Songkran, the Thailand water festival, is an annual event marking the start of the traditional Thai new year. Songkran is the largest celebration in Thailand, and holds notoriety as the largest water fight in the world.
Don't think you're somehow exempt from good-natured splashing. Plan to get wet and stay that way for at least three days if you're anywhere near the celebration!
Fortunately, Songkran is a great way to escape the scorching temperatures in April — the hottest month of the year.
What Is the Thailand Water Festival?
Officially known as Songkran, the Thai water festival is about cleaning, purification, and fresh starts. Houses are cleaned and Buddha statues are carried through the streets to be washed with flower-scented water. Elders are honored by respectfully pouring water over their hands.
Although the true Songkran tradition is to sprinkle water on people, travelers and locals alike don water cannons and buckets to take the "blessings" to the extreme! Dousing or sprinkling people with water signifies the washing away of bad thoughts and actions. It brings them good luck in the new year.
As formal processions and formalities end, a throng forms in the street to dance, party, and throw water in good-natured fun. Think: Mardis Gras with a water fight. To up the ante, many Thais add ice to their water. They form gangs and teams that wear masks and carry large water cannons.
Don't worry, you probably won't mind the drenching. Afternoon temperatures in April (Thailand's hottest month) regularly rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When Is Songkran?
Songkran was once based on the lunar calendar, however, now the dates are fixed.
The Thailand water festival officially runs for three days starting on April 13th and finishing on April 15th. Opening ceremonies begin in the morning of April 13.
Although the festival is officially only three days long, many people take off from work and stretch the festival into as long as six days — particularly in tourist places such as Chiang Mai and Phuket. Check guest reviews and prices for Chiang Mai hotels on TripAdvisor.
Be ready: excited children may douse you (and your smartphone or passport) days before the official start of the festival.
Where to Celebrate the Thailand Water Festival?
Smaller towns and provinces may celebrate in a more traditional manner with the focus being on temple activities rather than drunken revelry. For a more traditional experience, consider visiting Isaan — Thailand's largest region in the northeast that receives fewer tourists than it should.
Songkran in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is certainly the place to be for the Thailand water festival.
Nightlife rages during the festival. Expect huge crowds and gridlock traffic around the Old City moat. Tha Pae Gate will be the epicenter, with people using the moat or hoses provided by bars to fill their buckets and water pistols.
Transportation from Bangkok to Chiang Mai gets very busy in the days leading up to Songkran. You'll need to arrive days in advance to find accommodation within the Old City near the action. Book your departure ticket early if you expect to leave directly after the celebration.
Authorities drain the rancid water from the moat and refill it with cleaner water before the festival begins. Regardless, the water is anything but potable and you'll probably end up swallowing a fair amount by accident. Make sure your travel vaccinations for Asia are up to date! Water-borne viruses such as conjunctivitis (pink eye) and stomach problems are common after the festival.
Tips for Enjoying the Thailand Water Festival
- You will get wet — very wet! In fact, unless you barricade yourself inside the hotel room, don't plan to be dry during daylight hours. Only monks, the king, and pregnant women are exempt from being splashed. No matter how much you plea or what items you are carrying with you, you will probably be attacked by the staff with water as soon as you exit your hotel room.
- Songkran has claimed more than its share of cameras and phones. As mentioned above, either waterproof everything or leave all valuables at your hotel. GoPro and similar rugged/waterproof cameras stand the best chance of surviving.
- Accommodation and transportation in Chiang Mai reach completely full capacity. You need to arrive early for any hope of finding a place to stay near the action.
- Drunken revelry is a big part of the Thailand water festival. Expect hordes of people dancing and drinking in the streets. The local government in Chiang Mai has cracked down more and more on drunken behavior in public. During the 2016 Songkran celebration, a British man was arrested for taking off his shirt!
- Do not drive a motorbike during Songkran! Road accidents and fatalities — already very high in Thailand compared to other countries — more than double during the water festival. Foreigners driving on motorbikes are not exempt from getting splashed. In fact, they are more often targeted!
- Thailand is about fun and good karma in the new year! Don't be one of the jerks who uses the festival to be a bully (i.e., splashing people at night). The usual rules of Thai etiquette still apply.
How to Celebrate the Thailand Water Festival
- Keep a good attitude! Fun-loving Thais and tourists are going to splash you with water — don't get mad or feel singled out. The wet mayhem is part of the celebration. Don't go if you do not plan to participate.
- Either get a bucket — there will be many around for free — or negotiate to purchase a water cannon in the market so that you can join the fun. Tie a string onto your bucket so you can fill it from water barrels faster.
- Although rowdy places such as Khao San Road in Bangkok may be an exception, typically the splashing stops at sundown when temperatures drop slightly. Even still, some revelers will still attempt to splash you after sundown.
- Be safe. Drunk driving is a serious problem during Songkran. Pedestrians are regularly hit. Be careful when crossing the road or while standing at intersections.
- Although the water splashing is fun for everyone, remember that Songkran is actually a religious festival. Stay out of the way of worshipers at temples and shrines or show due respect.
The traditional way to wish someone well at Songkran and to make peace after splashing them is with: sah-wah-dee pee mai which basically means "happy New Year." You can say this as a basic greeting during Songkran or after you say hello to someone in Thai.
More than likely, you'll also hear suk san wan Songkran (pronounced: suke sahn wahn song kran) which means "happy Songkran day."
Other Rituals During Songkran
Along with sprinkling or throwing water, a few local people may be smearing white powder or paste on others. The paste is usually brushed gently on the forehead and symbolically wards off bad luck. The paste should be water soluble so it won't stain clothes.
Another old Songkran ritual is to tie strings to people's wrists. If someone approaches you with a string held from end to end, extend your wrist with the palm facing the sky. They will tie on your new bracelet (they're usually thin, plain strings) and say a short blessing. The tradition is to leave the strings on until they break or fall off on their own.
Wearing colorful clothing is a tradition during Songkran. Tourists and locals often wear brightly colored, flowery "Songkran shirts" to celebrate.