Sawatdee pii mai! If you’re in Thailand for Songkran, this is a phrase you will hear a lot. Sawatdee pii mai is the Thai way of saying Happy New Year and is a common greeting during Songkran, which welcomes in the traditional Thai New Year. The most famous aspect of the celebration are the playful water fights that take place across the country. It’s a great excuse to party and let your hair down with people of all ages and all nationalities joining together to enjoy the good-natured mayhem. While it’s the water fights that capture the attention of many tourists, there is so much more to the Songkran Festival than this. Songkran is an event steeped in tradition and a time for families to come together and pay respect to their elders.
When is Songkran?
The official dates for Songkran are fixed for April 13-15 with these dates observed as a public holiday across Thailand.
If you’re in Thailand for Songkran, the water throwing is usually at its most intense on the first day of the event (April 13) and the last (April 15). However, the watery mayhem can start a day or two earlier in some regions of the country, while in other areas such as Chonburi (which includes Pattaya), the celebrations can go beyond April 15 to include the Wan Lai Festival.
Why is the Thai New Year celebrated in April?
In ancient times, the dates for Songkran were related to the solar calendar and the orbit of the sun as it moved into each of the houses of the zodiac. When the sun moved into Aries (usually in April) it marked the end of a 12-month cycle and the beginning of a new solar year.
Nowadays, the New Year’s Eve countdown on December 31 is also a big event in Thailand. And if you can’t get enough of New Year festivities, there is a third chance to welcome in the New Year with the arrival of the Chinese New Year (usually in January or February) also celebrated in Thailand.
Although it might just seem like a great excuse to have a giant water fight, there is a lot of tradition and symbolism behind the Thai New Year Water Festival. According to Thai culture, the water washes away the bad luck of the outgoing year and provides a clean start for the year ahead. In days gone by, the water throwing was also associated with fertility and was a way to encourage the rains which were essential for rice cultivation. Pouring water over somebody during Songkran is meant to bring good luck so you should accept any good-natured dousing with that in mind and smile and go with the flow.
Cleaning Buddha images is one of the most important Songkran traditions. In many towns and cities, Buddha images are paraded through the streets allowing locals the opportunity to douse them with lustral water. Jasmine-scented water is also poured gently over the hands of elders as a mark of respect.
Carrying sand to the local temple is another key Songkran tradition. This is a way of making merit with the sand formed into stupas and decorated with colourful pennants. And in some areas of Thailand the tradition has evolved into the crafting of elaborate sand sculptures such as the ones at Bang Saen Beach in Chonburi.
In some regions, it’s a tradition to paste a powder known as ‘din sor pong‘ on each other during Songkran as a way of wishing good luck. This natural talc has traditionally been used to protect against the sun and is often smeared on faces and vehicles during Songkran.
The Thai concept of sanuk (having fun) is at the forefront of the Songkran celebrations. You’ll see normally sensible adults behaving like children as they walk around with oversize water-pistols. Colourful Songkran shirts are a fashion essential, impromptu parties take place on the back of pick-up trucks and the sound of music and laughter fills the air.
Respect local culture
Although it might appear at first glance that anything goes during Songkran, that isn’t the case. It’s easy for people to get carried away by the party atmosphere and while many people accept getting soaked as a fact of life during Songkran, not everyone wants to join in the party. If somebody asks not to be soaked with water, do respect that.
In most areas, the water throwing stops at dusk. There are some exceptions, like Khao San Road and Silom Road in Bangkok, where the party continues into the night, but in most areas the evening is not the time to be throwing water.
Where is the best place in Thailand to celebrate Songkran?
Songkran is celebrated throughout Thailand and wherever you find yourself in mid-April you can enjoy the festivities. In some areas the party continues for days while in other parts of the country festivities tend to be more restrained.
Chiang Mai has a reputation of being one of the best places to enjoy Songkran with a host of cultural activities and street parades in addition to the mass water fights that take place across the city.
Bangkok is quieter than usual during Songkran with many workers and residents taking advantage of the extended holiday to visit family or enjoy a break away from the capital. However, those looking for a party can still enjoy the lively Songkran activities which centre on Khao San Road and Silom Road.
Pattaya hosts one of the biggest and wildest Songkran events. The event here also extends to include the Wan Lai Festival which means that although water throwing finishes in most parts of Thailand on April 15, Pattaya is one of the locations that has one last blast of water mayhem on April 19. If you are in Pattaya, make the short journey to Bang Saen to see the amazing sand sculptures on the beach, but do be prepared for traffic jams leading in and out of Bang Saen during Songkran and the Wan Lai Festival.
On most of the Thai islands, Songkran is more restrained compared to the mainland. This makes the islands a good choice if you want to enjoy a more mellow Songkran.
Smaller towns and cities in Thailand can be a great place to celebrate with fewer tourists and more of a local atmosphere. Look out too for special local events such as the Hae Nang Kradan Festival in Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Good to know
Songkran is one of the busiest times of the year for domestic travel. If you’re travelling in Thailand over the Songkran period, it’s advisable to book transport and accommodation in advance. Songkran is an amazing event to experience in person, but it must also be noted that it is a dangerous time on Thai roads, especially motorbikes. Enjoy the festivities, but stay safe and don’t throw water at passing motorbikes even if you see other people doing it.
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