Traditionally Songkran, or Thai New Year, was marked by the quiet practice of blessing Buddha statues, but today it has become a far more raucous affair — so much so that it’s often referred to as the world’s biggest water fight. Vast crowds of revelers, locals and tourists alike, line streets across Southeast Asia armed with buckets of water, hoses, and huge, brightly colored water pistols. This is no place for bystanders; if you’re outside, you’re fair game.
Rather than one geographically specific event, Songkran celebrations take place all over Thailand, as well as the neighboring countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (plus Xishuangbanna in southwestern China and the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam), so it pays to go prepared. Read on for everything you need to know about Songkran.
What is Songkran?
Songkran celebrates the Thai New Year and the end of the dry season, which roughly runs from November until late March or early April. The day itself falls on April 13, but in Thailand, the period from April 13 to 15 is designated as a national holiday. However, the festivities often last several days longer.
What are the origins of Songkran?
The name Songkran derives from the Sanskrit for “passage” or “movement” — a reference to the Sun’s transition from one Zodiac position to the next. Technically, a songkran occurs every month; the correct name for the holiday period is actually Maha Songkran (Great Songkran) as it coincides with the arrival of a new year in the solar calendar.
Traditionally, Thai people would celebrate the festival by visiting their local Buddhist monastery to leave gifts of food, say prayers, wash their Buddha icons, and bless their elders and monks by pouring scented water onto their hands.
How is Songkran celebrated today?
As Thailand’s longest national holiday, celebrants return to their home towns and villages to observe Songkran with their families.
Temple visits and water blessings are still integral to Songkran celebrations today. In northern Thailand, people heading to their local temple bring small bags of sand, which are used to build small sand stupas — an important form of Buddhist architecture noted for its mound-like appearance — that are then adorned with flags honoring the Budda.
However, the festival is undoubtedly best known for water fights. People of all ages fill their water guns and buckets to the brim and take to the streets, either on foot or in the back of pick-up trucks, ready to drench anyone they pass — and tourists are a prize target. Copious amounts of an off-white powder called din sor pong — a talc made from marly limestone — are also thrown around and liberally applied to people’s bodies and faces. In Songkran hotspots, such as Bangkok’s Silom and Khao San road, use of this powder has been banned in previous years due to fears that it clogs up the sewer system (although enterprising vendors often find a way to smuggle it in regardless).
What should I wear during Songkran?
Common sense dictates that anyone walking Thai streets during Songkran should dress for extensive water and talc attacks. Wear light clothing — particularly as April is also Thailand’s hottest month — and leave any valuables in your hotel. However, in many ways, Thailand is a conservative country, and this is still a religious event, so Songkran revelers should refrain from dressing too revealingly. Think shorts and t-shirts, rather than swimwear.
Where to celebrate the Songkran festivities?
Songkran takes place across Thailand, but the biggest and most water-soaked events can be found in the country’s tourist hotspots. In Bangkok, official government-sponsored celebrations are held at Benjasiri Park where visitors are given a showcase of traditional Thai customs, food, and music. But the most spectacular water fights are centered on Khao San Road — the Thai capital’s backpacker hub — and the more upmarket, but equally tourist-packed, Silom Road. In northern Thailand, Chiang Mai — the country’s second city — is the place to be for Songkran. Sacred Buddha statues are paraded through the streets while raucous water-based warfare breaks out on the roads adjacent to the Old City moat and at Tha Pae Gate, the main entrance to Chiang Mai’s historic center. In central Thailand, the ancient former capital Ayutthaya is the setting for what is arguably the country’s most unusual Songkran celebrations, during which herds of elephants elaborately painted in bright colors spray water at crowds of onlookers.
Editor’s note: Songkran celebrations are officially canceled in 2020. Thankfully, you have plenty of time to plan for 2021.