If you want to have the time of your life participating in a massive water fight while immersing yourself in a rich cultural event, plan a trip to Thailand to partake in their iconic Songkran Festival. Songkran is Thailand’s Buddhist New Year celebration marking the beginning of the new astrological year from April 13th to 15th annually. Songkran translates to “astrological passage” and symbolizes change and transformation for the coming year.
Many consider Songkran to be the most anticipated event of the year in Thailand. The festival originated in Chiang Mai and the Chiang Mai festivities remain one of the biggest celebrations across Thailand today. The typically calm and reserved Thais completely let loose with incredible energy. Songkran is rich with tradition and symbolism, combined with modern fun and excitement.
During this holiday, Buddha statues in homes and temples are cleaned with perfumed water. Many people carefully clean their homes preparing for the new year while making their resolutions. On the morning of the 13th, residents visit their local temples to offer food to the Buddhist monks. Rituals include pouring water over the Buddha statues, representing purification and the washing away of sins as well as the banishment of bad luck. Young people pour scented water over the palms of elders to show their respect.
Perhaps the most well known Songkran ritualis the iconic water festival celebrated all across the country by both young and old. The water filled fun begins late morning on the 13th and continues through the full three days of the holiday. April is also peak heat season, which presents an opportune time for a water-soaked cool down! The city comes to a halt as streets and traffic are closed off and become the arenas for massive friendly water fights. This water fight ritual also serves the purpose of giving positive blessings, wishes and prosperity for the new year. Tens of thousands of people are roaring and ready with their squirt guns, water cannons and buckets filled with ice cold water in every corner of the town Beware that the Thais love to wipe a white powder mixed with water on people's’ faces. If you’re not into this, rinse it off nonchalantly with fresh water.
The most popular places to participate in the water madness are around the canals, moat, Ping River, the Tha Pae Gate and Chiang Mai Gate. The large moat surrounding the city is the perfect source of ammunition to refill your pistols and buckets. The playfulness is especially rowdy in this area. No need to pack your water gear from home as you will find plenty of vendors supplying all shapes and sizes of water guns. Tha Pae Gate is a massive water playground you have to see at least once, with plentiful refill stations and a music stage with foam machines.
You will find the city streets lined with entertainment including professional dancers, parades, and religious processions. Chiang Mai holds the largest and most recognized Songkran Festival Parade where Buddhist statues from local temples are paraded through the streets on the afternoon of the 13th, to celebrate the coming of the new year. It is tradition to respectfully and carefully pour water over the arms and legs of the statues being carried.
The statues are accompanied by civic groups and marching bands from local schools. The parade makes its way from the Wat Phra Singh railway station to the center of the city in Old Town. A great spot to watch the parade from is Ratchadamnoen Road. From here you can see the Songkran Lady’s Parade pass by as well.
Beautiful sand sculptures can be seen at various temples all over Chiang Mai. The sand is delivered to temples on the second day of celebration and sculpted on the morning of the third day, decorated with prayer flags. On this third day special ceremonies take place in the central meeting hall of the temples.
While Chiang Mai is home to the largest Songkran celebration, other noteworthy celebrations worth visiting take place in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Hua Hin, and Khon Kaen.
How to Get There
Both domestic and regional international flights fly to Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) which is only 3km from the city center. Flights between Bangkok and Chiang Mai run nearly every hour. Travel time between the airport and city center runs around 10 to 15 minutes. Note that this time can more than triple during the Songkran Festival on the 13th, 14th, and 15th of April. Therefore it is advisable to arrive at least a few days early to beat the traffic.
- Taxi - Authorized airport taxis charge a flat rate of 160 baht (€4) to the city center. Taxis are located at the north exit of the terminal after exiting baggage claim. Metered taxis are another option that cost roughly the same.
- Bus - Bus 4 travels to the city center from the airport for only 15 baht (€0.4).
- Tuk Tuk - If you really want to get into the Thai spirit and don’t mind forking out a little extra cash, Tuk Tuk costs around 60 baht per person (€1.5).
If traveling from Bangkok, your options are either hopping on a domestic flight or taking a 12 hour bus ride from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit). Most buses drop off at Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station,his which costs between 400 and 800 baht (€10 - €20). Another option is to travel by train which takes between 14 to 16 hours. Prices vary depending on whether you book during daytime, nighttime, and in first or second class. The Chiang Mai train station is 3km east of the city center with plenty of tuk-tuks eager to give you a lift to the city.
Where to Stay
We recommend staying within the old city inside the moat, in close proximity to Ta Pae Gate where the main action takes place. Staying within walking distance alleviates the hassle of having to book transportation during such a busy and chaotic time. Instead you can rely on your own two feet!
Photos courtesy of iStock and John Shedrick.