The first time I was in Bangkok for the month of April, I noticed how blazingly hot and humid it had become. Summer had already begun, seemingly earlier than I was accustomed to. As the days passed, everyone started discussing the upcoming Songkran holiday. “Are you going anywhere for Songkran? No? Make sure to wear something that can get wet when you go outside!” I laughed it off until I saw it for myself walking down the street: people accumulating in groups, kitted out with bright flower print shirts and white clay paste on their faces, leading attack squads on unsuspecting passersby.
No one was safe. People getting their groceries would get sabotaged by a young kid with a squirt gun that appeared out of nowhere; drive-by trucks that held large barrels of ice water would festoon a lawyer in their complete business suit with a hearty helping of frozen refreshment. For the most part, after their initial shock, each of the ‘victims’ would just turn around and give a big smile and wave. That’s the Thai way!
People come prepared to play, even when taking a local tuk-tuk.
It can only happen during Songkran, also known as the Thai New Year. It is one of Thailand's most vibrant and widely celebrated festivals. Derived from the Sanskrit word Sankranti, it signifies the astrological passage of the sun from one sign of the zodiac to another, marking a New Year in the Thai Buddhist calendar. This mid-April holiday marks the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season in Thailand. It celebrates the transition from the old to the new and is a time for renewal, both spiritually and physically.
The Water Festival
Pockets of water play breaking out on the streets.
From its smaller and more modest beginnings, Songkran has evolved into a nationwide water fight where people from all walks of life come together to splash water on each other in the streets. The act of pouring or spraying water is a fun and refreshing way to beat that scorching April heat and carries a deep symbolic meaning with it.
To those celebrating for more spiritual reasons, water symbolizes purity and cleansing. It ‘washes away’ one's sins and bad luck. In that spirit of renewal, many Thais take the opportunity to do some ‘spring cleaning’ of their homes during this period. So - that truck with the ice water? When someone pours a bucket of water over your head during Songkran, it's not just a playful gesture; it's a blessing for a fresh start!
Traditions and Customs
Aside from the water fights, Songkran is a festival deeply rooted in customs and traditions that pay respect to elders and ancestors. People will visit temples and make food offerings to Buddhist monks. They will perform the Rod Nam Dum Hua ritual, where young people pour scented water into the hands of their elders as a sign of respect and to seek their blessings.
Another essential tradition is building sand pagodas or chedis. People create intricate sand sculptures at temples to earn merit and commemorate the dead. The idea is that each time one visits a temple, they leave with some sand in their shoes. In other words, this is a time for people to return that sand to the temple.
You’ll find entire cities like Bangkok missing their regular log jam of traffic as people flock to their hometowns to celebrate together with their extended families. They come together to pay their respects at temples, visit relatives, and enjoy festive meals. This sense of togetherness and unity is a core element of Songkran, reinforcing the importance of family and community in Thai culture.
Must-Visit Songkran Destinations
The scene from Silom Road, Bangkok, during Songkran
So, where will you go to celebrate Songkran? In Bangkok, the capital city celebrates Songkran with giant water fights along Khao San Road and Silom Road. For a more traditional experience, visit the temples, such as Wat Pho or Wat Arun, where you can participate in rituals like pouring scented water on Buddha statues. In Chiang Mai, famous for its unique Songkran procession, don't miss the Miss Songkran beauty contest and the sand pagoda-building tradition at Wat Phra Singh. Or, head to Phuket for a relaxed Songkran celebration by the beach. Here, you can experience a more tourist-friendly and family-oriented atmosphere.
A Songkran foam party in downtown Bangkok
Thinking of visiting Thailand during the Songkran holiday? Here are some tips to prepare:
Dress Appropriately: Expect to get wet, so wear clothes you don't mind getting soaked. Many locals wear colorful Hawaiian-style shirts during Songkran, adding to the festive atmosphere.
Waterproofing: Protect your belongings by sealing them in waterproof bags. Ziplock bags are great for phones, wallets, and other essentials.
Sun Protection: Thailand's April sun can be scorching. Apply sunscreen generously and wear a hat and sunglasses.
Footwear: Wear closed-toe shoes or sandals that provide good traction, as the streets can get slippery.
Respect Local Customs: While Songkran is all about fun, remember it also has deep cultural roots. Be respectful when approaching elders and participating in traditional customs.
Ask Permission: Despite my earlier experience of seeing locals in all forms of dress getting soaked, suggesting otherwise, participants should ask for permission before splashing water on someone. Remember that not everyone may want to participate!
Songkran was put on hold for a few years due to the recent pandemic but has slowly opened up again to street celebrations and visiting tourists. The combination of water fights, ancient rituals, and heartfelt customs makes Songkran a unique and unforgettable experience for both locals and visitors. So, if you ever find yourself in Thailand around April 13-15, be prepared to get wet, have fun, and celebrate the craziness of Songkran. It's a holiday like no other – a true reflection of Thailand's rich culture and the spirit of renewal that defines the vibrant nation.