About This Festival
Super Soakers, water balloons and virtually any sort of spray bottle become weapons of water during Thailand’s Songkran (Water) Festival, April 13-15. Although the roots of this festival are spiritual, with water dousing representing a purification ritual to wash away evil spirits in anticipation of the Thai New Year, it has now become an enormous countrywide water fight. Thais spend three brutally hot days soaking their fellow citizens and everyone else in what amounts to the biggest party of the year.
Spirituality, Sandcastles & Statues at Songkran
The date of April 13 as the traditional Thai New Year and the pinnacle of Songkran was set firmly around 1940. Before that, the date floated according to a lunar calendar. It’s something of an anachronism to consider this date “the new year” because Thailand recognizes the Gregorian calendar and the year beginning on January 1, but Songkran is still celebrated vigorously as a national holiday.
The spiritual aspects of the Songkran Water Festival live on through observant Buddhists who douse statues of the Buddha in scented water. Many fast, pray and give thanks to elders and monks, focusing on welcoming positive energy and spirituality for the beginning of the new year. They build small sandcastle pagodas outside temples. In cities like Chiang Mai, enormous ornate floats carry statues of the Buddha through town, which people pelt with water in the name of renewal and cleansing.
The modern secular incarnation of Songkran is more of a party. The festival takes place in various cities throughout Thailand including Bangkok and Phuket. However, if it’s your first time, we recommend the festival’s epicenter: the legendary city of Chiang Mai. Festivities take place around the seven-centuries-old moat in the Old City, the district with many ancient wats or temples. The moat is a wide, man-made river running through town bordered at various points by high brick walls, grassy embankments and the bustling activity of the city center. In preparation for Songkran, the standing water in the moat is emptied and refilled with fresh water, again, signifying renewal (but beware, this “fresh” water is not potable, so don’t drink it!).
Water, Water Everywhere
During Songkran, a veritable water war takes place at the moat. People soak each other, drink, party and generally have a grand time. Water pistols, balloons, spray bottles and hoses are the vessels of purification around the moat as gallons of water are traded back and forth between revelers, usually accompanied by the traditional greeting, suk san wan songkran (Happy New Year!). As it’s typically over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during April in Thailand, you’ll definitely welcome the cool down at this exciting water festival.
It doesn’t stop there, however. Virtually anywhere in town, you can get drenched. When considering the chances of a random dousing during Songkran, the question is not “if” but “when.” Roll down the window of your taxi, and you might get blitzed with water balloons. The lobby of your hotel could be filled with festive staff who let you have it as you pass. Turn the corner on your way to a restaurant and you may find a group of young men pointing a high-pressured hose at your face. Try not to get angry and definitely don’t take it personally. The party just doesn’t stop and if it hadn’t been you, it would have been the next person. Take it in stride and don’t hang too much on your composure during this celebration.
There’s a lot more to Songkran than water fights. Elaborate floats and painted elephants parade through town. The Wisutkasat district hosts a Miss Songkran beauty contest. The streets of Chiang Mai and virtually any major city in Thailand teem with delicious local foods and most of the city shuts down to celebrate. The atmosphere is one of revelry and fun but the constant drenching is not done at the expense of dignity. The Thai people bring equal portions of relaxed and serious vibes to this event. It’s certainly not a somber affair, but it’s a time to respect a tradition that has tremendous meaning in this culture. Every year is viewed as the chance for a fresh start, and by bathing in water for a few days straight, you just might get a feeling for that freshness first-hand.