An Overview Of Songkran, Thailand’s Yearly New Year Celebration, Featuring Water Battles, Cultural Customs, And Fresh Starts

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Songkran

At first glance, Thailand’s yearly Songkran celebration seems to be nothing more than a massive water fight. Every April, people of all ages go out into the streets around the nation, armed only with toy guns and buckets of water, and fight for hours, from dawn until nightfall. Even though it’s perhaps the most well-known feature of the festivities, Songkran is a great time for tourists to visit since it’s full of interesting cultural customs.

What Is Songkran, Exactly?

The traditional Thai New Year, known as Songkran, is observed from April 13 to 15, while some cities extend the festivities for a few more days. It is believed that the term “Songkran” originated in ancient Sanskrit and described the monthly movement of the zodiac.

The sun’s yearly entry into the Aries constellation, the first sign of the zodiac, signifies the customary beginning of the Thai New Year celebration, which is why UNESCO included Songkran in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2023. According to the UNESCO inscription, “pouring water is a significant act during Songkran, symbolizing cleansing, reverence and good fortune.”

“Other activities include feasting, folk plays, games, music, and splashing water on family and friends, as well as bathing important Buddha images.” In recent years, Songkran has become a worldwide phenomenon due to the splashing, with large-scale water battles taking place on blocked city streets anywhere from Bangkok’s Khao San Road and Silom Road to Chiang Mai’s ancient Old City. It’s hard to tell for sure when the water battles became such an important aspect of the celebration, according to Pipad Krajaejun, a history lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

But ancient pictures of Chiang Mai taken in 1964 by Boonserm Satraphai reveal that many people participated in water fights in the Ping River, he tells CNN Travel. “Water fights have been happening in different parts of Thailand for 60–70 years, according to many elderly people.”

Unlike today’s conflicts, which might involve hundreds of revelers and powerful water cannons, Pipad claims that back then “everyone played with water in the village, everyone knew each other, and there was kinship.” Nowadays, Songkran events are held in almost every city, town, and hamlet across the nation. (More about the water wars will be discussed later.)

Local governments plan certain activities, but a lot of hospitality establishments, including theme parks, hotels, eateries, and bars, throw their Songkran celebrations. If you intend to participate in the water fights, make sure to verify in advance as some cities only allow them to last for one day.

The Thailand Tourism Authority has compiled a schedule of events happening around the nation, but Bangkok is expected to be a popular choice for those interested in experiencing the local culture this year. From April 11–15, 2024, the city’s historic old center—the area surrounding Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue and Sanam Luang, close to well-known locations like the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha—will host the first-ever Maha Songkran World Water Festival. The festival’s centerpiece event, the Maha Songkran Parade, is scheduled for April 11. With 20 spectacular processions and over 1,000 performers, it will begin at the Phan Fa Lilat Bridge and end at Sanam Luang.

The festival will feature cultural and musical events at Sanam Luang, a large open space in front of the Grand Palace, including the well-known Khon masked theatre. Additionally, a special area will showcase customs and celebrations exclusive to the northern, northeastern, eastern regions, and southern regions of Thailand. There will be a designated splash area with a water tunnel, a large wading pool, a water station, and a melodic dancing fountain. Despite regional variations in Songkran customs, Pipad of Thammasat University reports that two primary rites are still being performed today.

Song Nam Phra is the custom of “people, particularly the elderly, visiting temples to sprinkle water on Buddha images” on April 13, the first day of the new year.

But every part of Thailand follows a somewhat different custom; in northern Thailand, or Lanna, for instance, people use a naga waterspout to pour water on a Buddha image instead of doing it directly, the expert explains. “The second tradition, known as Rot Nam Dam Hua, involves dousing the elderly members of the family in water mixed with flowers and perfume before they bless their lineage.” Usually, April 14 is when this occurs. These days, it’s common to find Buddha statues positioned in shops and other commercial spaces, such as malls, together with little silver-colored cups floating in fragrant water pools. According to Pipad, the practice of performing Song Nam Phra in shopping malls probably began in the 1970s or 1980s when major retailers like MBK and Central Department Store began to construct expansive retail complexes. 

Given that the mall was predominantly used by urban inhabitants and their families, Song Nam Phra may have been a viable option for a recreational activity, according to him. “Moreover, air conditioning was available in malls, which may persuade people to visit them instead of temples.” Visitors won’t have any trouble joining in as water battles occur on streets and in public areas around the nation. During Songkran, water pistols are for sale everywhere, and street merchants frequently set up shop close to well-liked locations for water fights.

However, before leaving, there are a few crucial things to think about. Before leaving, people should place all of their valuables—including waterproof phones—in a waterproof pouch. It’s common to have a sticky mess on your face from getting wet, white powder spread on it. Since the quality of the water might be dubious, wear goggles or wide clear glasses to prevent eye discomfort.

When it’s hot outside, common sense prevails as usual. Wear a hat, apply sunscreen, and drink plenty of water. In Thailand, summer is in full swing, with highs of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and higher throughout this season. Conversely, entering a cool car or facility after being completely soaked through may be quite an experience. Do you have an old Hawaiian shirt lying around that you’ve been meaning to wear? This is your opportunity. Many people dress up during Songkran by donning shirts adorned with vibrant flowers. Given the significance of Songkran as a family celebration, food plays a major role. Every province in this diversified nation has its unique culinary traditions due to the abundance of regional cuisines. However, there are a few foods that are especially good in summer. One of them is a specialty known as “khao chae,” which means “rice soaked in water.” A cool dish that is often served in the summer, from late March to May, it may be found on a lot of seasonal menus and is frequently offered by upscale hotels in their special version. For example, the traditional khao chae set at Mandarin Oriental Bangkok comes with a variety of side dishes such as stuffed peppers, shredded pork, fresh veggies, and deep-fried shallots and fish, along with jasmine-infused water with ice. Of course, we must not overlook the omnipresent mango sticky rice, a favorite dish of visitors that can be found anywhere from fancy Thai restaurants to the streets. This unique snack or dessert consists of sweet sticky rice topped with juicy mango and a coconut cream sauce. Despite being year-round, its popularity peaks during the summer, when mangoes are in season. Mango sticky rice has been served at K. Panich, a Bangkok institution that has been there for almost a century if you don’t mind the crowds.