Like a warrior prepping for battle, I cranked the faucet on the sink of my apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand and listened impatiently to the glugging sounds as tap water slowly filled my water gun’s reservoir. Day one of Songkran festivities were ramping up, (and a day ahead of schedule I might add!) and celebratory shouts for the Thai New Year bounced into my apartment from nearby streets.
I’ll admit, I was psyched!
Every year, Thailand and the rest of the region, including Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and nearby parts of China, welcome in their New Year with water, prayer and rituals. Songkran is the Thai version of this water festival and according to locals, there is no better place to experience the epic water fight than the streets of Chiang Mai (if you’re polling just me, I’d have to agree!). The water fight likely surged into such a big event because the several weeks leading up to Songkran are traditionally the hottest of the year and the tedious, energy-sapping heat triggers a lethargic stupor until the cool waters of Songkran promise a respite.
Chiang Mai in particular embraces Songkran with an intense and hearty enthusiasm I normally only reserve for, well, nothing…nothing I’ve been a part of in the United States reaches the fever-pitch of excitement and wackiness embodied in the three to five days of water fights and rituals.
But to be fair to India, the most chaotic and wacky country on my travels, Holi, the Festival of Colors comes close to Songkran’s fevor, but falls short because whereas Holi takes place in the morning hours of a single chosen day, Songkran spans days and days of mayhem and water-themed mischief.
Mayhem? You ask? Holy crap, yes to the mayhem. Thai New Year festivities propel the country into frenzied celebrations like damned water exploding from its constraints.
And that first day? Man, I was just itching to be a part of it.
With my water gun finally full and slung cross-body-warrior style (so I could easily whip it out when water-assaulted on the streets), I set out toward friends already partying at a nearby gate on the moat surrounding the inner city.
My dry clothes lasted mere moments before a pickup truck filled with Songkran revelers passed and they laughingly flung buckets of ice cold water toward me while I reciprocated with a well-aimed stream of water right to the face.
Further down the road, hoses worked as substitutes for the short-ranged water guns.
Children danced into the streets with sloshing buckets aimed in my direction, they darted and dodged from my water gun, hoping my Western sensitivities would save them from a thorough soaking but secretly relieved when I unleashed a torrent of water into their fleeing back.
Hours flowed by as I joined the throngs of Thai revelers treating the tourists to a taste of the city’s joyful welcoming of the New Year.
The water flowed non-stop and if a barrel of ice-water wasn’t close, the moat water nearby worked as a stand-by and long strings tied to the buckets were the perfect dipping mechanism! Clay and talc handprints adorned many faces, and music throbbed out from car speakers as traffic moved at a creeping pace around the outer moat road.
The Spiritual Side of Songkran
The huge, citywide (and country-wide) water fights last several days at the very least, with the first revelers hitting the streets each morning after 10am and finally holstering their water guns and buckets for the night somewhere around 6pm. The hours on the streets are filled with shouted “Sawat-di pi mai” greetings, or rather Happy New Year wishes, between the water fights and joyous laughter permeated the city.
The other side of Songkran, though, the part that actually inspired the huge water fights in past centuries, uses this holiday to pay respect to elders and monks and take more solemn and mindful acknowledgement of a fresh new year.
The Buddha statues from temples all over Chiang Mai are paraded down the city’s streets and revelers take pause from their festivities to gently toss fragrant and cleansing waters onto the Buddha statues. The stationary Buddha statues are also cleansed during Songkran and this fragrant water, now blessed from having touched the Buddha statues can be used to give good fortune to elders and members within a family.
The monks are the only ones mostly immune to the enthusiastic pummeling of water, and even then it’s a mere suggestion, not a mandate. If a monk is accidentally caught unexpectedly in the crossfire between revelers they often crack a grin too and good-naturedly accept the fact that being out in public during Songkran means you will get wet.
The Sum Total Songkran Experience
Festivals are some of my favorite parts of traveling—with an absolute passion I love the theatricality of celebrations and festivals in other parts of the world…they offer direct gateways into the culture either as a curious observer, or, as is much more often the case, I am invited and welcomed into the moment, welcomed to share in the experience and the culture if only for a day or a week.
Songkran in Chiang Mai is unforgettable; so often I found myself thinking “my god, we could never do this in the United States!” And that precise thought circled my head throughout the five days, yet I still hoisted my water gun each morning and set off into the town.
Songkran’s infectious revelry slowly seeped into my psyche until the perpetual grins of enthusiasm on the faces around me were mirrored on my own face. The festival is a wacky and odd tradition in many ways, and by the end I was so very, very ready to walk out my door without the fear of facing buckets of icey water hurled toward my face, but there were moments of absolute pure and childlike joy mixed into those days as I washed away the worry and fear and lived completely within the moments, alive and joyous and so happy for opportunities and the notion of a clean and fresh start to my coming months.
Check out the full Songkran Chiang Mai 2011 photo gallery for more fun water-fight photos and a whole lot more of the alms giving ceremony with the monks.
Quick Tips: Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
When: April 13th through the 15th each year are the official Songrkan dates, but festivities in Chiang Mai typically run at least one day before and after! If you’re in a nearby country check the dates as they can differ from Thailand.
Where: Songkran is celebrated throughout Thailand, with similar water festivals in Laos (Bpee Mai) and Burma (Thingyan). Chiang Mai is lauded as one of the best places to experience Songkran because the city is small enough to remain manageable but still has a huge moat for all of the water fun and the spiritual side too.
Safety: Do not ride your motorbike unless you absolutely have to do so. You will get sprayed in the face over and over again and it’s incredibly unsafe on the roads during this holiday. Hundreds die every year, a friend was minorly injured in a motorbike accident on the last day of Songkran, so be safe!
Extra Tips: Water will permeate every single thing on your person, that includes your waterproof bag with your cell phone and camera. I decked my camera out in plastic, tape, more plastic, more tape…and it still got soaking wet (but fixed with three days in a bowl of dry rice).
The best way to sum up Songkran was something I read as I prepped for the holiday, the gist: Songkran doesn’t care if you don’t want to get wet. Songkran doesn’t care if you have your fancy-schmancy camera in your hand. Songkran doesn’t care if you run. You. Will. Get. Wet.