Lacking knowledge of Thailand’s magnificent water festival, the largest in the world, will leave any visitor to the kingdom open prey. I’ve seen it so many times, and even as a seasoned onlooker you can’t help but smile every year.
Out of the taxi the holidaymakers jump, big smiles as they arrive for their Easter vacation, not noticing the even more eager grins on the faces of the local people. Old hands know what these “fresh blood” tourists do not know. Namely that before their holiday has even really begun, they will be ambushed from every side and soaked to the skin.
Buckets of water, normally ice cold for extra shock value, are used to fill water pistols, buckets, hoses, indeed any kind of water vessel available that can be utilised to utterly drench the unwary arrivals. They stand speechless, in utter disbelief, as the apparent satisfaction of the successful ambush is painted all over the faces of the attackers, who fall about laughing in true Songkran delight. The holidaymakers, shocked and drenched, are then patted on the back and offered words they will not forget in a hurry, “Sawadee Pi Mai, Happy New Year!”
Songkran is the Thai New Year festival and occurs when the sun moves position from Pisces to Aries, usually from April 13th – 15th. It is still one of the most important of all the Thai celebrations, as it marks the beginning of a new lunar year. Foreigners living in Thailand are generally divided into three groups. First there are the ‘wet n wild fun’ fans up for all sorts of water madness. At the other end of the scale come the ‘sulking hermits’ who will lock themselves indoors for three to seven days having wisely stocked up on food. Finally, you meet ‘the get-aways’, who are well organised and make use of the holiday time to fly somewhere abroad – and dry.
The Songkran Party, Phuket style
If you are of the first character type listed above, you can join the Songkran wet street parties from early morning on April 13th as New Year festivities begin all over the nation. In Phuket Town, the celebrations normally kick off around 10 a.m., turning into full scale water dogfights in the afternoon in the tourists areas of Patong, Kata and Karon, and ending up as a hectic full scale wet war zone until late at night along Bangla Road on Patong beach.
Everybody up for joining the party will be gripped with Thai New Year fever, feeling the immense buzz and energy of the water filled fun that unfolds in the days that follow. On the Thai side, revellers are also divided into camps. You have the ‘strategic ambushers’ by the road side with plenty of water ammunition, loud music, white powder paste and big, big smiles. Or you have the ‘mobile units’, who attack from trucks converted into water battlewagons, normally heavily tooled up with huge buckets filled with ice water and many a water vessel to aim at passing targets in true Mad Max style.
You can check out the action on the east side of the island along the main road that stretches from Phuket Town down to Rawai Beach. Traffic along this stretch moves at a snail’s pace during the height of the festival, but the gridlock does little to dampen the spirits of revellers, as it is overshadowed by the endless mirth of the New Year festivities. I don’t believe there is anywhere in the world where you can see such aquatic madness taking place in such good spirit. Even the police coordinating traffic and ensuring security on the road are favourite targets for everyone, and their response, huge smiles radiate enjoyment and even the desire to play along.
For a quieter option, you can head to Phuket’s historical Old Town where the heritage architecture makes for a great backdrop to enjoy the Songkran festivities and the streetside cafe’s offer safe havens. Many of Old Town’s descendants still occupy the same houses they originally built a century ago, and for the most part the water wagons don’t want to navigate the narrow historical streets in Old Town. The streets therefore seem deserted in comparison to the more boisterous tourist areas, which is great if you want to stay dry, but you will also occasionally come across the owners’ grandchildren armed to the teeth with massive water pistols.
The Charm of Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai, once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom possesses an alluring culture that attracts thousands of visitors, maintaining its position as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand. The Songkran festival in Chiang Mai is known around the kingdom as a spectacular celebration and organised into three distinctive days. April 13th is named Wan Maha Songkran, the day marking the end of the old year. April 14 is called Wan Nao, the first day of the New Year, leaving April 15th to be Wan Thaloeng Sok, the day marking the new era.
The celebrations in Chiang Mai are renowned for involving particularly extravagant street parties. A spectacular parade is held, which includes the official bathing of a Buddha statue as part of a cleansing and renewing tradition. Sitting atop a float, the deity is marched through town for people to toss water at in true Songkran spirit. Plenty of local water rituals take place at street level too, and of course there is the usual fun packed water fight amidst the beautiful parade. Huge elephants even join in, which is a sight to behold as they shower people with their impressive trunks. With temperatures often soaring to 40 degrees Celsius, the cooling water from the festivities are a welcome cool down for all who take part.
This incredible New Year festival, steeped in the traditions of cleansing and renewal is a must see on anybody’s Thailand bucket list. Just make sure you arrive prepared so that you can fully enjoy this spectacular day in true wet and wild Songkran fashion. Trips to Phuket or Chiang Mai from Bangkok over Songkran should also be booked well in advance, as these two destinations are incredibly popular during the festival.
Songkran Travel Tips
- Carry a zip lock bag to protect you camera, money and other dry items.
- Keep you mouth closed – the water being thrown is not purified.
- Carry bottled water to rinse off the perfume paste that will be applied generously to your face.
- Avoid using a scooter during Songkran – the accident rate skyrockets over seven days pre-, during, and post-festival.
- Modest girls should not wear clothing that becomes revealing when wet.
- Learn more about the traditional side of Songkran – it’s far more than a water fight.