Songkran 2014: ding, ding, round one… The world’s biggest annual water fight begins on 13 April as Thais and tourists take to the streets with buckets, hoses, super soakers, bottles and anything else they can lay their hands on to give a good soaking.
The occasion? Thai New Year of course! From 13-15 April, Thai New Year, or the Songkran Festival to give it its proper title, is a three-day public holiday involving water fights, beauty pageants, wild parties and much, much more.
Background: What’s it all about?
While water balloons, parties and drive-by soakings have come to symbolise Thai New Year, there’s far more to the celebrations than water fights and having fun.
Marking the passing of the dry season and the start of a brand new year, the Songkran Festival is also a time of cultural and spiritual significance for Thais.
Songkran literally means ‘a change’ and in many ways Songkran is a period of transition which many Thais use to clear the house, visit family and fulfill religious commitments.
Even the water fights hold greater significance than a simple opportunity to have fun and cool down in the sun’s glare during the hottest month of the year. The drenching washes away the sins and evil of the past year and mark a wiping clean of the slate for the New Year ahead.
Customs and rituals
1. Cleaning of body and soul
Thai New Year is a time for a cleansing of the body, both inside and out. Over the course of the three-day festival you’ll see people meticulously cleaning the Buddha statues and temples, as well as their own private homes.
Part of the cleaning process involves Thais throwing out old or unused items, as they’re perceived as bringing bad luck in the year ahead.
To cleanse their souls, Thai people do a number of good deeds, like the performance of bathing rites for monks. They also engage in pious activities like giving money, listening to sermons and sprinkling water on their elders.
Such rituals are largely private affairs and there is little opportunity for travelers to participate. However, observing the Thai’s religiosity is a humbling and thought provoking experience in its own right and provides a great opportunity to take time to think about whether your own house is in order.
2. Making merit
Making merit, which involves visiting the city’s numerous sacred temples over the holiday period, is another essential part of Songkran in Bangkok and unlike the cleansing of body and soul is a ritual that you can more readily participate in.
There are loads of temples to choose from for your pilgrimage, but the temples in the Rattanokosin area, like Wat Arun, are probably the best places to go as they are generally the easiest to get to from your Bangkok hostel or hotel.
3. Freeing birds and fish
The Phra Pradaeng Songkran Festival (formerly known as the Pak Lat Songkran Festival) is open to everyone and well worth a visit if you’ve had enough of the hectic scene in Bangkok.
It’s held a little later than the rest of the country, with this year’s taking place from the 18th-20th April. The highlight is a majestic river procession of grand floral floats carrying beautiful women, decked in traditional Mon and Ramen dress, who perform the ritual of releasing live fish back into the river or freeing birds from wooden cages.
The event is popular with Bangkokians, especially amongst the young and red-blooded males, who make the short journey from Bangkok to Phra Pradaeng, as much in hope of finding their eternal sweet heart from the pretty young women performing the rituals as to observe the ritual itself.
Bangkok: Celebrating in Thailand’s capital
1. Water Fights on Khao San Road
The tradition of water throwing is undoubtedly the highlight of Bangkok’s Songkran celebrations for tourists and backpackers, who take to the streets in their droves to get involved in the ultimate water fight that takes place across the city.
The partying epicenter is Khao San Road, and, unsurprisingly, this is where you’ll find the majority of young Thais and tourists.
If you end up on Khao San Road during Songkran, you’ll quickly discover that the courteous sprinklings and the respectful splashes that you experience in other parts of the city are not part of the programme.
Instead, you’ll find the deferential splashes are replaced by full-scale water fights and full-on soakings. There’s no need to pre-arm yourself. Depending on your budget, you’ll be able to choose from a veritable arsenal of water-weaponry from the market stalls and shops that line the streets, from the more modest water pistols and squirt guns to high-powered water cannons that allow you to soak like a pro.
Water is not the only liquid consumed in vast quantities during the Songkran festivities along Khao San Road. Invariably, it ends up a boozy affair with plenty of alcohol put away over the course of the three days. Look out for the rooftop bars where you can party the night away under the stars, though they might be a little pricier than the more grounded bars. Otherwise there are always the classic favourites like the Brick Bar, Lava Gold or Susie Pub, and numerous other bars and restaurants supplying a steady flow of booze for the party on the street.
The water fights along Khao San Road are great fun but they’re also pretty intense – if getting soaked to the bone isn’t your idea of fun then avoid Khao San Road and the surrounding area.
2. Beauty Pageant
Bangkok holds a Miss Songkran Beauty contest as part of its Songkran festivities each year. Taking place in the Wisutkasat area, the pageant is a very popular event among Bangkokians, with locals turning out in their masses to catch a glimpse of the bevy of beautiful girls involved in the competition.
It’s tradition for the pageant to be judged by the audience. To win the competition the young women must impress the audience with, not only their beauty, but also their unique talents, which they must display to the audience.
The winner is usually determined by the level of ‘financial’ or ‘material’ support the girl gets, as to show your support you have to purchase a necklace and place it on your chosen girl.
The pageant is traditionally accompanied by a parade and merit-making. It can get a little crowded at times but is definitely worth a look if you are in town over the Thai New Year period.
Special New Year celebrations are also held at Sanam Luang, opposite the Grand Palace every year. On the first day of Songkran the Buddha image ‘Buddhasihing’ is brought out from its home in the National Museum and carried along the streets to Sanam Luang amid crowds of people who sprinkle water on it as it passes.
The image then remains in situ at Sanam Luang for three days, so people who missed the original procession can also pay their respects, before being returned to the National Museum.
Food Fairs: Foodies’ heaven
Thailand is a mecca for foodies all year round, it’s true, but during the festival period they go that extra mile. You’ll find many special tasty seasonal culinary treats to mark the occasion. The food is mainly a variation on traditional dishes like Pad Thai but there are also new dishes to try.
Many restaurants do special menus during Songkran, while nearly all the food vendors produce special snacks over the course of the celebrations.
Be sure to check out our blog on Thai food if you want more details of what to expect from your Songkran food.
- Don’t throw water at moving vehicles, mopeds or cars as this is dangerous and can cause accidents.
- Don’t drench locals if they beg you not to- especially elders- unless you’re on Khao San Road in which case it’s game on! This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, it just means that you should remain respectful to the people whose country and festival you are celebrating!
Accommodation in Bangkok
Bangkok is full of hostels and hotels, however, it can get a little (or very… incredibly) busy over the Songkran period, so we recommend you book your accommodation well in advance to avoid disappointment. Book your Bangkok hostel now, get out there and experience Thai New Year for yourself!
Where else can I celebrate?
Experienced the Songkran Festival before? Leave us your comments!
If you’ve experienced the festival first hand and have any advice or have found any hidden gems that we haven’t mentioned above, then we’re sure your fellow travelers would love to hear about them. Use the comment section below and get involved in the conversation.
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