A first-timer's guide to Songkran, the Thai new year water festival

A first-timer's guide to Songkran, the Thai new year water festival
PHOTO: Shutterstock.com

This article first appeared on Skyscanner's A first-timer's guide to Songkran, the Thai new year water festival

Come to Thailand during Songkran to see the country at its festive best.

Join in the world's biggest water fights and witness age-old rituals and traditions as the land of smiles ushers in its new year, shaking off the old and welcoming in the new.

Skyscanner brings you the best first-timer's guide to Songkran for a would-be traveller to learn a bit about the history, customs, tips on surviving the water festival, and the best places to visit during the holiday.

1. Dates for Songkran 2016 in Thailand

Songkran is an annual public holiday in Thailand and officially lasts for 3 days, though in some parts the celebration may go on for 4 days.

In, 2016 the water festival will be held from April 13th to April 15th and is timed to coincide with the sun entering the sign of Aries.

The name 'Songkran' is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning 'passing' or 'approaching' in English and is an important date in the Buddhist calendar.

2. The history behind Songkran

If there's a festival that has put Thailand on the world map, it has to be Songkran.

Taking place at the height of the Thai summer in April, Songkran is Asia's most refreshing festival with the streets turning into a watery battlefield as snipers with water guns and kids heavily armed with water bombs do their best to soak everyone in range.

Tourists aren't exempt from the carnage and are expected to soak, and be soaked, with cheery abandon.

Songkran is the Thai New Year celebration and many people return to their hometowns to celebrate the festival with their family and friends, so a huge exodus takes place from all of Thailand's major cities.

The first day of the holiday is known as National Elderly Day with Thais paying respect to their elders and taking part in the Rod Nam Dum Hua ritual, pouring fragrant water on the palms of older members of the community and asking them for blessings.

The second day of the festival is National Family Day. Families get out of bed early and give alms to monks before spending the day together.

Many Thais also take part in a ritual of bathing the Buddha image with fragrant water at home and at the temple.

Much of the rest of the festival is devoted to sharing time with family and engaging in merit-making activities before the Thais unlease their sanuk side (loosely translated as 'fun', but more accurately means 'to strive to get pleasure and satisfaction from all activities') and take to the streets to engage in huge communal water fights.

Photo: fabulousfabs Flickr

Whilst Songkran is seen by many foreign visitors as a nationwide water fight, the symbolism of the water is hugely important to Thai tradition.

Water is seen as symbolically washing away the bad luck of the past year bringing about a positive and fresh start to the new year.

According to custom, a Thai would wash away their family members' and neighbours' bad luck with a small bowl of water.

However, as time went on, the bowls evolved into massive buckets and water pistols, and the entire community washing away bad luck.

So, if you fancy a fresh start, head to Thailand and get all your misfortune watered away!

Photo: Ben Reeves Flickr

3. Tips to surviving the Thai new year

Following a few simple tips can make your Songkran even better:

Don't soak monks or babies. Don't throw icy water or water with chunks of ice in it.

Don't throw water at people on motorbikes. Don't go out in just a bikini. Slip on a tee or a vest with swimwear underneath. Also, do think twice about wearing white.

Do practice your Thai. Greet people with a festive "Sawasdee Pee Mai".

Do make sure your passport, wallet and phone are in a waterproof bag and keep them somewhere safe.

Do use public transport to get around Bangkok during Songkran. Roads will be impossible to navigate during the holiday.

Do feel free to wear goggles to protect your eyes from dirty water. You might look a bit freaky, but that quirky vibe may save you a trip to the doctor's with an eye infection.

Do be very careful on the roads. Drink driving is a big problem nationwide during Songkran.

Use protection. It's going to get wet out there. Photo: James Antrobus Flickr

4. Where to go to get soaked in the festivities

4a. Bangkok

4a.1. Khao San Road: possibly the biggest water fight on earth

Southeast Asia's backpacker haven comes into its own over Songkran with the entire street turning into what must the biggest annual water fight on earth.

You're going to get drenched here but you'll also have a great laugh. Pick up a super powerful water gun and get your aim perfected as tourists seem to be the target of choice here.

Bars and DJs set up in waterproof shacks along the road so you can pause from the madness for a Thai whisky and coke and a boogie before joining the melee once again.

Getting there: Take bus 151, 171 or 509 from the Victory Monument and get off at the Khok Wua Intersection.

Khao San Road is a short walk from here.

Photo: Ben Reeves Flickr

4a.2. Sanam Luang: the spiritual side of Songkran

For something a bit more spiritual, head to Sanam Luang opposite the Grand Palace. On the first day of Songkran, the highly-revered Phra Phuttha Sihing Buddha image is paraded along the streets and people sprinkle fragrant water on it.

The image is left there for 3 days so that those who are unable to make the parade are still able to pour water on the sacred image.

There are dancing flash mobs, carnival floats and cultural shows to catch making this Bangkok's premier spot for a cultural Songkran experience.

Getting there: Hop on the Silom Line and alight at Saphan Taksin Station.

Take Exit No. 2 and then take the Chao Phraya Express Boat to Ta Chang Pier A 5-10 minute walk will bring you to the Grand Palace. Sanam Luang is just opposite the Palace.

Photo: Ben Reeves Flickr

4a.3. Check out a beauty contest at Wisutkasat

Head to Wisutkasat to see Thai beauties in all their finery at the annual Miss Songkran beauty contest.

There is a parade, lots of festive activities and some of the city's best food and seasonal delicacies on sale from street hawkers and nearby hotels.

Getting there: Get on a Chao Phraya Express Boat to Thewet Pier and then hire a taxi or tuk tuk to Wat Intara Vihara, Bang Khun Phrom Intersection

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski Flickr

4b. Chiang Mai: 4 days of Songkran in the old city

Many expats claim that the best place to witness Songkran is in Chiang Mai. The city's small size and gorgeous temple complexes make for a spectacular setting.

More importantly, however, the old city is ringed by a 6.5-kilometre moat filled with water of dubious cleanliness that seems to be the water bucket refill station preferred by most revellers.

The festival here lasts for four days instead of the usual three, with the first day or two being quieter family days and the final two becoming increasingly party-like.

The more spiritual aspect of the New Year festival can be seen on the first day of Songkran with a procession of Buddha images and floats that start at Narawat Bridge and end at Wat Prasingh.

Cultural activities continue on the second day with locals heading to the Mae Ping River at dusk to collect sand from the banks which is taken to temples, piled up and topped with flowers.

This is known as "raising the temple grounds" and was a much needed ritual performed at the end of the rainy season, the end of the old Thai Lunar Calendar.

Things get wilder on the final two days as family and religious obligations and rituals are completed, leaving people to devote themselves entirely to sanuk.

Local families dip buckets into the lake to gather water, heave them up and lob the water over nearby victims.

Inside the old town, there are numerous stages set up featuring dancing girls spraying the crowd with water from large hoses, and roaming bubble machines pump foam onto the streets turning unexpected corners into impromptu foam parties.

Photo credit: Kazuhiro Nakamura Flickr

4c. Nakhon Phanom: celebrate the Thai New Year with a Laotian flavour

This unique cultural celebration is named Pleasant Songkran and is organised by seven of the communities living in and around Nakhon Pranom, with the festivities taking on a bit of a Laotian twist.

The festival here involves playing games, offering sticky rice to monks and building gigantic sand pagodas on the shores of the mighty Mekong.

Whilst the usual water splashing takes place, the real draw here is to get to experience unique minority cultural activities such as traditional dancing and taking part in religious activities more commonly seen in Laos such as the bai sri blessing ceremony.

Head to Renu district for a chance to see the fiercely contested Miss Nakhon parade.

Getting there: The nearest major airport to Nakhon Phanom is in Udon Thani.

There are regular aircon buses plying the route between the towns. The journey takes 4 hours and costs S$5 (THB128) one way.

Photo credit: Frederik Thommesen Flickr

4d. Nakhon Si Thammarat: where two festivals occur simultaneously

Head down to Thailand's deep south to check out Songkran southern style and you'll be rewarded with a warm welcome and the prestige of being only one of a handful of tourists in town.

The town has one of the most revered temples in Thailand, Wat Phra Mahathat Woramaha, and is a beautiful place to catch the local Buddhist population making merit.

Along with the standard water fight, Nakhon Si Thammarat is home to the Hae Nang Kradan Festival which is held at the same time as Songkran and is totally unique to the region.

The festival dates back over 1300 years to a time when there was a sizeable Hindu Brahmin community in the area.

The festival is held to honour Shiva, who is believed to visit earth at this time to offering blessings and protection to the land and to the people so the festival is held as a welcoming for his arrival.

The town holds parades with symbolic tablets with beautifully dressed Brahmin priests leading the procession.

The festival kicks off at Ho Phra Isuen, a temple dedicated to Shiva in the heart of the city and as dusk falls, Hindu tablets are led through candle lit streets to Sana Muah Mang, a large park and a fitting place for a moment of Songkran reflection.

Getting there: There are hourly minibus departures from Hat Yai. The journey takes 2-3 hours and costs S$5.50 (THB140) one way.

Photo credit: Vyacheslav Argenburg Flickr

4e. Ayutthaya: where elephants join the water fights

Head to Thailand's ancient capital, the island city of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, for a unique Songkran in which beautifully painted elephants join in the festivities and are given huge barrels of water to spray onlookers with.

Also, take part in traditional ethnic Mon activities such as bathing the Buddha with water from a bamboo pipe, and offering alms at 7am to 999 saffron-robed monks in front of Vihara Phra Mongkhon Bophit before releasing birds and fish into the wild.

Water splashing takes place in front of the old city hall in the afternoon each day.

The city is close enough to Bangkok to for you to do a Songkran double header water fight tour of Bangkok and Ayutthaya.

Getting there: Buses depart every 25 minutes from Bangkok's northern Mo Chit Terminal until 6pm. The journey takes around two hours and costs S$2.40 (THB60) one way.

Photo credit: James Antrobus Flickr

4f. Pattaya: to witness a beauty contest with a twist

Songkran is celebrated a little later in Pattaya with celebrations kicking off on the April 13th and culminating on 19th of April, with an extended festival known as Wan Lai, meaning "the day that flows".

There are a few special events to keep an eye out for including the ritual of local men carrying a lady into the sea for a dousing, amazing sand sculptures, Muay Talay (in which fighters do battle on a board over water), and in a uniquely Pattaya twist - a beauty competition for Miss Songkran in which ladyboys and ladies are judged in the same category.

Head to the main beach road on April 19th for a 5-kilometre long water splashing party with tens of thousands of people from around the world dumping water over each other's heads.

Photo credit: fabulousfabs Flickr

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