Girl in samlor, Songkran Parade.

Chiang Mai Songkran Festival

The Songkran festival is celebrated in Thailand as the traditional Buddhist New Year. April 13 is the official New Years Day but usually April 14 and 15 are also part of this annual holiday.  The word “Songkran” comes from the Sanskrit word saṃkrānti, which means transformation or change. Songkran is celebrated nationwide although the duration varies per location. The Chiang Mai Songkran Festival takes place on April 13, 14 and 15. In some places, such at Pattaya, the festival lasts for a full week.

Traditional Songkran

The Songkran Festival was traditionally a time to visit and pay respects to elders, including family members, friends, neighbors, and monks. People celebrating Songkran as a Buddhist festival may also go to a temple to pray and give food to monks. They may also cleanse Buddha images from household shrines as well as Buddha images at monasteries by gently pouring water mixed with a Thai fragrance over them. It is believed that doing this will bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year. In Chiang Mai, the Buddha images from all of the city’s important monasteries are paraded through the streets on April 13. The parade lines up along Charoenmuang road from the Nawarat Bridge all the way down to beyond the railway station. During the parade bystanders toss water at the participants of the parade and at the Buddha statues that are places on ornately decorated floats, ritually ‘bathing’ the images. People may carry handfuls of sand to their neighbourhood monastery. This is to substitute the dirt that the monks have carried away on their feet during the rest of the year. The sand is then sculpted into stupa-shaped piles and decorated with colorful flags.

Parade on April 13 Chiang Mai Songkran Festival

Another side of the Songkran Festival

For Thai people Songkran is a very important holiday that usually stretches to a period of over a week. Many people travel back to their hometowns. It is a period of traffic chaos which results in a high death toll due to traffic accidents. People unwind for a couple of days and consume a lot of alcohol which exacerbates the traffic death toll. Over time the Songkran celebrations have become more rowdy. The tradition of wishing a happy new year by tossing water of people has transformed into widespread water battles and throwing water at passers-by, people riding motorbikes, etc.. Until the early 70s Songkran celebrations would take place in and around the Ping River. In April the water level is very low in the river so people would stand in the river throwing water over each other. The Songkran celebrations now take place around the city moat, mainly on the East side. Water battles with buckets and guns start in the morning and continue until sunset. Pickup trucks with revellers circle the moat. It is certainly not for everyone.

Mixed emotions about the Songkran Festival

The Songkran Festival raises opposite emotions from people. There are plenty of people, notably foreign residents, who hate the festival and occasionally flee the country for the duration of it. The rowdy and undisciplined character of the festival is being attributed by some people to the influence of tourists but this excerpt from “Hudson’s Guide of Chiang Mai” proves that this was already happening many years before the arrival of tourists in Chiang Mai:
“Songkran used to the time for paying respectful visits to senior members of the family, when a little water from a silver bowl was sprinkled on the well-wishers as a token of blessing. The unrestricted throwing of water which now occurs is getting unruly. Gangs of high-spirited youths load drums of water on to trucks and career along the streets bailing out water in a reckless fashion, even using stirrup pumps and syringes to aid their efforts. It is a pity that the authorities cannot quietly suppress such potentially dangerous practices as throwing water at passing cyclists, motorcyclists and drivers, and let the festival continue as in former times, with everyone on foot, and happy.”

Four young women in traditional dress

We like Songkran

The high deathtoll of traffic accidents is certainly the darker side of the Songkran Holiday. Apart from that it is a great festival. There is no better time to immerse in Thai culture and have a drink with Thai friends. The water battles can be great fun. If you are not into that there are also the fantastic parades of April 13 and 15. The parades are very different. The parade of April 13 starts at the Nawarat Bridge and moves to the west along Thapae road to the Old City. The parade of April 15 starts in the Old City and moves in the opposite direction. This is also a walking parade. There are no floats involved. Prepare yourself because you will not stay dry.

Songkran is also celebrated in Laos (called pee mai lao), Cambodia (called Chaul Chnam Thmey, Cambodian New Year), Myanmar (called Thingyan), and by the Dai people in Yunnan, China (called Water-Splashing Festival).

Check out our Chiang Mai Songkran Tour