Every year, from the 13th to the 15th of April, Thailand celebrates Songkran, the Thai New Year Festival and the whole of Thailand turns into one big water fight. An occasion to be avoided if you don’t like to get wet, the party of the year for others and an auspicious holiday for all, Songkran has many faces and is observed by locals and foreigners alike.
Songkran Festival is the biggest and most important national holiday during the Thai calendar. Originally set to coincide with the Aries period on the astrological chart, the dates are now set so the holiday falls at the same time every year. While most people today may see Songkran as a chance to throw water at friends and families – even policemen are fair game – the festival has deep roots in Thai culture and societal norms. Songkran formerly marked the beginning of a new year in the Thai calendar (then April 1st) until 1940 when the new year was decided to start on January 1st, following the Gregorian calendar.
The throwing of water was originally used as way of showing people respect by gently dousing blessed water on their hands and shoulders. Yet today the emphasis is mainly on throwing water and during the festival children as well as adults will stand on the roadside with giant buckets of water – sometimes iced! – and throw it at anyone who comes by. Some rent cars or tuk tuks and drive around town listening to popular music and making stops along the way. Water guns are sold on every corner and when you run out there is always a tap nearby to refill.
Many will also carry small buckets of chalk thinned with water to make a paste. The paste is then smeared on friends and people who happen to walk within arm’s reach. The ritual originated in the temples where monks would use the chalk to mark their blessings.
The Songkran festival is celebrated nation-wide in varying degrees of vigour. Visitors looking to celebrate the Thai new year this year should consider the below popular tourist destinations:
1. Bangkok: The Thai capital the obvious choice for Songkran celebrations when the city stops for three days and turns into what is arguably the world’s biggest water fight. Popular places include Khao San area, Silom and Siam. The festivities will usually start around 10am and go on till late from April 13-15.
2. Chiang Mai: The Rose of the North is also well known for its Songkran celebrations which sometimes last up to one week. The area around the city moat turns into one big party. 9am to 10pm from April 12-16.
3. Phuket: Patong Beach on the country’s most popular island destination is a good place to start, but expect a fair amount of chaos. The official guidelines for Songkran celebrations in Patong Beach are from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. but expect things to go on for much longer. April 12-13.
4. Sukhothai: The city famed for its UNESCO World Heritage sites is perfect for those wanting a more laid back experience. The historical temple parks are stunning and offer a good opportunity to see experience the spiritual side of Songkran. April 6-16.
5. Koh Phangan: Home of the legendary Full Moon Party, the island in the Gulf of Thailand is usually a mad experience. Add Songkran and you have three days full of dancing in the sand and getting soaked in the streets; on the night of the April 14th, an all-night beach rave takes place on Haad Rin beach with twice the reason to party.
Tips for foreigners experiencing Songkran for the first time:
> Buy a waterproof bag for your belongings, you WILL get wet!
> Leave your valuables at the hotel. Pickpockets are on the prowl during Songkran
> Learn how to say “Sawatdi Bee Mai”, which means Happy New Year in Thai
> Lastly, have fun but be careful if you’re on a motorbike as the Songkran period is notorious for all the traffic accidents.