If you’re in Thailand right now, prepare to get soaked! Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year water festival that starts today in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand and runs through to 15th April*. A Theravāda Buddhist festival, it’s also celebrated in Cambodia where it’s called Chaul Chnam Thmey, although the first day is Maha Songkran; in Laos, where it’s known as Pi Mai Lao and will start on Sunday; and Myanmar, where it’s called Thingyan.
As we were travelling when we were last in Thailand during Songkran we got to experience a little of the festival in each of Bangkok, Chiang Rai, the Mekong river, and Luang Prabang, which gave us a taste of the different traditions and rituals that take place during the three to four day period, stretched out to six days in some places like Chiang Mai.
For some the event is just one big water fight and if you’re in Thailand today you can certainly expect to get wet, no matter how hard you might try to avoid it. Locals will be holding garden hoses and bucket of waters outside their homes and businesses, poised to drench passer-bys and passing cars. If they’re not at street level, they’ll be found with friends jammed in the back of pick-ups or tuk tuks with huge tubs of water, cruising around town firing their sophisticated looking water pistols at unsuspecting people.
Seconds before the photo was taken above that drenched group of young Thais in Chiang Rai had just thrown a bucket of water on our taxi. But it’s not only water that’s tossed about. Thais love to douse each other in talcum powder, which is why you’ll see white-faced locals, their skin smeared with a dough-like paste. If you see locals wandering the streets with a bottle of baby powder in their jeans pocket, stay well clear.
While wet streets won’t turn too many heads, if you’re planning on catching Bangkok’s BTS/Skytrain, don’t be surprised to find yourself standing in milky puddles by the end of the night. Leave your best shoes at the hotel and wear flip-flops or sandals. In fact, wear the worst clothes you’re travelling with – that daggy t-shirt you wear to bed and those shorts you’re planning to discard to make room for souvenirs before you fly back home. Definitely don’t wear delicates, anything that might shrink or black – depending on the fabric, talcum powder can be tricky to get out.
In Bangkok, you are fair game anywhere and everywhere outside your hotel, although the main action has always taken place in the ‘entertainment’ area of Silom Road (preferred by Thais) and the backpacker enclave of Khao San Road (more popular with tourists). This year, however, the government has established official water-fight areas and introduced some rules, such as banning iced water and high-powered water guns. See this tongue-in-cheek take on the new regulations from the Bangkok Post on The 10 Commandments of Songkran.
Songkran is not only about water fights, although it’s no coincidence that the festival occurs during Thailand’s driest and hottest month before monsoon begins. Songkran is essentially about new life, clean breaks, fertility, and regeneration, and in rural areas festivities include rituals and rites intended to bring on rain to ensure a good rice harvest.
The idea of throwing water during Songkran is about cleansing and making a fresh start. Buddhists head to wats (temples) where they sprinkle nam ob tha (jasmine-centred water) on the hands of monks and Buddha images and participate in other merit-making rituals, such as preparing food for monks and making sand stupas which they decorate with colourful strings of flags imprinted with the animals from the Oriental zodiac and garlands of flowers. On a personal level, Buddhists will clean their homes and businesses, buy new clothes, and visit their families.
To experience the more traditional Songkran activities, head to a wat during the Songkran period. In Bangkok, on the first day of Songkran there is usually a procession from Sanam Luang, opposite the Grand Palace, from where the sacred Buddha image is carried through the streets, and major temples such as Wat Pho and Wat Arun will be bustling with Thais making merit. While you’re welcome to watch, make sure you dress modestly – the clothes you wear to the water fights will not be appreciated at the wats.
OUR SONGKRAN TIPS
* This year the Songkran holiday runs 12th April when it begins with a Songkran parade in Bangkok through to 17th April in Thailand. As it falls on a weekend, Thais get an extra two days off. However, dates vary in different cities and provinces, so check www.tourismthailand.org for dates.
* Do wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet and wear layers so they don’t cling too much.
* Leave valuables in the hotel safe and take some cash, your hotel key, passport photocopies, and camera in a sealed plastic bag. Street vendors sell handy waterproof pouches and wallets that you can wear around your neck.
* Learn how to say “Sawasdee Pee Mai!” – Happy New Year in Thai.
* If you forget to pack your water pistol, don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of vendors selling them on the streets.
* Don’t throw water on monks, the elderly, babies, or motorcyclists – for obvious reasons.
* Take bottles of water to wash the talcum powder from your eyes.
* For more information, including dates, times and locations of events during Songkran, see Thai-based blogger Richard Barrow’s excellent site where he has plenty of detailed posts on different aspects of the festivals, including maps. Also see my post on Celebrating Thai New Year on the Four Seasons Magazine website.