Songkran festival in Thailand
First published 22nd March, 2015
Kids fire super-powered water guns from the back of a zooming tuk tuk. A wrinkled woman blesses her grandchildren in a touching ceremony. Scented water showers over a Buddha image as Thai rock music thumps. Held annually from April 13-15, Thai New Year, or Songkran festival, is a time to cleanse, pay respects and let loose in some of the world’s wildest water fights. Sawasdee phimai! (Happy new year!)
Songkran is rooted in the distant past. Ancient Indian Brahmins considered the passing of the moon, sun and planets into the zodiac sign of Aries to signal a new astrological year. The Sanskrit term songkran implies “ascending” or “moving on,” and this astronomical event takes place in April. For the ancients, animals emerging from hibernation, and trees bearing blossoms, probably contributed to this feeling of a fresh start.
Flower petals fill up a Chiang Mai canal over Songkran.
Like so many influences from India, the April new year was adopted by the Thais, and adapted to become a distinctive part of Thai culture. Celebrated during the Thai hot season, before the monsoon rains, it’s a time when farmers are free from routine duties and a little water splashing helps to keep everyone cool. The Thais (also the Mon, Shan, Lao and others) have probably celebrated Songkran, in some way, since at least the 13th century.
While today’s Songkran can seem like it’s all about getting wet and crazy, traditionally the holiday focuses on renewal – and the old customs are still very much alive.
It begins by sweeping out houses, shops and schools to get rid of anything that was a negative influence over the past year. At temples, Buddha images are scrubbed clean by the monks, then sprinkled with scented water by the faithful. This blessed water, known in Thai as nam om, is later used in a ceremony to honour the elders. Young people gently wash the old folks’ hands in exchange for a blessing and a white string, symbolising longevity, which is tied around the wrist.
Leave it on until it falls off naturally to ensure your good luck.
In one colourful aspect of Songkran that’s become a big draw for tourists, sacred Buddha images are removed from their wats and paraded around their communities. In the old days, the images would have been placed on carts or elephant-back, but with some exceptions (see below), pick-up trucks often do the job today.
At some point in the evolution of Songkran, revellers began splashing water on each other as a lighthearted extension of the cleansing custom. Usual inhibitions were gradually tossed aside. Laypeople could throw water on monks and young men and women could splash their crushes, gaining the holiday a reputation as a time for fun and courtship. Both of these are alive and thriving in today’s Songkran.
Young monks flirting with pretty girls? Why not, it’s Songkran.
Festival-goers also rub white talcum powder onto the faces of friends and strangers, a custom thought to bring good luck and protection — and is another means for young people to show their affection. This also has roots in India, where people have long used powders to mark different religious blessings and to celebrate festivals, Holi being the most obvious example. In everyday Thai life, monks use talcum to draw protective symbols on vehicles and in houses.
On temple grounds, tradition dictates the building of small sand stupas with coins buried inside for good luck. Once completed, the sandcastle mounds are decorated with ribbons, candles, joss sticks, shells and flowers, and then sprinkled with scented water. Many temples also hold fairs with plenty of food, beauty pageants, folk performances and the ritual of releasing caged birds and fish.
Wash that Buddha.
Could the ancient Brahmins have anticipated what Songkran would become? Probably not. But even today’s all-out water battles are rooted in these much older, gentler traditions. So when teenagers douse you in ice-cold water and laugh hysterically, keep in mind that they’re only performing an act of benevolent kindness.
Preparing and staying safe
For many foreigners and a growing number of young Thais, Songkran today is defined by water guns, wet T-shirts and no shortage of booze. It’s undoubtedly the biggest bash of the year in Thailand: think New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July/Guy Fawkes Day/Canada Day/Australia Day and the last day of elementary school, all rolled into one huge shebang.
Photo from Laos, where it’s same same and not too different for Phimai Lao.
Make no mistake: you are going to get soaked. For the full three days (and extra days before and after in some places), Thais will bring buckets, water guns, hoses, fire cannons, coconut husks, plastic pails — anything that projects water — and employ them to drench anyone and everyone. You have two choices: stay in doors, or get your own water gun and go on the defensive.
Stick with flip flops on the feet and don’t forget sunblock, sunglasses (or goggles can be effective for tactical water fighting missions) and plenty of dry underwear for afterwards.
This photo only cost us a 4,000 baht camera repair!
Place any valuables in water-proof plastic bags, which are sold everywhere during Songkran alongside water guns and balloons. Everyone wants photos of this event, but please don’t risk your expensive non-waterproof camera. As we once learned the hard way, the corner of a noodle shop does not provide adequate protection.
On a serious note, Thailand’s roads are dangerous at any time, but the risk jumps exponentially during Songkran, when drunk/reckless driving is more common than usual. During Songkran 2014, 3,225 people were injured in road accidents and an additional 322 people died. It cannot be stressed enough: be very careful crossing the street or getting in a taxi or tuk tuk. Renting a motorbike to ride through a party area is probably not a wise decision, even for the experienced.
Don’t end up like this.
To sum up, use common sense. Don’t get so drunk that you can’t walk. Don’t take rides from tuk tuk drivers who smell like a bar. Don’t feel bad about walking away from people who are being aggressive.
Where to go
Songkran is celebrated all over Thailand, with several places displaying their own regional traditions. We’ve suggested some of the more popular destinations below, but you could have a great experience in just about any city, town or village.
Chiang Mai is a top destination for taking part in the full range of Songkran activities. Huge crowds of water-gun-toting locals, expats and travellers overrun the banks of the old quarter moat, where water is pumped into hoses for continual soakage. Elaborate ceremonies take place at historic temples like Wat Phra Singh, and an impressive parade lumbers up Tha Phae Road. The city also celebrates for two extra days, totalling five full days of water tossing.
A scene from Chiang Mai’s Songkran parade.
Bangkok becomes almost unrecognisable during Songkran. Millions of taxi drivers and labourers return to their home towns, leaving most of the normally choked streets free of traffic. Along with ceremonies at Sanam Luang and several temples, huge water parties take place at Khao San Road, Silom Road and Royal City Avenue. The Mon enclave of Phra Phradaeng puts on its own terrific festival on the Sunday following April 13-15.
The ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya is a great option for those who hope to see Songkran in its more traditional incarnation. The highlight is a lengthy elephant procession, with ceremonies, beauty pageants, folk performances and plenty of water splashing taking place around the historical park. Not far to the north of Ayutthaya, Suphanburi is also a good choice, especially if you want to avoid other foreign tourists.
Ayutthaya’s elephants enjoy a splash too.
A major city in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan, Khon Kaen hosts one of the kingdom’s largest Songkran festivals. Centring on Khao Niao (Sticky Rice) Road, the city turns out a colourful ox cart parade along with a wide array of folk performances and a food fair at Kaen Nakhon Lake. Another good option in Isaan is Nong Khai, which holds its own parade alongside the Mekong River.
Phuket gets things rolling with a ceremony in the island province’s capital city on the first day. The water fighting party is centred at Bangla Road in Patong, with the other major beach towns also getting in on the action. If you’re in Southern Thailand and want a more traditional Songkran, Nakhon Si Thammarat holds a large Buddha image parade and an interesting swinging contest that derives from an ancient Hindu ritual.
Don’t feel like getting wet? Try hiding behind a coconut.
If you’re planning to travel right before Songkran, be sure to book your tickets as early as possible. Train tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, for example, will be sold out weeks in advance. Long-distance buses will have more available seats, but it’s still a good idea to purchase tickets at least a day or two beforehand. Most public transport, both local and inter-provincial, operates normally during the actual festival. If heading to one of the major Songkran destinations, advanced hotel bookings are also recommended.
We understand that getting drenched for several days straight is not for everyone. If you want to avoid Songkran without locking yourself up in a hotel room, you might head to a remote island, like Ko Kut or Ko Phayam, or a national park. The other option is to leave Thailand, though keep in mind that Burma, Laos and Cambodia each celebrate the related festivals of Thingyan, Phimai Lao and Chaul Chnam Thmey, respectively, around the same time.
Story by Travelfish Thailand
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (19)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Gibbon Rehabilitation Project
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Khlong Toey Music Program
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (8)
- Cambodia (24)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Why you should stay longer in Siem Reap
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (20)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Northern Laos or Southern Laos?
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (8)
- Thailand (85)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Chang's east coast
- Ko Lanta's best budget guesthouses
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Loy Krathong in Thailand
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Songkran festival in Thailand
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The changing face of Ko Lipe
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (33)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay DIY
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay midrange budget
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Ha Long Bay: Which tour is right for you?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (14)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi 2015
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (18)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Great river trips in Southeast Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- Where is the best place in Southeast Asia for ...
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.