Songkran: Thailand Water Festival

People splashing a motorbike driver during Songkran celebrations in Thailand

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Sometimes referred to as the Thailand Water Festival, Songkran is an annual event that marks the beginning of the Thai New Year. It's the largest celebration throughout the whole country and is also famous for being one of the wildest water fights you may ever participate in. While Holi in India can probably claim the title for the messiest festival, Songkran in Thailand is certainly the wettest of festivals in Asia.

Every year on this holiday, which takes place between April 13 and 15 every year, strangers come together in the playful pursuit of getting one another absolutely soaked. There's no way to avoid the large crowds of people wielding water guns, buckets, and balloons. Thankfully, the good-natured splashing festival coincides with scorching temperatures in April—the hottest month of the year—but there's a lot more to this holiday than just an excuse to cool down and let loose.

Washing a Buddha statue
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What Is Songkran?

Officially known as Songkran, the Thai water festival is about cleaning, purification, and having a fresh start. In preparation for the holiday, houses are cleaned and Buddha statues are carried through the streets in a procession to be washed with flower-scented water. Elders are also honored by respectfully pouring water over their hands.

Although the true Songkran tradition is to sprinkle water on people, the holiday has evolved as travelers and locals alike don water cannons and buckets to take the "blessings" to another level. Dousing or sprinkling people with water signifies the washing away of bad thoughts and actions. It brings them good luck in the new year. Sometimes firehoses are used to really spread the good blessings! To up the ante, many Thais add ice to their water or form teams that wear masks or bananas while wielding large water cannons As formal processions and formalities end, a throng forms in the street to dance, party, and throw water in good-natured fun.

A woman smears a man with white paste during Songkran celebrations
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When Is Songkran?

Songkran was once based on the lunar calendar, however, now the dates are fixed. Songkran officially runs for three days starting on April 13 and finishing on April 15. Opening ceremonies begin on 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 places popular with tourists such as Chiang Mai and Phuket. If you arrive a few days early, you will still want to have your waterproof bags ready to go as some excited children may be eager to douse you days before the official start of the festival.

Warning: Be ready early! Excited children may douse you (and your smartphone or passport) days before the official start of the festival.

A young girl throws water during Songkran
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Where to Celebrate

Although the epicenter of Songkran is around the old city moat in Chiang Mai, you'll find massive celebrations in Bangkok, Phuket, and all other tourist areas. If you are celebrating in Chiang Mai, be ready for huge crowds and gridlock traffic around the Old City moat. 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.

Tha Pae Gate will be the epicenter of the water festival, with people using the moat or hoses provided by bars to fill their buckets and water guns. Here, you'll also be able to see the parade of Buddhas statues that are carried through the main gate to be washed during this religious ceremony.

Smaller towns and provinces may celebrate more traditionally with the focus being on temple activities rather than revelry. For a more traditional experience, consider visiting Isaan. This region in northeast Thailand receives much fewer visitors than it should and is interesting to see given the region's close connection to Laotian culture. Of course, Songkran isn't just celebrated in Thailand. You can also find festivals in Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and other parts of Southeast Asia.

How to Celebrate

The traditional way to wish someone well at Songkran and to make peace after splashing them is with sah-wah-dee pee mai which 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."

It can be easy to get lost in the excitement, but there are a few unspoken rules that you should bear in mind during the festival.

  • Don't throw water after sundown. You'll see people doing it, but they are in the wrong.
  • Don't splash monks, pregnant women, or babies.
  • Don't remove your shirt or dress indecently. In 2016, a British man was arrested and charged with public obscenity for removing his shirt.

How to Avoid Getting Wet

You can't! Unless you hide indoors for three days, you can only lessen the soakings by going somewhere rural where water is sprinkled more so than thrown. Even then, in places with fewer farangs (foreigners), you may be seen as a priority target. Only monks, the king, and pregnant women are exempt from being splashed. No matter how much you plead or what items you are carrying with you, you could be attacked by the hotel staff with water as soon as you exit your room.

Yes, constantly having water—sometimes chilled with ice—dumped over the head can test one's patience after the second or third day. Forget trying to sit, read, or work in any open-air establishment. The ultimatum is straightforward: If you don't want to get wet or join the chaotic celebrations, don't go anywhere near Songkran! Either plan to join the fray and have fun or wait out the celebration somewhere else.

How to Stay Safe

Songkran is about fun and good karma in the new year, but for some reason, carrying a large plastic water gun seems to embolden people. Don't be one of the jerks who uses the festival as an excuse to act like a bully (e.g., splashing people at night or shooting indoors into businesses). As you can imagine, Songkran has led to the destruction of more than its fair share of cameras and phones, so you should also waterproof all your devices or leave all valuables at your hotel.

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, so you could be fined if you are acting indecently. Remember to keep your shoes on too, because despite efforts to ban bottles, broken glass ends up everywhere.

Drunk driving is a serious problem and pedestrians can be hit by vehicles so you'll want to be careful and stay alert when crossing the road or standing at intersections. Remember that Songkran is a religious festival, so stay out of the way of worshipers at temples and shrines. If you visit a temple, show due respect.

If you're skeptical of the cleanliness of the water, know that city authorities drain the old water from the moat and refill it with fresh water before the festival begins. The water is still not potable, so try to avoid swallowing it during the water fight. It might still happen by accident, so make sure your travel vaccinations for Asia are up to date! Water-borne viruses are commonly experienced after the festival.

Other Songkran Traditions

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 cheeks and forehead. Symbolically, it wards off bad luck. Don't worry: The paste should be water-soluble so it won't stain your clothes.

Another old Songkran ritual is to tie blessed strings (sai sin) 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, cotton strings blessed by monks) and say a short blessing. The tradition is to leave the strings on until they break or fall off on their own. If they become too nasty to wear, try to untie them instead of cutting them, so as not to break the good luck.

Wearing colorful clothing is a tradition during Songkran. Tourists and locals often wear vividly colored, flowery "Songkran shirts" to celebrate. You'll find plenty of tacky Songkran shirts available for cheap.