Songkran is the Thai name for the Theravada Buddhist New Year which falls on the 13th April. (The Mahayana Buddhist New Year, in Vietnam or China for example, is based on the lunar calender – in Thailand it’s always a fixed date.) It’s not only Thai New Year but in theory is the same for Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Sri Lanka though dates may vary slightly.
Now firstly you have to get to Chiang Mai and it’s a very popular destination for Thai tourists over the New Year holidays therefore flights and trains book up well ahead as do any mid to upper range hotel and half decent guesthouses. So if you haven’t already made arrangements then a tourist bus and less popular guesthouse are going to be your only choices unless you’re very lucky.
Secondly, if you have made it to Chiang Mai then dismiss any considerations of whether you’d like to participate or not or perhaps join in the fun one day then go and check out some temples whatever the next day. It is unavoidable and all ‘normal’ activity in the city stops for five days or so whilst Chiang Mai turns into a giant water fight.
All roads in the centre of town will be totally gridlocked for the duration and all roads in and out of town will be severely congested so if you do have to get to the airport or bus station allow five times what it would normally take you. Note also that a lot of public transport – tuk-tuks and songthaews – are ‘commandeered’ for the festivities so there’s not so much available and if you do find one the driver’s going to want seriously compensating for his troubles!
Now forget any TAT niceties about Lanna maidens, flower petals and delicate finger bowls of water – you’re more likely to be faced with high powered water pistols and buckets of iced water. (Be very careful on motorbikes or bicycles because that doesn’t stop you being a target and can be dangerous.)
Unless you lock yourself in your hotel room for 5 days you will be drenched from morning to evening – soaked the minute you leave your hotel room – so make sure that any cameras, passports etc you carry are wrapped in plastic bags.
Standard practice in Chiang Mai is for a bunch of friends or a family to pile into a pick-up truck with huge bins of water, pistols, bags of flour and buckets and head into town to soak anything that moves. As a foreigner you will be a particularly tempting target!
However many times you get drenched or your $1,000 Nikon has just been totally destroyed you have to keep smiling, take refuge in your hotel room or leave town. Good news is that in Chiang Mai, unlike some other towns, it’s only really a dawn to dusk thing so you can get dried out and go out for dinner in relative safety.
Main concentrations of combatants will be around the moat and key points such as Central Huay Kaew and Worarot but any side street and quiet soi will have kids and or grannies waiting to ambush you.
Yes it can be a lot of fun and the total mayhem is quite something to behold but be prepared – in Chiang Mai it goes on a long time! TAT worryingly give the dates as 7th to 19th!? but 12th to 17th are going to be the main days though kids are already our practicing now!
Enjoy – good luck and take care!
By Mark Ord.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.