A Little Celebration… Welcome to Songkran, The World’s Largest Water Fight

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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!

Motorbikes are not spared during Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Motorbikes are not spared from buckets of water during Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Songkran water fight in Chiang Mai, Thailand
This guy is clearly having a wonderful Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.)

Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
I was clearly too dry at this point, but she was very kind about letting me snap the photo before being pummeled with water!
Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Revelers enjoying how ice cold water from the trucks (which store massive ice cubes in buckets) relieves the heat. Chiang Mai has a unique Songkran celebration that hits on the fun—water fighting—and the spiritual aspect too.

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.

talc powder songkran
With talc powder on their faces, these women prepare to soak the next closest reveler during Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Pickup trucks like theirs slowly circle the moat for hours as riders soak walkers and vice versa.
Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
These three girls put real effort into flinging their water buckets as far as possible!

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.

Soaking random strangers is a big part of songkran
My friend Dan and Lindsay pose for a photo, with help from a fellow reveler in an awesome photobomb of Songkran-ness as she prepares to help soak Lindsay!
Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Buckets are the perfect tool to pull water from the moat waters surrounding the city so you can continue with the Songkran water-throwing festivities.

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.

Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Monks line up to take alms just after dawn during Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Monk alms during Songkran
Chiang Mai has a beautiful ceremony in the early morning hours of day one of Songkran (the 13th), where a huge procession of monks and a ceremony takes places at Thapae Gate.
bathing the buddha during songkran
Ritual bathing of the Buddha at Wat Phra Singh for Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Flower offerings Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Flower offerings for the monks for Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A woman listens and worship during the early morning ceremony.

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.

Friends on the prowl for more water fights during Songkran in Chiang Mai.
A woman wanders the streets for Songkran mischief in Chiang Mai.
What a cutie pie! I think that gun is bigger than her! She lived in my apartment complex. :)
People getting soaked during Songkran
I call this the “Holy crap, that’s cold!” montage :)

Quick Tips: Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Celebrating Songkran on the streets with my bestie, Jodi from LegalNomads

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!

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.

Thailand Travel Guide

A guide to everything I learned while living in Thailand, as well as insider advice from the A Little Adrift community. From Chiang Mai to the Thai Islands—and a lot in between—here’s the best places to visit, and everything you should know before you go.

32 thoughts on “A Little Celebration… Welcome to Songkran, The World’s Largest Water Fight”

  1. Hi, nice to give your blog a perusal especially after a disappointing trip to Bali recently after my 1st trip there 20 yrs ago. Now looking for a new paradise..

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  2. Shan, This is prob one of my fave posts! Like, so much so that it makes me want to time me and B’s trip out there just right to catch next year’s SongKran!

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  3. We were in Bangkok for Songkran last year. It is still one of thehighlights of our trip. So much fun! and like you say ‘you.will.get.wet’!! I love your photos-we didn’t take too many because our camera got too wet on the first day and we had to try and dry it out in front of the air con that night!!

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    • I just don’t know if it’s possible to take a camera out and not get it soaked…my sat in a bowl of rice for days after Songkran to dry out! I hear the Bangkok one is a lot of fun, maybe I can try that one next year! Hope your camera made it through the experience :)

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  4. I was in Chiang Mai for Songkran last year. It was definitely a week of “don’t leave the apartment unless you want to get soaked.” Incredibly fun times. Except that my favorite veg restaurant was closed for the week. :(

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    • Oh man! I was at a loss without my two favorites (do you mean the Taiwanese veggie place?!) for the week…ended up eating a lot of pad see ew and pad thai without them open :)  

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  5. What a fun celebration!  Reminds me of the “culecos” at Carnaval in Panama, but this looks like a much grander scale. 

    Beautiful photo of the monks in the bright orange.

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    • I haven’t heard of culecos, so I googled and now have something else I need to take part in…I haven’t yet participated in Carnival and that’s the mac-daddy of festivals!  Thanks for sharing Stephanie :)

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  6. Looks like a wonderful experience!  Like you stated I have never seen anything like it in the states.  Great to see that even the monks understand the possibilities of being out and getting wet.  Though I think they probably want to join in as well.

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    • It’s normally so hot that time of year that I bet the monks are quite content to get a little cool water, as you said :) It’s a lot of fun and most people approach the week with great humor and lightness!

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  7. Kind of what celebrated in india as “HOLi”..though in holi,people use dirty colors to fulfill some dirty mind hidden agenda….but it still a lot of fun….but this one look too cool….would luv to attend it once!!

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    • Absolutely, a whole lot like Holi (which I participated in back in 2009 and had a blast). It’s a lot of fun and there is less touching of other people so Songkran doesn’t have some of the issues I found in Holi :)

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  8. Every time I read about songkran it always sounds like so much fun, definitely something I want to experience at least once. I also loved reading about the spiritual side to the festival. 

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    • Thanks Alouise! It’s one of those things you have to do once, and if you’re
      adventurous a second time (then you wisen up and stay inside from what I’m
      told!) A ton of fun and worth putting on your bucket list for sure! :)

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    • You know, you would get a hearty chuckle from the Thais if you did venture
      out in a wetsuit and I would pay you a good 25 bhat to do it. If we have a
      deal then that means you need to plan on booking a ticket to CM next spring!
      :)

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      • Wearing a wetsuit, stomping around in garish mismatched flippers and screaming “AAARGH” through a snorkel as people attacked me from all sides…..yes, somehow this feels like the kind of thing that might happen to me. 

        And – 25 bhat? That’s like….hold on…..that’s *twelve thousand dollars*! Awesome. For a second there I thought you were going to stump up some laughable sum of money, but you really came through for me there, Shannon. 

        You have yourself a deal.   

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    • Next year, let’s do it!! I may very well be in Chiang Mai at that point, so
      if you can swing it you should come, hehe…much fun would be had :)

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  9. I was just about to ask “What about your camera?” and then you answered it. Looks like fun, but as a but of a ‘I-hate-my-hands-being-constantly-wet-phobic” all the pictures give me the chills…  :-)

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    • Yikes! That would definitely be a problem then, you would have to hide out
      in your guesthouse during the day, we did that for a couple of the days when
      the constance of being wet was too much to handle! You should try Indian
      Holi though, equally fun but a lot less water :)

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  10. I was wondering about those photos that i had seen of you and Jodi with the giant water pistols, now I see what the deal was. Looks like an awesome and fun time in Thailand. I just wouldn’t want to get caught there with my camera gear exposed. Glad to hear the bowl of dry rice did the trick for yours :)

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    • Hah! Yes, we both splurged on the big super-soakers so we would have maximum effectiveness on the streets of Chiang Mai :)  The professional photographers in our midst managed to snap shots with only minor issues by wearing a huge poncho and a special rain cover for their cameras, they still don’t respect you much, but it helps in case you make it there next year! 

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    • I used my 7D and 24-70 L without additional covers there. It survived without any problems :) Thai are very polite and try not to throw water in your camera

      Reply

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