How and where to celebrate Songkran, Thailand's most fun festival
Water flying through the air, thumping music, and an excess of brightly-coloured floral shirts can only mean one thing – it’s Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year.
Though several countries throughout Southeast Asia observe this Lunar New Year celebration, Thailand’s wet and wild festivities have gained global attention with international travellers flocking to the kingdom to experience city-wide water fights. Songkran is all about having fun – you’ll see toddlers and grandparents 'playing water' alongside each other – but the holiday is about more than getting soaked. Here’s our guide on how and where to celebrate Songkran in Thailand.
How it’s celebrated
The dates for Songkran are 13–15 April each year, though sometimes the national holiday is extended if it falls on a weekend. Traditionally, each day was coupled with different customs, such as cleaning the house (symbolising a fresh start) or preparing food for local monks. Many people still follow these practices, but not necessarily on specific days.
In its simplest form, Songkran is a time where families come together. Those living and working away from their family home will travel to spend a few days with their relatives. Younger generations will pour silver cups of jasmine-scented water over the hands of older family members, and everyone will show their respect to Buddha statues by doing the same.
Visiting a temple is an important part of any Thai national holiday and the same is true for Songkran. Rise early before the crowds fill the streets and you’ll see locals at temples offering food and donations and bathing the Buddha statues. They may also bring some sand – symbolic of replacing the sand or dirt that has been carried away from the temple throughout the year by believers’ feet – to build sand pagodas decorated with colourful flags.
Cities, towns and villages will also hold different events throughout the holiday, including parades, pageants and contests.
But what about the water fights?
Thais are typically calm, modest people, but they also place great importance on sà·nùk (fun) and Songkran is seen as a time to let loose. April is typically the hottest time of the year and everyone can use a break from the heat as well as the usual social conventions.
The custom of water splashing seems to have evolved from the tradition of people dipping their fingers into the bowls of fragrant water (used for washing the hands of elders and Buddha statues) and sprinkling them on others as a show of respect.
Over time, the gentle water blessings gradually became mass water fights where everyone grabs a water gun or bucket to spray and splash all around. In Thai, it’s called len năam, which directly translates to "play water", and the public water fights are certainly filled with a sense of fun and playfulness.
The best places to celebrate Songkran in Thailand
Songkran is celebrated across the country, but each place will hold activities on different days or for a different number of days. As the holiday gets closer, check for official updates on the Tourism Authority of Thailand website or ask your accommodation for up-to-date info on what’s planned locally.
In Bangkok, Songkran festivities centre around Silom Rd, with thousands of people soaking up the atmosphere and likely getting drenched in the process. Backpacker hub Khao San Rd is also a popular party spot along with Phuket’s Bangla Rd or Pattaya’s Beach Rd.
Kids are welcome everywhere during Songkran and often love the chance to go a little wild in public. Many places also create specifically family-friendly or alcohol-free zones, such as near Wat Pho in Bangkok, or Saphan Hin Park and Soi Ta-iad in Chalong in Phuket.
However, arguably the country’s best place to experience the spectacle is in Chiang Mai where festivities are in full force for the entire three days and often even start early on 12 April. Here, the road surrounding Chiang Mai’s old city moat turns into a watery war zone during daylight hours. Roofless túk-túks, pick-up trucks and motorbikes laden with water-gun-wielding revellers make their way around the moat while people also take to the streets on foot to join the fun, visit one of the temples, or grab a snack from vendors lining the road. Meanwhile, stages at different old city gates, hotels and shopping centres host live music and more.
Smaller northern towns, including Lamphun, Mae Hong Son and Phayao host mellower celebrations while Baeng Saen Beach in Chonburi province is known for its Wan Lai Festival, which holds an impressive sand pagoda competition on the beach.
Top tips for celebrating Songkran
For all its craziness, Songkran is surprisingly safe. People are out to unwind and enjoy themselves, not stir up trouble, but there are several things to keep in mind throughout the festival.
Pick your clothes carefully: Most Thais wear patterned t-shirts or button-up shirts and long trousers during Songkran. While it’s common to see foreigners wear slightly more revealing clothing, it’s not appropriate to wear bathing suits, see-through shirts (white clothing is best avoided) or crop tops. Also, wear clothes that can get dirty – you may get some din sor pong (a white powder) smeared on your face and clothes to ward off evil spirits.
Waterproof your valuables: When you venture into the fray, don’t take anything that you don’t want to get wet or lost. Protect your phone, camera and money in a waterproof bag or simply don’t take them with you.
Wear sunscreen: Even if skies are cloudy and you feel cool from the water, the strong Thai sun will sneak up on you.
Stay hydrated: The heady combination of soaring temperatures and SangSom buckets can quickly lead to dehydration so make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Play nice: If you’re outside when people are splashing water, you’re fair game to get wet… especially if you look dry! You may experience a chilling ice water attack but overall people are splashing in jest. Don’t shoot water into faces or be aggressive.
Don’t drive: Traffic accidents soar around Songkran, so avoid being on the road if possible, especially if driving a motorbike.
Say “Happy Songkran”: Want to make the locals smile? Say, “Sùk san wan Songkran” as you pour water down their back!
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