Held every year in mid-April, Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year Festival. Like much of the rest of the world however, New Year in Thailand is now officially celebrated on January 1st. Instead, the Songkran festival became a national holiday. Today, it’s grown into something truly spectacular. Once running for three days, it now runs for five. Once a time for calm and traditional water ceremonies, it’s now a giant water extravaganza. From huge crowds with super soakers to people flinging buckets from the roadside, water comes from all directions. Cross-sections of society through the generations get stuck in, and a widely smiling face is a ubiquitous thing. Songkran is a special time in Thailand.
Songkran comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘shift’ or ‘movement’, and it has to do with the the sun moving from one position of the zodiac to another. Technically a songkran happens every month, and officially the New Year Festival is Maha Songkran (Great Songkran), but everybody just calls it Songkran. The actual day of the Maha Songkran is April 13th – the day the sun moves into Aries.
Where does the water come in? It’s a Songkran tradition to pour water on Buddha statues, as well as the young and the elderly. This ritual is said to wash away people’s sins and prevent bad luck. Such practices are still commonplace and it’s possible to see this and take part at small shrines, big temples or Songkran parades. We poured cups of rosewater over a small buddha outside a coffee shop and had similar cups poured over our necks by two smiling elders at a local market. While these gentle practices still permeate Thai society, it is of course the modern water parties that draw the most attention.
Songkran water festivities take place all over Thailand, but Chiang Mai has the reputation as the best place to experience the festival.
We happened to be in Chiang Mai for a month when Songkran came round. Initially we were a little hesitant about a huge water fight in the streets, not quite sure if it would be our thing. But, being their big New Year festival, we couldn’t not go, deciding we had to see it for ourselves. Well, turns out it was a really fun day, with the whole city getting involved in the most good natured way. Throughout the old city, people joyously soaked each other with water, grinning from ear to ear. Buckets of water were readily available, often icy cold. Music boomed out from shopfronts or passing trucks. It was the ultimate party atmosphere and the perfect way to cool off in the 40°C heat.
The area in and around Chiang Mai Old City is perfect for this kind of event. With the long streets and open spaces around Thapae Gate there’s room for big parades and water fights; with the tight narrow streets in old city itself, there are places to wander off and get away from the crowds. Saying that, you can get a good soaking anywhere, and the quiet streets often have people ready to gleefully hit you with the coldest water. Having experienced Songkran in Chiang Mai, we can say that the city’s reputation is definitely well earned.
If you fancy heading to the Songkran festival in Chiang Mai yourself, here’s a few tips to help you enjoy the day. The main festivities take place around Thapae Gate, on the east of the Old City, so head here from midday onwards. The party gets crazier the later it gets….
It goes without saying, make sure you wear clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting wet. This doesn’t give you licence to walk around topless or in your bikini though. Respect the local culture (and law) and cover up with a T-shirt and shorts or such like. It’s customary to wear bright, colourful clothing. Flip-flops can get a bit slippery so you might want to wear something with a strap.
It’s best to stick on some goggles or big sunglasses (and perhaps even some earplugs) to protect yourself from the dirty moat water – every year people end up with conjunctivitis or nasty ear infections from this. Better still, try to avoid the moat water all together! Away from the moat people just use tap water to fill their supersoakers and buckets. Obviously, you don’t want to be swallowing this, but it’s much cleaner.
Protect Your Gear
We had buckets of water dumped all over ours, the contents staying perfectly dry.
For photos and video, a GoPro is your best bet. We saw people carrying around their expensive cameras unprotected and thought they were mad taking the risk! If you’re on the streets, you’re a target and water flies from all angles.
As for your own weaponry, you can pick up goggles, supersoakers and buckets from street vendors on the day, or at convenience stores and local shops in the run up to Songkran. You can refill your water as you go from local shops and restaurants who have big tubs out front.
Songkran is a great experience, a festival enjoyed by all in so many different ways. If you time your Chiang Mai visit to coincide with this unique occasion, we’re confident you won’t be dissappointed. Just be sure to book your accommodation in advance!
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