Last weekend we celebrated Songkran, the Thai New Year festival, in Chiang Mai with a few close friends. We had a blast, but I think we were more than a little unprepared for it. I thought I’d compile some information here for anyone else looking to celebrate Songkran (in Chiang Mai or elsewhere) so they have a better idea of what to expect.
WHEN: April 13th, with the holiday period extending through the 15th.
WHAT: Songkran is a Thai National Holiday, originally celebrated as the official New Year until 1888. It aligns with the Buddhist solar calendar and is consider a Buddhist holiday by most, although many non-Buddhists celebrate it in Thailand and Malaysia. Pouring water on statues of Buddha and on other people is central to the ritual, said to wash away your sins and bring you good luck. In modern times this tradition has evolved into water splashing merriment, turning entire city blocks into water fighting arenas that people of all ages and walks of life have come to enjoy.
WHERE: Songkran is celebrated all throughout Thailand, with different regions having some of their own unique traditions. It is also celebrated in parts of Malaysia and Myanmar, mostly by Buddhists or Thai people who have immigrated there. Regions of Thailand popular with tourists such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya and the islands typically have the most intense celebrations.
THINGS YOU WILL NEED:
I would recommend a swimsuit underneath clothes you don’t care about, at least one water gun per person, waterproof pouches for your phone/wallet or even a full-size dry bag. Wear some type of flip flops or sandals, as sneakers will get ruined.
WHAT TO EXPECT:
I seriously underestimated this holiday celebration before we arrived, initially believing the water fights to be condensed to a small area in each city. My experiences can only speak to festivities in Chiang Mai, but I have heard from others that Koh Samui and Phuket are very similar. As soon as you walk outside your hotel or guesthouse someone is going to pour an entire bucket of water on you. As you walk down the street, maybe just to get lunch or grab something from 7-11, you will be continuously pelted by guns, hoses, buckets, you name it. If you ride in a songthaew (covered pickup truck taxi), people will make sure everyone inside gets soaking wet as you drive past them. If you absolutely must not get wet, I would recommend ordering an Uber or a Grab directly to where you are staying. Even so there are no guarantees, and I wouldn’t go anywhere without a waterproof bag.
I also mistakenly assumed that the 13th would be the craziest day and that things would calm down a bit for days two or three, but all three days were about the same level of intensity. It is great fun and unlike any holiday celebration I have ever seen, but by the third day you might be tired of always being soaking wet.
For your accommodation, I would suggest booking somewhere not on a main road, but still close to the city center. We appreciated having somewhere quieter to retreat to when needed, but it was also nice to be able to walk everywhere. Many roads are closed to vehicles during Songkran and traffic will be miserable, so it is best to rely on your own two legs.
Make sure to have a positive attitude and not to take anything personally. Everyone is getting sprayed by everyone else and there is no stopping it. Even if you are getting harassed by an individual or group repeatedly, it is best to ignore them and keep having fun or you will put an even bigger target on your back. The more you look like you want to avoid a splash, the more of a target you are!
Pay attention to your belongings and only bring the bare minimum with you. Theft is a fairly common occurrence during the festival and you don’t want to be carrying that much along with you anyway.
Don’t be afraid to let loose and feel like a kid again! I haven’t felt such childish joy in a long time, shooting other tourists and locals literally all day long. If I could do it all again I would probably try to time my trip so I was just catching the last two days of Songkran instead of all three, as by Sunday I was exhausted and really just wanted a break from being wet. We were able to sneak in a cooking class on Sunday morning and managed to stay completely dry until about 3 or 4 pm, but I think we were quite lucky. This festival is definitely something you want to experience if you are in Thailand in the spring, make sure to plan carefully around it!