It’s that time of year again…Songkran is almost here and that means high temperatures and lots and lots of water. I wrote this post last year, but the information and recommendations still hold true. (I’ve also added in some more tips as well as a section featuring posts from other bloggers who know Songkran well.)
The annual Songkran festival marks the Thai New Year and is held over April 13-15 every year. While celebrated throughout the country by days off work, time spent with family, trips to the temple, partying and water fights, nowhere is it more prominent – or as crazy – as in Chiang Mai. The city’s size and layout, with its square moat marking off the center of town, is perfect for ‘playing Songkran’, or splashing and shooting people with water from sun up to sun down. The road around the moat is completely blocked for regular traffic and instead filled with a slow moving line of tuk tuks and pick up trucks carrying partiers buckets of water and solid crowds on either side of the street splashing away. It’s crazy – a hot, multicolored, whiskey-fueled, drenched three days where no place is safe from getting a bucket of water thrown on you.
Songkran is all about having fun – you’ll see 3-year-olds and 70-year-old playing alongside each other – but there are a few things to keep in mind to make it through the festival.
Wear sunscreen – And keep reapplying it…even if it’s cloudy. For the past couple of years in Chiang Mai, though it’s been in the 100s, it’s rained during the festival. Even if the skies are cloudy and you’re being cooled off by constant water, still keep your skin protected. The sun is deceptively strong here and spending all day outside, even under clouds, while wearing shorts and tank tops can leave you burned.
Drink water – It’s hot and the days are long (people start playing around 10:00 a.m. until it gets dark), make sure you stay hydrated…with something other than just SangSom buckets…
Protect your valuables – Whatever you take out with you will get wet. Be extra careful of cameras and phones or, better yet, leave them in your room. It’s not worth worrying about what you carry with you – you won’t be able to enjoy the craziness! (If you’re wearing sunglasses, make sure they’re a cheaper pair you wouldn’t mind losing or having broken.)
Protect yourself – I’m going to go out a limb here and say most of the water thrown around in Chiang Mai is from the moat which seems to have varying degrees of uncleanliness. Last, year the water was deemed too polluted and unsafe for Songkran and the city was hustling to clean it. Regardless, be careful of ingesting any water and be sure to safely cover any open wounds that could then become infected.
Cover up – Yes it is hot and water is flying everywhere…but you’ll notice the Thais are still pretty covered up when it comes to clothing. You’ll see many locals wearing colorful, floral shirts and even jeans (which seems just too uncomfortable for me…) so, while it’s expected that foreigners tend to wear more revealing clothes, keep in mind that your clothes will become soaked…and see through or clingy. Covering up will also help beat the sunburn. I usually go in longer running shorts or old yoga pants, a sports bra or bathing suit top, and thick T-shirt – it’s always quite the fashion statement. (P.S. Wearing a mankini is NOT okay – really anytime, anywhere but especially in Thailand
Play nice – There will certainly be sneaky ice water attacks, but for the most part, people play nice and you should too. Songkran is supposed to be fun, and for the most part it is, but there are always a few people (usually foreigners) who don’t play by the rules…like dumping a trash can of ice water over someone driving a motorbike two days before the festival actually starts or hitting them so hard in the back with a bucket of water that there’s a loud “Thwack!” and everyone around steps back quietly (both have happened to me). Not fun. Don’t crank up the pressure on your Super Soaker X5000 or shoot water directly into people’s faces. Anyone who’s outside is often fair play, but especially when the day is just getting started or winding down take it easy on people who aren’t in party mode.
You also might get some white powder smeared on you. This is one of the oldest Songkran traditions and is supposed to be a sign of good luck and protection. Most often, a Thai will come up to you a gently rub a small bit of powder on your cheeks but sometime you’ll find people shoving the powder into your face or hair – don’t be one of them.
Don’t be a douche! – Yes, I said it. There’s something about Songkran that tends to bring out the douche-iness in travelers. Though it wasn’t always this way, it’s true Songkran has turned into one big party however there are still rules and customs travelers should follow. Along with not shooting people in the face and not wearing too revealing of clothing, simply keep in mind that Songkran is really a family affair. There are children everywhere playing and having fun and they don’t need to see belligerent tourists who are pretending they’re Rambo, throwing garbage cans of ice water on people, groping each other or in various states of undress.
If you don’t want to play, don’t go outside – For people living in Chiang Mai, Songkan means three days of meticulously planning out their routes to drive and when to go places without getting soaked. Normally you can get around early in the morning and after dark just fine, but during the day things come to a standstill, particularly in the Old City, Loi Kroh and Huay Gaew. If you don’t want to get wet, don’t go out and stock up on food beforehand.
Don’t drive – Traffic casualties, and deaths, rise around the time of Songkran and it’s best to avoid being on the roads if possible. You’re almost certain to get water thrown on you while driving a motorbike around town during the day – especially as a foreigner you’re more of a target – and there tend to be more drunk drivers on the roads. Just play it safe.
Keep your cool – While Songkran is a time for people to let loose, and you will see Thais acting more freely than usual, the importance of saving face and keeping a cool temperament is still expected.
Songkran video – 8 Miles from Home – Jmayel and Sacha’s videos of Thailand are absolutely beautiful and do a great job highlighting the little details that make up this magical place. Their Songkran video will give you a taste of what it’s actually like to celebrate the festival in Chiang Mai. They also have a good post with photos about their first Songkran experience here.
Songkran in Bangkok – Bangkok.com – Information on the festival’s history and practices along with where and how to celebrate Songkran 2015.
Songkran Festival: Chiang Mai Edition – Where Sidewalks End – Another post that shares more background on the holiday and traditions.
Best GoPro Mount for the Songkran Festival – Getting Stamped – I don’t have a GoPro, but it’s probably the only camera I would feel fully comfortable using out during Songkran.
5 Tips to Survive Songkran – The Travel Hack – Some more things to keep in mind, like booking your accommodation early — if you’re planning to be in Chiang Mai for Songkran and haven’t booked yet, you need to find a room ASAP!
Have you celebrated Songkran in Thailand before? Any other tips?
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
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Great tips! We somehow didn’t realize that we would be in Thailand for Songkran until about a week ago, so we are totally unprepared! We’re currently in Nong Khai (just crossed the border from Laos), but might head down to Bangkok tomorrow. Normally New Year celebrations in Asia are a HUGE pain in the butt in terms of travel getting derailed and prices skyrocketing, but so far Songkran seems ok… but I guess we’ll see how things go two days from now. I’m grateful that we have an underwater housing for our camera, that’s for sure!
It’s always a nice surprise to realize you’re actually in the right place at the right time by accident! I’m not sure what all is going on in Bangkok, I’ve heard Chiang Mai is by the far the biggest place for it, but I’m sure Khao San will be crazy 😉 http://bangkok.coconuts.co should have info on what’s going and where to go – have fun!
Leave your motorbike at home for Songkran, motorbikes are a favorite target, and a bucket of freezing water in the face is a big enough distraction to make the most determined rider crash.
I’ve wanted to participate in this festival ever since I first heard about it. Thanks for the excellent tips! Hopefully I’ll get to put them into practice the next time I’m in Thailand 🙂
It’s something else…
I AM glad you came out and said, “Play nice/Don’t be a douche.” It’s the people who don’t follow these two key points who put a bad taste in my mouth about this holiday. I want to have fun but it’s impossible if you are squirting me pointblank at my boobs, eyes, ears, and mouth, or dumping big buckets of freezing water on me!
On the flip side, I did get my first taste of Thai rum and soda after being invited by a few Thais to join them for a drink at their table on the moat sidelines 🙂 Fun times!
I’ve had stuff happen to me every year that was not fun/nice….and it was always from tourists.
Love Songkran, we are here in Chiang Mai for our 2nd year of Songkran. I do admit I am ready for it to be over so I can cross the street without getting wet!
It is fun! But when you live here and really just need to go to the market real quick, it’s impossible!
During Songkran, many people also wear “Mo-hom” shirt, which is traditional indigo dyeing cotton shirt from Phrae province.
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