Songkran is an annual festival celebrating the Thai new year. There are some religious celebrations and traditions, but the part we are concerned with is the water splashing festival.
All across Thailand locals and tourists take to the streets for 4 days of water splashing fun. No one is safe from being drenched. There is a national holiday for the festivities.
Families and business owners living on busy streets set up shop outside their home or business, usually with a large barrel filled with water and they arm themselves with small buckets. In towns and cities people congregate in the central areas for one big water fight.
The 2014 Songkran festival has just ended in Thailand (12th to 16th April). I was was in Chiang Mai which is apparently one of the best places to be. I have not experienced Songkran before, except once 15 years ago whilst travelling into Thailand on foot from Malaysia. I was soaked that day even though I had a large backpack on my back. I witnessed other travellers getting similar treatment this time too.
Chiang Mai is located in the north of Thailand. It is popular with visitors thanks to close proximity to tourist activities such as trekking and seeing elephants. The city is built around an old moat which is a square 1.5 miles across. The ring road around the outside of the moat is the place to be.
The road around Chiang Mai’s moat is lined with foot carts, water barrels and thousands of people armed with water guns and buckets. Those with buckets simply scoop up water from the moat before throwing it or pouring it over passers by.
Travelling along this road are hundreds of pick up trucks, usually with a barrel of water on the back and a family. They joyfully soak pedestrians and those on the back of other trucks. Everyone is in great spirits and the water feels very refreshing in the extreme heat of April, Chiang Mai’s hottest month.
Besides the water splashing there are stages set up around the moat. These feature bands or very loud dance music. The atmosphere is great. Head to Thapae Gate on the East side of the most for the busiest area, which is very popular with tourists.
Warnings and Tips
As mentioned above, be careful on the roads. Most people will try to throw or pour water over your body, however some spray guns or throw buckets aggressively into faces. This can cause accidents for motorcyclists.
Be sure not to travel with your luggage at this time as you are likely to still be splashed.
The water in the moat is not very clean. It is debatable whether it is safe or not, it certainly doesn’t look safe. So keep your mouth closed when getting sprayed and try to avoid getting it in your ears or eyes too much. Away from the moat people use tap water which is fine (but not drinkable).
Buy the plastic waterproof bags before taking any electronic equipment outside. The sealable bags are cheap and available everywhere. You can’t reason with people not to splash you, so don’t risk taking your camera or phone out even for 5 minutes. Make calls and take photos from the (relative) safety besides food carts.
I noticed most Thais aim for the body but many foreigners aim for the face. I was guilty of this too until I realised. So try not to aim at peoples faces, unless they get you there first of course 😉
Before Songkram there is a lot of smokey air pollution so check out my new post on how to deal with Chiang Mai pollution.
Where To Stay
Chiang Mai is jam packed with a great range of accommodation, usually at very reasonable prices. You can splurge on a 5 star resort or get a 150 Baht room with a fan. Many visitors choose to stay within the moat which is a good idea for Songkran.
Many Chiang Mai hotels and guesthouses rent out bicycles which is a great way to get around during Songkran. Many places also offer scooters and motorbikes but there are usually one or two deaths from people being splashed and knocked off their motorbikes. The moat is small enough to walk around too. There are also tuk tuks (from 80 Baht) and red pick up trucks (pronounced “songtaws”, usually 20 Baht) to help you get around town, but expect extremely slow traffic during Songkran in central areas.
Chiang Mai is a 12.5 hour train ride from Bangkok. This is a pleasant journey to take on the overnight train as your seats transform into a bed at night, complete with sheets and pillow. You can also travel by bus from Bangkok and other areas in Thailand. Be sure to choose the most expensive option for more comfort, which should be slightly cheaper than the train. Flights from Bangkok are around 1 hour. You can also fly to Chiang Mai from some international airports in Asia including Singapore and Hong Kong.