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The Thailand Water Festival

An Introduction to the Songkran Festival in Thailand

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Songkran water Festival
Gavriel Jecan/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The Thailand water festival, or Songkran, is an annual event marking the traditional Thai new year. Songkran is the largest celebration in Thailand, and arguably the largest water fight in the world; plan on at least three days -- probably more -- of wet, rowdy fun!

Participating in Songkran is a great way to escape the scorching temperatures in April -- the hottest month of the year.

What is the Thailand Water Festival?

Officially known as Songkran, the water festival is about cleaning, purification, and fresh starts. Houses are cleaned, Buddha statues are gently washed with scented water, and elders are honored by pouring water respectfully over their hands.

Although the origins of Songkran are far more religious, splashing complete strangers with water has become the main attraction of the festival. Dousing or sprinkling people with water signifies the washing away of bad thoughts and actions, and brings them good luck in the new year.

As a procession and formalities end, a throng forms in the street to dance, party, and throw water in good-natured fun. To up the ante, many Thais add ice to their water or travel in teams that wear masks and carry large water cannons. You probably won't mind the drenching; afternoon temperatures in April regularly rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

When is Songkran?

Songkran was once based on the lunar calendar, however, now the dates are fixed. The Thailand water festival officially runs for three days starting on April 13th and finishing on April 15th.

Although the festival is officially only three days long, many people take off from work and stretch the festival into as long as six days, particularly in tourist places such as Chiang Mai and Phuket.

Where to Celebrate the Thailand Water Festival?

While the epicenter of Songkran is around the old city moat in Chiang Mai, you'll find massive celebrations in Bangkok, Phuket, and all other tourist areas. Smaller towns and provinces may celebrate in a more traditional manner with the focus being on parades and temple activities rather than drunken revelry.

Songkran is also celebrated with gusto in Luang Prabang, Laos, and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Songkran in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is certainly the place to be for the Thailand water festival. Expect huge crowds and gridlock traffic around the old city moat. Tha Pae Gate will be the epicenter, with people using the moat to fill their buckets and water pistols. You'll need to arrive days in advance to find accommodation within the old city, and book your ticket early if you expect to leave directly after the celebration.

Authorities drain the rancid water from the moat and refill it with cleaner water before the festival begins. Regardless, the water is anything but potable and you'll probably end up swallowing a fair amount by accident. Make sure your travel vaccinations against water-borne viruses are up to date!

Learn more about what travel vaccinations to get for Thailand.

Things to Know About the Water Festival

  • You will get wet -- very wet! In fact, unless you barricade yourself inside the hotel room, don't plan to be dry during daylight hours. No one is immune. No matter how much you plea or what items you are carrying with you, you will probably be attacked by the staff with water as soon as you exit your hotel room.
  • Songkran has claimed more than its share of cameras and phones. As mentioned above, either waterproof everything or leave all valuables at your hotel.
  • Accommodation and transportation in Chiang Mai reach completely full capacity. You need to arrive early for any hope of finding a place to stay near the action.
  • Drunken revelry is a big part of the Thailand water festival. Expect hordes of people dancing and drinking in the streets.

How to Celebrate the Thailand Water Festival

  • Keep a good attitude! Both fun-loving Thais and tourists are going to splash you with water -- don't get mad or feel singled out. No one is exempt from the wet mayhem.
  • Either get a bucket -- there will be many around for free -- or purchase a water cannon in the market so that you can join the fun.
  • Although places such as Khao San Road may be the exception, typically the splashing stops at sundown when temperatures drop slightly.
  • Be safe. Drunk driving is a serious problem during Songkran; be careful when crossing the road or while standing in the street.
  • Although the water splashing is fun for everyone, remember that Songkran is actually a religious festival. Stay out of the way of worshipers at temples and shrines. Read more about Thailand temple etiquette.

Songkran Greetings

The traditional way to wish someone well at Songkran and to make peace after splashing them is with: sah-wah-dee pee mai which basically means "happy new year."

More than likely, you'll hear suk san wan Songkran (pronounced: suke sahn wahn song kran) more often, which means "happy Songkran day."

Learn how to say hello in Thai and more about etiquette in Thailand.

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