***Video montage of the festival is at the bottom of this post – Jump to view here!***
If you arrive in Thailand during the second week of April without doing your homework on the various different Thailand festivals, you will be in for a BIG shock!
You check into your hotel, take a shower, change into your finest clothes, and then step out to explore… then suddenly from all directions complete strangers will dump buckets of water over you and smear you with painted clay.
Maybe it’s not quite the welcome you were expecting, but this is the joy of Songkran!
Thailand Festivals: Songkran Water Festival
While in reality there’s much more to the ritual, on a superficial level, Songkran can appear to be nothing more than a huge water fight and to millions of travelers that’s exactly what it represents.
The entire nation of Thailand virtually comes to a stop during the height of the festival and there is simply no avoiding the fact that if you are on the streets anywhere in the country during those few days, sooner or later you’ll get a good soaking.
Even the usual boundaries between young and old are suspended. But it must be understood that everything is done with good intentions, and in true Songkran spirit, when you get a splashing, you don’t get mad, you get even!
So, if you find yourself in Thailand during this Thai New Year festival, put your passport and paper money somewhere safe, grab yourself a water gun or a bucket, and join in the fun!
Songkran – More Than Just a Splash-Fest
If you confine yourself to a city during Songkran, your experience is likely to be extremely one-dimensional. That’s because local people who can afford to get away use the opportunity to visit distant relatives in rural villages.
This is why the roads out of Bangkok and Chiang Mai are jammed beyond comprehension and all modes of inter-city transport are expensive and packed to capacity.
The reason you can’t get a seat on the bus is because all the Thais have gone off to watch their uncle win the village Songkran karaoke competition. The people left behind with you in the city are mostly those who can’t get out of working, or who forgot to arrange their travel early. Typically that means hotel staff, 7-Eleven employees, massage girls and tourists.
Plus, of course, there is a deeper spiritual significance behind the whole event which is not really all that evident in the street-side shenanigans of the city, but is prominently front and center in the villages.
In almost every religion, water is symbolic of life, intellect, purity, and cleansing. So you can see really the basis of the Songkran festival stems from this symbolism. Thais use water for every important ceremony – weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations, and even for the blessing of a new car.
Water as Symbolism
Contrary to what you may first think, fun-loving Thais don’t just throw water over each other for no reason at all. Besides getting some pleasure out of seeing someone soaking wet, the water that’s thrown during Songkran is actually a symbolism of washing away all the troubles from the last year and cleansing one another so as to start the new year on a good note.
Traditionally, Thais would carefully pour a bowl of water on members of the family, their close friends and neighbours but as Songkran has now taken a much more fun-filled festive tone, what used to be a bowl has now become a bucket or a water gun, and the spirit of holiday cheerfulness is shared amongst residents and tourists alike.
While often it is the monks who splash water on the laypeople, during Songkran the roles are reversed. But of course, it’s not performed in the same manner that we throw water at everyone else during this special time.
People wait patiently in line to pour specially prepared water on the hands and feet of monks, senior citizens, and anyone else deemed to be especially important.
The water is usually prepared by using top quality purified water mixed with a substance known as Mong Leya lotion, giving a milky appearance. The water has a strong, pleasant aroma, and this is usually boosted by the addition of flowers.
It is not just a matter of pouring the water, you also need to make a sincere wish for the benefit of the person you’re pouring water on. If you’re really lucky, the recipient may rub some of the water on your face as a way of showing that they hold you in the same regard.
Songkran in Thailand – It’s Still a Massive Party
Just because there is a strong religious element to the celebration doesn’t mean that the locals and us foreigners don’t get to have lots of fun! Thai people love to party, and while some of the antics can seem a little out there, you can’t fail to enjoy yourself if you fully throw yourself into participating.
After all, everyone loves to dance, even those who can’t!
As with any decent party, food is plentiful and interesting and wearing a bucket on your head is not a tradition, just a convenience.
Traditional Fun and Games during Songkran
Most festivals and public gatherings in Thailand – and especially Songkran – involve games and contests. A quick word of caution… when the local ladies hit the bottle, they are usually looking for balls to smack. Yes, balls to smack. If you get the chance to partake in this game in a local Thai village, this is enacted by thrusting your hips forward to try and hit the ball with a bottle tied to a string around your waist.
The pole-climb is another whacky tradition. In this, bamboo poles are inserted in the ground and then liberally coated with palm oil. Contestants then attempt in teams of two or three to climb the pole and snatch the money that has been placed at the top.
There are many other games such as musical chairs, catch-the-water-balloon, sack races, and that kind of thing. There is so much going on all of the time, I’d imagine that it is literally impossible to get bored.
And while we didn’t get to see any of these games for ourselves as they tend to take place in the more rural places, it sure sounds like a hell of a lot of fun that should not be missed out on. Perhaps next time we’ll get to partake in sack races and pole climbing!
Songkran Holiday: How to get in on the Action
As with any really worthwhile experience, it is not especially easy to get access to the real traditional Songkran festival. One thing that is essential in order for you to get the maximum Songkran experience is to have an invitation from a local. Without that, you’ll just be a stranger crashing a party, and unless you are fluent in Thai you probably won’t get very far with that.
A local person can help smooth the way for you, make introductions, and translate. Even more importantly, they’ll help you get in, get out, and get around. Maybe they’ll even make sure you have a place to spend the night. Because it’s a certainty there won’t be any room on public transport for you to get back to your hotel.
If playing games and mixing with the locals in the countryside is not on your agenda and you want to just partake in the world’s biggest water fight and dance and have a blast, there’s plenty of opportunity for that too.
When is Songkran and how long does the festival last?
Way back when before Thailand adopted the international New Year’s Day in 1940, the period of Songkran was always determined based on the solar calendar, which largely varied from one year to the next. Things have since changed with Songkran taking place in Bangkok from April 13th-15th every year. But having said this, depending on where you are in the country, these dates may slightly vary.
Officially, the festival usually lasts for 3 days but having experienced our first ever Songkran in Chiang Mai this year, we now know that the festivities can last for up to an entire week in some places – yes, that does mean a week of water fights, partying and enjoying life.
Just another perk to living to Thailand I guess!
The Do’s and Dont’s of Songkran:
Our Verdict: Would we like to experience another Songkran festival?
Even though our Songkran experience was very much the ‘commercial’ one, we had an absolute blast and it’s a few days that we’ll never forget. As you’ll see from the video below, a lot of fun was had with our friends from The Trading Travelers and Getting Stamped and we’d highly recommend getting to Thailand for Songkran if it all possible.