The Thai New Year is celebration, more commonly referred to as Songkran, is like nothing I have ever encountered in my life. I had heard about Songkran from fellow travel bloggers and while looking into festivals worldwide. As soon as I had seen images of this festival, I knew I needed to be there and experience it firsthand.
Before I get into how massive this festival really is, it is necessary for me to give some insight about the New Year and how it became what it is today. Many countries in SE Asia celebrate the calendar new year (1 January) just like the rest of us, but also the Thai New Year which traditionally falls between 13-15 April.
The traditional throwing of water was meant as a symbol of cleansing and renewal in preparation for the New Year. Thai people use jasmine scented water to cleanse the Buddha images in their homes and temples. Many Thai people make pilgrimages to their original birth cities to be with their elders. The younger people will sprinkle water on their elders as a tribute of respect and for blessings.
Another tradition that I was able to witness was merit making to the local temples and monks. Outside of the Tae Phae gate at 600am, crowds of people began to gather with bags full of offerings. Cookies, noodles, juices, milk, and flowers were common items. A procession of monks walked down the path while anxious locals handed over their offerings. As the monks bowl overfilled with offerings, the items were quickly transferred to larger bags. This was followed by a parade with people in gorgeous traditional dress.
EPIC Water Fight
So with all that, the real celebration is the three day long water fight that happens throughout the streets. I decided to travel to the heart of the where the most famous Songkran celebrations rage, in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand and an easy 1 hour flight from Bangkok (or 7ish hour bus ride).
I arrived 3 days before the festivities were set to begin and the city was already buzzing. Locals were getting ready by assembling market areas, vendors laying claim to their spots, and squirt guns were starting to make their way to the streets to be sold to all those ready to participate.
I chose my guesthouse so that I would be in the Old City of Chiang Mai, which is that part of the city on the inside of the moat. The water fights are centralized around the moat encompassing the Old City. I was very close to the Tae Phae gate which was the epic center for the throw down.
I took a day to survey the area and decided that it was time to purchase my weapon. I settled on a Super Shooter 2000, not the largest, but seemed adequate to me. I also picked up a waterproof pouch so I could stash my phone and cash.
Since the 13th fell on a Sunday this year, many Thais started the celebration early on Saturday. I decided to venture down to the Tha Phae gate and see what was going on. It wasn’t crazy, but the celebrations had begun. I was soaked within a minute of being through the gate. I decided it was a good time to test out my gun to ensure it could handle to brutality it would need to endure for the next couple of days. I spent about an hour in total just getting a lay of the land and enjoying the fun that was yet to come. I had no idea that I would be in for so much more tomorrow.
It was time to see what this festival was all about. I met up with Hannah and Adam of Getting Stamped and Ryan of Just Chuckin’ It and we decided it would be best to try and battle as a team. Hahaha…what were we thinking?! Walking through the Tae Phae gate, we were greeted with chaos. Pure and simple. It was mayhem. Stages set up with beats raging, foam machines erupting onto the crowds, and people soaked to the bone everywhere you looked!
We dove in head first and my 10 year old self had a riot! The local Thais definitely had the advantage over all the foreigners that were there to help them celebrate. They were equipped with buckets and 50 gallon barrels of water….with blocks of ice! I was caught off guard when I was hit with the first frigid cold bucket of water, soaking me from head to toe, but on a 100° day, it was refreshing at the same time.
Our squirt guns were no match for the trucks full (I mean like 12 people in a truck bed) of Thais with buckets drenching everyone in their line of fire. But, we did have an awesome time and after 2 hours of water brawling it was time for a beer break. We were all completely saturated and our skin looked as though we had been enjoying the hot tub for far too long. We tried to have a few beers outside of firing range, but there was no safe zone. After a couple hours, the clouds began to roll in and it got surprisingly chilly. Since we all had just about enough and decided to bow out for day one.
After spending more time drinking the day before than actually engaging in the water fight (hey, these things happen), we were all feeling pretty shitty. Ryan was the only one who rose up and braved the streets again but looking back, wishes he probably didn’t. I spent the day recovering while strategizing with Hannah and Adam on how we would go big to close out the following day.
The last and final day. It also happened to be the eve of Hannah’s 30th birthday, so I made my way to their place to help celebrate. We all decided to ease ourselves back into the celebrating with a few fruity cocktails and jello shots….because what is a birthday celebration without jello shots?! Feeling like a new person, we decided to check out the scene at Maya, a massive luxury mall that had opened recently. They had been hosting concerts and shows there the last couple of days and the word was it was insane.
Well, I think I would agree with that. In just the six or so blocks to get there, we were completely drenched. It was the last day and another scorcher, so I welcomed the cool down. We heard Maya before we actually saw it and the party was raging. Music blaring, fire hoses being sprayed into crowds and everyone trying to soak up (get it? :)) the last day of Songkran. Hannah, Adam, and I charged in with guns a blazing and took no prisoners.
There were refilling stations all around and seeing the color of the water nearly made me sick. Brown, murky, and thick. Ugh…this is what we had been playing in, and subsequently ingesting accidentally, over the last few days?? At this point, we just wanted to have fun and really didn’t give it much more thought. After a few good hours and a couple of beers, we managed to get some food and decided to end our Songkran celebrations. The walk back to my place was nearly 45 minutes and I continued to get drenched the whole way home. My attempts to escape to the back roads and quieter areas were fruitless and there was always some innocent looking, 70 year Thai man, armed with a bucket of frigid water reminding me of why I chose to celebrate in Chiang Mai.
So after 3 days of raging water fights, was it worth it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Probably not. Let me explain…..I had a riot. It was truly a lot of fun and who wouldn’t enjoy themselves in a massive squirt gun fight? But, there is another side to all of this. After being shot in the face more times than I can count, ingesting questionable (at best) water from a moat where there had been reports that it was not safe, and being the target of relentless buckets of icy water being a foreigner…you start to get a bit jaded. I realize that I got exactly what I came for and I wanted to experience that. But, I probably wouldn’t need to experience it again. I came, I battled, I survived.
Songkran Survival Tips:
- Know your dates: You will not be able to escape being wet for 3 (at a minimum) solid days in any major city in Thailand, unless you stay inside. Those poor souls that didn’t know about Songkran and were walking through the streets with packs on their backs and fronts, were just hating it all. No one is safe.
- Buy a waterproof pouch: If you plan to carry anything with you, make sure you have a durable waterproof pouch, or else several Ziploc bags. As many phones fall victim to Songkran as people with intestinal issues from ingesting water.
- Bigger isn’t always better: Choose the gun that works for you. You don’t need to have the largest as there are places to refill everywhere.
- Buckets are key to the arsenal: For $0.50 you can pick up a bucket and really have fun. Throwing a bucket of Icy cold water on a motorbike trying to zip by….hilarious!
- Sunglasses: These aren’t for protecting your eyes from the sun necessarily, but more so that the nasty water doesn’t find another entry point into your body.
- Make friends: Especially with the local Thais that have the massive barrels of cold water. You’ll be thankful if you can. You no longer are the victim of icy baths and can now be the one inflicting the pain J
- Beware of the ‘white paste’: The white paste is an old tradition where Thais apply it to your face in order to protect you and ward off evil. This year, the ‘white paste’ was actually prickly powder, similar to icy hot, thanks to the truck throwing thousands into the crowds. Not fun to get this slapped onto your face!
- Remember to have fun: No one is picking on you (although it may seem like it), unless you are instigating with them. So don’t get mad, just enjoy the celebration!