Last updated on March 1, 2020
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!
What is Songkran?
Every year, Thailand and the rest of the region—including Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and nearby parts of China—welcome the New Year with water, prayer, and rituals. These celebrations fall within the Buddhist calendar, and 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. The cool waters of Songkran promise a respite, as well as a joyous way to welcome in the Thai New Year.
Where to Celebrate Songkran?
Both Chiang Mai and Bangkok have notable festivals, and you can’t go wrong with either one. That said, Chiang Mai embraces Songkran with an intense and hearty enthusiasm I normally only reserve for, well, nothing. Nothing in the United States reaches the fever-pitch of excitement and wackiness embodied in the three to five days of water fights and rituals during Thailand’s Songkran celebrations.
If you’re in Bangkok, you’ll find the rowdiest celebrations on Khao San Road, although the entire city is celebrating the Bangkok Songkran Splendours Festival, which kicks off on the 13th at Wat Pho. In Chiang Mai, parades start on the 12th, and things will be in full swing by the 13th. Plan to spend Songkran with friends or other backpackers, walking slowly around the square moat (it will take you hours to complete)—this is where the main action happens. It’s a good plan to start at Chiang Mai Gate or Thapae Gate, which are always happening during Songkran, and then you can walk the moat from there, or head toward the Ping River on another day, where there are also always celebrants ready to throw water.
(To be fair to India, however, the Holi the Festival of Colors comes close to Songkran’s fervor, 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.)
What Happens During Songkran?
Mayhem. Mayhem, you ask? Holy crap, yes to the mayhem. Thai New Year festivities propel the country into frenzied, exuberant celebrations like damned water exploding from its constraints. This is true throughout nearly every day of Songkran festivities, including Songkran Day, the first day of the Thai New Year. Songkran Day used to be calculated by astrologers, and the festivities changed dates every year to match the Lunar calendar, but now you can plan ahead as every year the official dates are always the 13th to 15th, with specific types of celebrations happening on depending on the city where you celebrate.
The first day is not just about throwing water—although there is a lot of water throwing—but locals also clean their homes, ritually bathe Buddha statues, build sand pagodas, and also have parades and processions for the monks.
The 13th of April always marks the first official day of Songkran, and just like me, everyone was itching to be a part of it.
With my water gun full and slung crossbody-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 Chiang Mai’s inner city, where most of the Songkran action happens.
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, locals wielded hoses as substitutes for the short-ranged water guns, and were able to soak tukuks and groups of celebrants.
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, moat water nearby worked as a stand-by—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.
Finding the Spiritual Side of Songkran
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 permeates 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.
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. In Bangkok, beautiful sand pagados are built in specific temples across the city—each decorated with flowers, incense, and other colorful items.
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 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. To truly experience all that Songkran means to the Thai people, you should attend the opening ceremonies. In Chiang Mai, these kickoff at dawn at Thapae Gate, where there’s a ceremony and the giving of alms to monks clad in gorgeous tangerine colored robes.
Should You Attend Songkran?
Festivals are some of my favorite parts of traveling—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, as travelers are 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. It’s beautiful on the spiritual level in the same way that Loy Krathong wows, but it’s just a lot more joy as well.
Songkran’s infectious revelry slowly seeped into my psyche until the perpetual grins of enthusiasm on the faces around me 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 fearing buckets of ice water hurled toward my face, but there were moments of pure and childlike joy mixed into those days as I washed away the worry and fear and lived completely within the moment—alive and joyous and so happy for opportunities and for the notion of a clean and fresh start to my coming months.
Quick Tips: Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
When is Songkran?
Songkran takes place annual from April 13th through the 15th, but festivities in Chiang Mai typically run at least one day before and after! If you’re in a nearby country, check the dates for their version of the water festival (which can happen in border regions in Laos and Myanmar) as they can differ from Thailand.
Best Place to Celebrate Songkran?
Songkran is celebrated throughout Thailand, with similar water festivals in Laos (Bpee Mai) and Burma (Thingyan) and across Southeast Asia. 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. That said, there will be something to do in most populated areas of Thailand—as noted massive celebrations take places on Khao San Road in Bangkok, with special ceremonies at specific temples in the city. If you’re in the Thai islands, Phuket has one of the larger celebrations.
What to Wear During Songkran?
Thai culture is modest, and even though it’s a massive water fight, you are still expected to adhere to cultural norms. Yes, it’s hot and you will get very wet, but you should still cover your shoulders and avoid skimpy tops and bottoms—bikinis are not appropriate street attire as you celebrate. Your bathing suit should be worn under clothes, that way you have comfortable fabric against your skin, but also are completely covered. Also be sure your clothes are not see-through when wet!
T-shirts and shorts will likely serve you best and blend in with locals. If you plan to visit temples or participate in any of the rituals, you must adhere to temple dress code of knees and shoulders covered. Flip-flops will be your best friend as you will super regret squishy sneakers if you go that route.
Add in a floppy hat if you’re fair skinned and sunscreen—and shoulder your water gun, bucket, or bowl—and you’re ready to participate in the world’s largest water fight!
How to Stay Safe
Do not ride on a motorbike unless absolutely necessary! You will get sprayed in the face over and over again and it’s incredibly unsafe on the roads during this holiday. Hundreds of people die every year during Songkran, and my best friend was injured in a motorbike accident on the last day of Songkran. Most revelers are walking, and that should be your main plan. Others ride in pickup trucks, and if you have Thai friends you could join them, but it’s more likely that you should plan to be on foot, to use songthaews as your transportation rather than motorcycles, and just be safe above all else!
Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I used World Nomads for this trip (and since 2008!) and highly recommend it! It also covers COVID—a very important consideration for travel in 2021 and beyond.
Waterproof Your Gear!
Your best option is to leave all electronics at home, because locals will douse you with water no matter what is in your hand. Water will permeate every single thing on your person, that includes your waterproof drybag with your cell phone and camera, since you’re bound to open it at exactly the moment someone dumps a bucket of water over your head. I decked my camera out in plastic, tape, more plastic, more tape, in addition to a dry bag … and it still got soaking wet the moment I took it from the bag (but fixed with three days in a bowl of dry rice). If you really want photos, consider a waterproof disposable one just for the festival. If you just plan to bring your phone, then buy a high-quality waterproof neck bag before you leave—the ones sold locally just don’t work, the plastic seams are too cheap and your phone will get wet (hence mine being coddled in a bed of rice for days after Songkran). These dry bags for gear cost less than $20, and you will be grateful to still have working electronics at the end of Songkran.
The best way to sum up Songkran is this: Songkran doesn’t care if you don’t want to get wet. Songkran doesn’t care if you have a fancy-schmancy camera in your hand. Songkran doesn’t care if you run. You. Will. Get. Wet.