say in Thai.
Chiang Mai has perhaps the most visibly beautiful Songkran celebrations, where in addition to the pandemonium of the water fights, there’s also a procession of Buddha images and floats, alongside vibrant temple celebrations all over the city.
Also in the north of Thailand is Khon Kaen (sticky rice capital of Thailand no less!) which has a parade of flora carts, a beauty pageant, plenty of food-themed attractions, folk plays and Thai dances.
Tips and Precautions for Songkran
We’ve filled you in on the best places to celebrate. But that’s not all. Keep these tips in mind before, during and after the festivities:
- Dress light and respectable – We recommend tshirts and shorts. Avoid light-coloured shirts if at all possible. Women should avoid see-through clothes as this is frowned upon by the locals and increases the risk of sexual harassment, especially in crowded streets. If you like, wear swimwear underneath your clothes for comfort.
- Waterproof your gadgets – This goes for wallets, and other precious items too. Keep your jewellery in your room as this will not just hinder your movement, but you will be focusing too much on keeping them safe, instead of enjoying the festivities. Try and get a waterproof bag for your wallet, phone, camera and other essential items. Remember to keep to the bare necessities. You want to be extremely mobile during the festivities.
- Avoid the roads and riding on motorbikes and tuk tuks – If you’ve had enough soaking for one day, get into a taxi instead. Most taxis are more than happy to take wet passengers during Songkran.
- Jump right in and get wet! It’s the world’s biggest water fight and you don’t want to enjoy it from a safe distance. Songkran is meant to be enjoyed up close and soaking wet.
- Plan your accomodation in advance – Some places may have longer celebrations, sometimes up to five days or more. You don’t want to be travelling with your luggage or backpacks when the water fights are in full swing.
- Celebrate the traditional way – Water fights are fun and all but Songkran is a great chance for you to soak (pardon the pun) yourself in traditional Thai culture. Lots of places still observe ancient traditions and each province celebrates Songkran differently so check what’s happening nearby for an eye-opening experience.