Header image courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand
Mid-April in Thailand may be the hottest month of the year, but the annual Songkran celebrations to mark the Thai New Year will be a fun-filled splashing of water to cool down in the scorching heat. Also known as the Water Festival, the event will bring out the childlike mischievous behaviour in some celebrants as they douse their targets and passers-by with copious amounts of water to signify abundant blessings in the new year.
A mere sprinkling of water is insufficient; the “showers” of blessing are delivered through pailfuls of water hurled at others in friendly water fights. Washing away bad luck during Songkran means getting drenched by well-wishers during the three-day celebration.
Songkran is a Buddhist festival to herald in Thailand’s traditional New Year according to the solar calendar. Derived from Sanskrit, with its roots originating from India, Songkran means “astrological passage” or transformation. The festival signifies the day the sun leaves Pisces and enters Aries after orbiting the earth, and also symbolises the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season.
An exodus of Thais from the cities to their hometowns and villages takes place ahead of Songkran as it marks the annual family gatherings and the occasion to pay respect to their elders. The first day of Songkran is National Elderly Day when Thais pour fragrant water on the palms of their elders and ask for their blessings. A “Miss Songkran” beauty pageant and parade with floral floats are often part of the festivities.
The second day is National Family Day when families offer alms to monks. Being an auspicious day, Thais are mindful to avoid speaking impolitely. Following tradition, family members would use small bowls of water to pour over each other for good luck, health, and wealth. This practice has evolved into party-like street water “battles” using buckets and water pistols.
Devout Buddhists would take small bags of sand to the temple to signify a return of the dust they had carried away on their feet while visiting the temple in the past year. The sand is shaped into small stupas topped off with flags in honour of the Buddha. Some temples hold contests where devotees sculpt large, elaborate sand sculptures. Some Thais also apply a white pasty powder on each other’s face or neck to ward off bad luck.
Bangkok is the hub for the largest and most spectacular Songkran celebrations.
The key places are at Silom Road and Khao San Road. Silom, a popular shopping and entertainment area, attracts hordes of splashers who can take shelter from the scorching sun from the overhead BTS train track. Some observers often use the overhead walkway called the Skywalk in Silom or the Ratchaprasong area for an elevated view of the lively water mayhem to avoid getting drenched.
If you want to experience Songkran with a party spirit, head for Royal City Avenue or RCA, which is a hub of clubs and bars. While those seeking a more subdued, traditional aspect of Songkran steeped in the religious rituals should consider going to one of the temples, Wat Arun and Wat Pho on the Chao Phraya River, or Wat Phra Kaeo in Chinatown.
Chiang Mai celebrates Songkran for four days, instead of the usual three days in other cities. The action takes place along the ancient moat where revellers refill their water guns and buckets. Precaution must be taken as the moat water is contaminated and revellers often suffer bacterial infections in the aftermath of their water fights. To keep safe, don goggles and earplugs, and avoid opening your mouth during the water fights. This can be a bit difficult amidst the excitement or terror of being the target of the water attacks.
Pattaya stretches the celebrations up to 10 days. Songkran starts as early as April 11, so Songkran splashers will have a field day here. Highlights include large sand sculptures created on the beach and the unique ‘Kong Khao’ parade in appreciation of the Goddess of Rice.
Ayutthaya features elephants in street celebrations. The colourfully painted behemoths are roped in to spray revellers with water from huge barrels, with their trunks likened to large hosepipes.
Khon Kaen celebrates Songkran in Isan fashion featuring seasonal yellow flowers (dok khun) with festivities near Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake and centred on Khao Nieo Road, venue of the Human Wave event. Launched in 2009 to symbolise unity, the event sees three rounds of participants jump up with hands raised. The Human Wave often stretches up to a one-kilometre-long mass of people, often attracting over 100,000 revellers.
Smaller towns and provinces tend to celebrate Songkran in a more traditional manner with the focus on religious and cultural activities. In Nakhon Phanom, a joint Thai-Lao Songkran festival called Pleasant Songkran is an annual affair which showcases the cultures of different ethnic groups in Nakhon Phanom province. Nakhon Si Thammarat presents the Hae Nang Kradan Festival or Nang Dan Parade (held in honour of the Hindu God Shiva) held concurrently with Songkran.
Songkran is also a time to enjoy a special seasonal dish. Aimed at cooling down the body, khao chae (ข้าวแช่; “khao” means “rice” and “chae” means “to soak”) is only available from mid-March until the end of April. This Songkran speciality consists of ice-chilled rice in jasmine-scented water served with side dishes. These dishes include sweet pepper, deep-fried battered egg, stuffed shallots, deep-fried shrimp paste, sweet fish, salty beef, and pickled vegetables and fruit.
Take a small bite of a side dish and follow up with a spoonful of the icy rice. Preparing khao chae is a painstaking effort as it is time-consuming, involving a long list of ingredients for the different dishes.
The Mon people from Myanmar created this special dish as a gift for the gods during Songkran. In the 1800s, it was only served in the palace, but from 1910 the delicacy was enjoyed throughout Thailand. In the past, when there was no freezer to make ice, water was cooled in earthen pots away from the heat.