Songkran is Thailand’s most popular festival, marking the beginning of the new solar year and the start of summer. The festival starts on 13 April, and continues for about three to five days, depending on the geographical location. Friends and family usually celebrate by visiting temples – and by throwing water on each other to represent the wish of “a year full of blessings”! Expat Living intern OWEN GARVEY runs his eye over some highlights.
Songkran is a festival to celebrate moving forward in life. The word derives from Sanskrit and means “passage of the sun”. The traditional way of celebrating is to clean your house before the new year to signify moving forward. On the morning of 13 April, families go to temples and bring offerings for the Buddhas. They then pour clear water over the Buddhas to represent “purification or good fortune”. Kids additionally pour scented water over the hands of the elderly to show respect. You’ll also see people placing sand in the stupas. This represents sand they have carried on their shoes; placing it in the stupas represents leaving the past behind and moving forward.
Celebrations have expanded in recent years, with water fights in particular becoming grander in scale across the nation. Because of this, Songkran is a great reason to travel to Thailand. Below, we look at three cool places to head to if you’re thinking about seeing the festival this year. Booking in advance can be important – hotels, trains and buses tend to be packed with both international and Thai travellers during Songkran.
#1 Silom, Bangkok
The entire 5km length of this busy Bangkok suburb gets completely packed on two levels, with thousands of Thai partiers bringing along anything they have that can disperse water. Silom is arguably the biggest and wildest Songkran crowd in Bangkok.
Happily, there are some dry surroundings too. Stay on the skywalk which runs above the street and you should be okay. (Do carry any valuables in a waterproof bag, just in case things get hectic!) This is also a good spot to see the full extent of the water fighting. It usually involves a huge crowd of young expats and young Thai people, with lots of stalls selling water guns, drinks, food and, of course, beer.
Silom is also home to popular entertainment district Patpong. If you go there, keep your eyes peeled for the fire trucks that ambush each intersection with their big and powerful water hoses. Since the heat in Bangkok can be stifling, being hosed down isn’t the worst idea. That’s why the crowd is usually delighted to see the trucks!
In Phuket, Songkran starts like any other normal day. By about midday on 13 April, however, the streets are literally lined with people. Vehicles cruise around dumping water onto the brave street walkers.
Bangla Road, the main bar street in Patong, is definitely the place to be, though be prepared for lots of loud music, screaming and water flying in every direction. Phuket Town and the Kata and Karon beach areas are other good spots. It’s not all just partying though; there are beauty pageants, art shows, flower parades and more. In all honesty, in Phuket, you don’t need to go looking for great Songkran festivities, they’ll find you!
If you’re not a huge party-goer, try the activities in the ancient city of Ayutthaya, 1.5 hours from Bangkok. You can offer food to local monks and pour scented water on the hands of elders to receive their blessings. There are cultural performances, a floral float parade and also “merit-making” activities, like releasing birds and fish for good karma.
#4 Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north, celebrations last a week, with a mix of traditional elements and partying. The former include making sand pagodas and Buddhist ceremonial flags.
In the city, you’ll find parades of people escorting Buddha statues down the streets. People walk with the statues to represent unity. Try to sprinkle some water on a Buddha, if you can; this represents cleansing and respect.
Once you’ve experienced some of Songkran’s rich culture, jump in a tuk-tuk and visit a few bars with your friends. Out of all the cities, Chiang Mai probably provides that balance of tradition and partying that travellers tend to love.
Do’s and don’ts
- use waterproof bags or plastic bags to protect valuable items;
- keep watch of all your belongings – there are lots of people around;
- try to use public transportation if you’re heading to one of the Songkran ‘hotspots’;
- try to wish as many of the locals a happy new year in Thai (“Sawasdee Pee Mai!”);
- give alms and make merit (if you’re a Buddhist) – or at least witness these rituals;
- smile at all the locals and expats you see;
- embrace the water fights and getting wet;
- have fun!
- spray water onto monks, babies or the elderly;
- drink and drive;
- throw water with ice or hard materials that could hurt somebody;
- throw dirty water; or
- throw water at motorcyclists or oncoming cars.
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