The annual water festival of Songkran stands out as Thailand’s most renowned celebration and remains a draw for visitors. The traditional New Year for Thais, Songkran is the Sanskrit word meaning “to move into” as the three-day festival marks the move into a new solar year. The celebrations are now observed nationwide, including in the Muslim-majority deep south.
HISTORY: Originally set by astrologists, the festival’s date is now fixed from April 13 to 15 and coincides with the New Year celebrations of many countries in South and South-east Asia such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh and others. If the holiday falls on a weekend however, Thais will make up for the days off work at the start of the week after – and often take the entire two-week period off. Set during the hottest time of the year, at the end of the dry season, this national holiday was used as the beginning of the Thai calendar year until 1888. Passers greet each other with a “Sawasdee Pi Mai” (“Happy New Year”), or a specific “Suk San Wan Songkran” (“Happy Songkran Day”).
Although the Buddhist calendar year has since been shifted, Songkran’s significance has not been diminished. Many Thais will use the New Year to make resolutions. The festival focuses on cleaning and renewal, and many clean their houses and purify themselves in all respects.
TRADITIONS: A time for thanksgiving and paying respect to elders, Thais are expected to reflect on acts of kindness from the past year and to spend this period with family. Particularly in the north, Thais will carry handfuls of sand to their monasteries, to compensate for the dirt carried away over the course of the past year, and sculpt these into stupa-shaped piles decorated with flags of various colours. In many cities like Chiang Mai, the most famous for its elaborate festivities, images and statues of Buddhas are exposed and paraded in the streets for Thais to ritualistically bathe them.
This has given rise to a visible and entertaining aspect of celebrations: the throwing of water. During this period Thais and foreigners roam the streets with water guns and other devices to cleanse all passers-by and dance to traditional music. Plastic bags to protect one’s possessions are widespread during this week. Pedestrians in particular should go prepared. The bonhomie of this holiday varies by location but travellers can be certain to find vibrant celebrations. Many of the rituals are the same but with local influences.
REGIONAL VARIATIONS: Chiang Mai and the Northern region are the most renowned for their elaborate ceremonies and long-running street parties (the holiday lasts six days there). The region is illuminated with parades, cultural performances and street water fights throughout the ancient walled city. The historic city of Sukhothai has two celebrations – the visit to the temple fairs at the historical park as well as the tradition and food festival – and presents a smaller yet distinctive alternative to the more famous northern capital’s.
Bangkok presents a wide range of festivities. While the three high points of any water fights are concentrated in the backpacker district of Khao San Rd, the nightlife area of Royal City Avenue and Silom Rd, the site of world’s biggest water fight, according to the 2011 Guinness book of world records.
A number of cultural festivities are also organised, including at Wat Pho and the nine famous temples of the Royal Palace area and along the Chaopraya River. Tourists may also wish to visit one of the capital’s thousand temples for less crowded celebrations.
In the North-eastern region, each of the major cities (Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Nong Khai and Nakhon Ratchasima) organise both cultural and informal events. Rehabilitated after recent floods, the old capital of Ayutthaya continues to organise celebrations to reflect its ancient history. The Southern provinces are also exciting during this period as Muslim Thais partake as passionately as others. Hat Yai is particularly renowned for its midnight celebrations and floating market.
Travellers should go prepared with plastic bags and water guns, but this unique festival provides a window into Thais’ playfulness and spirituality that helps explain why tourists keep returning in ever greater numbers.
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