5 Things You Need to Know about Songkran in Thailand
Featured destinations: Asia
Published 30 March 2016
To ensure you experience a destination at its most authentic, we have partnered with in-destination experts Buffalo Tours, meaning that when you book one of our Thailand Journeys you will have access to their local experts who can help you experience the best of the country. With Songkran approaching, we asked Buffalo Tours to share their insider knowledge on how to experience the best of the fun festival.
Thailand isn’t known as the Land of Smiles without good reason. There are few places where light-heartedness and a penchant for having fun are more intricately woven into a nation’s identity than Thailand. And the very best of that joviality culminates during April, Thailand’s hottest month, and the days that mark Songkran Festival, the national lunar New Year celebration.
For three spectacular days, water fights and parties dominate the streets for an event that is part fun-loving extravaganza, part festival. But before taking to the streets for the celebration, here are five things you need to know while planning your Thailand trip.
1. When to go
Traditionally, the exact dates of Songkran Festival fluctuated according to the Thai calendar, dictated by an ever-changing lunar cycle. Thankfully, the Thai government declared Songkran a national holiday in 1940 with fixed dates: 13th to the 15th of April.
Depending on where you are, Songkran festivities can last anywhere from three days to an entire week. Each day of Songkran has a particular significance: ‘Elderly Day’ on the 13th; ‘Family Day’ on the 14th; and ‘Relaxation Day’ on the 15th – though this final, restful day is usually anything but. If you ask the locals what the final day of Songkran is really for, they’ll likely respond with a smiling mai bpen rai – Thai for “don’t worry about it”.
2. Where to go
Most big cities have more robust Songkran celebrations than smaller towns and, the further north you go, the longer they last. In the northern city of Chiang Mai, you can count on being soaked to the bone for no less than five days. On the idyllic southern beaches of Krabi and Phuket, the bulk of the water dousing takes place on a single day, 14th of April.
Chiang Mai hosts the most well-known of Songkran festivities, even lasting longer than the celebrations in the capital. In Bangkok though, many locals would argue that although their festivities may not last as long, they are more flamboyant and fun. That said, the Thai government’s recent crackdown on nightlife in the capital might leave Chiang Mai as the uncontested top spot to celebrate Songkran – so plan your trip accordingly.
No matter where you go, the light nature of Songkran is taken seriously throughout Thailand, and it’s safe to assume that you’ll be in for a good time regardless of your location.
3. Why go?
Tourists would be forgiven for thinking that Songkran is just all fun and games. Sidewalks are chock-full of straw mats topped with locals picnicking and sipping on Thai whisky; major streets are blocked off for revellers to run amuck wielding water guns and buckets; bars and clubs are packed with locals and visitors alike, day and night. But beneath the festivities there is far more symbolism and meaning than meets the eye. While splashing water on passers-by has taken on more energy in modern-day Songkran, the act itself is still woven into Thailand’s culture and spirituality.
Water has a great deal of symbolic meaning in Thailand and plays a big role in many Buddhist rituals. During Songkran, Thai people believe that dousing someone with water washes away their misdeeds, misfortunes and bad luck from the previous year. Songkran is a time when locals wash themselves clean and start fresh – so there are no hard feelings when pelting a stranger with a water gun!
Overall, the purpose of Songkran is to ring in the New Year by cleansing oneself of the past, while paying respect to your roots. Even with a water gun in hand, the festival is an important time for locals to develop a deeper connection with family and loved ones.
4. What to do
Have fun! Seriousness is in short supply in Thailand, especially during a holiday like Songkran. If you’re in a public place, count on getting wet and having fun doing it. However, if you’re searching for a break from water cannons or buckets, take refuge at cafés and restaurants – most are splash-free zones (with a bit of mai bpen rai attitude on the side).
Waterproof anything of value that shouldn’t get wet and avoid wearing anything that will be damaged by water. Unless you are a monk, being splashed during Songkran is an absolute inevitability. Waterproof bags and containers are widely available (and sometimes free) during the festival, so take advantage of these if you are carrying anything that would be better off dry.
If you really want to get into the spirit of the event, alms-giving is a central component of the festival. A particularly popular practice during Songkran is to wash the arms and legs of a Buddha image. This is seen as a means of gaining merit and for having good luck in the coming year.
Say sawadee bii mai (happy new year) to local people. They will appreciate the gesture and reply in earnest with a hearty sawadee bii mai of their own. You can then celebrate your new friendship by throwing a bucket of water over them!
5. What NOT to do
The insanity of Songkran does come with some caveats when it comes to safety. Although the festival is about having fun, there are some things to be aware of to make sure that your experience goes without a hitch...
Don’t try driving anywhere during Songkran, especially by motorbike. While this is a great way to explore Thailand, Songkran is not the time to do it. The roads are wet and bustling and tarmac that is usually safe can become dangerous. If you’re worried about transportation, take advantage of a guide and a local driver who can help you navigate the Songkran festivities safely and quickly.
Avoid splashing monks, babies, elderly people, or motorists with water – but also don’t be surprised to see exceptions to this rule regularly. Although many others might be throwing buckets of water on anyone that passes by, not everyone is fair game. Splashing a monk with water is always off-limits and the soaking of motorists and the elderly only heightens the inherent dangers of an otherwise fun festival.
Don’t carry anything with you that absolutely cannot get wet. Even waterproof bags/containers can fail, so stow your electronics at your hotel before heading out into the streets.
Remember: getting soggy is an absolute inevitability.