Celebrating the New Year Water Festival in Southeast Asia

The middle of April is a time of celebration for a number of countries in Southeast Asia. The traditional New Year Water Festivals are a time to make merit, spend time with family and enjoy an extended holiday break. The water festivals are steeped in tradition with each country in Southeast Asia placing their own unique twist on the New Year events. There are different names for the festival and different ways of celebrating, but they all have one thing in common. Water. Lots of water!

What’s with all the water?

Water is important during traditional New Year celebrations in Southeast Asia for a number of reasons. Throwing water is a symbolic way of starting afresh for the year ahead. The troubles of the previous year are washed away and people can start with a clean slate. Like many festivals in Asia, the origins of the festival are tied closely to the land and the importance of the rains to the harvest. At the end of the hot, dry season, people in rural areas would encourage the rains with the throwing of water from rivers. The tradition lived on over the centuries and has developed into the huge water-throwing celebration seen in villages, town and cities throughout Southeast Asia today.

Buddhist traditions

Although it might seem to be just one great excuse for a giant water fight, there is much more to the New Year Water Festivals than throwing buckets of water at each other on the street. It’s tradition for young people to pour water respectfully over the hands of older people and good luck for those receiving the blessing. Be sure to visit a Buddhist temple and see how local people mark the event. You’ll see water being poured over Buddha images and in many towns and cities, important Buddhist statues are paraded along the streets providing local people with the opportunity to throw scented water over the images.

In some regions, piles of sand are built up at temples as symbolic offerings for the new year. The sand replaces the dust that a person has carried away with their feet from the temple during the past year. These sand stupas are then decorated with colourful Buddhist flags.

Thailand New Year Water Festival

In Thailand, the traditional New Year Water Festival is called ‘Songkran’. The festival in Thailand is probably the best-known of all the events in the region due to the large number of tourists that visit.
When: April 13-15. There are regional variations on these official dates and in some provinces events can go on for a week or more. On some of the Thai islands it’s only a day or two of water throwing.
Where: Nationwide.

Laos New Year Water Festival

In Laos the New Year Water Festival is referred to as ‘Songkran’ or ‘Pii Mai Lao’.
When: April 14-16
Where: Celebrated nationwide, but particularly famous in Luang Prabang where festivities tend to go on longer than elsewhere in the country.

Burma New Year Water Festival

The Burmese New Year Water Festival is known as ‘Thingyan’.
When: April 13-16
Where: Nationwide

Cambodia New Year Water Festival

In the Khmer language, the festival is known as ‘Chaul Chnam’ but is also sometimes called Songkran.
When: April 13-15
Where: Nationwide

Top tips for enjoying the New Year Water Festival

New Year Water Festivals can be a wonderful event to experience in person. No matter how many photos or videos you’ve seen of the event, there is nothing that compares to actually being there.

  • The main thing to do is to embrace the event and simply smile and enjoy. Having water poured on you is a tradition that dates back centuries and is meant to bring good luck. So the wetter you are the luckier you are going to be in the year ahead!
  • Whilst it might appear at first glance that anything goes when it comes to all-out water fights, that isn’t the case. Don’t throw water at monks or elderly people and just apply some basic common-sense. Respect the fact that not everybody wants to join in and some people still have to go about their daily business as others enjoy the party.
  • Book travel arrangements and accommodation well in advance. The April New Year Water Festivals are national holidays in their respective countries and flights, buses and trains are busy as local people make their way home to be with their family for the extended holiday.
  • You are certain to get wet. It’s wise not to carry passports, mobile phones and other valuables on you. Vendors do a roaring trade in waterproof bags and pouches, but these vary in quality and the protection they offer.
  • In some cities, you will see people wearing swimsuits or skimpy clothing. This might seem practical, but the New Year Water Festivals are still a religious festival so try to retain at least some modesty. Do what many of the locals do and wear a colourful ‘Songkran shirt’ to welcome in the new year.

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