With a cold wave making the world shiver mercilessly, it is hard to imagine anything fun related to water. But the truth is, the sizzling water festival of Songkran of Thailand is a lot of rowdy fun and it is coming our way soon. The season will change, the days will get warmer soon, and some of the most vibrant festivals of Chiang Mai will be coming our way. Chiang Mai by itself is a very charming place where one can linger longer than planned. When you combine this northern Thailand city’s charm with its exquisite festivals like Songkran, you know you have a travel winner in your hand.
Songkran is one of Chiang Mai’s crowd-pulling festivals
Technically speaking, Chiang Mai celebrates three main festivals with much pomp and grandeur. These celebrations are photographers’ delights and are huge crowd pullers. The refreshing Songkran which resembles our Holi festival is celebrated in April, the dazzling Loy Krathong is in November, and every February sees the Chiang Mai Flower Festival. I happened to be in Chiang Mai during both Songkran and Loy Krathong and ironically missed the magnificent flower festival by a day. Out of the two major festivals, Songkran is my favourite and every year it turns Chiang Mai into a huge street party. Thankfully, the weather is crisp, hot, and dry and the sizzling Thai summer makes all that water drenching refreshingly fun.
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A deeply religious festival, Songkran is now a huge party fest
However, cameras, mobile phones are best to be left at hotels/hostels because no other Thai festival has a longer list of electronic device casualty than this one. The historic Chiang Mai old city is pleasantly closeted in by ancient water-filled moat and during Songkran apart from endless water guns, canons, ice cold water buckets, hoses are channeled from this moat to douse just about anybody. That’s Songkran, Thailand‘s crazy water festival and it is more than what meets the eyes. Although traditionally held to usher in Thai New Year, Songkran has over the years turned into a full-fledged water fest.
My brush with Songkran happened a few years ago
During one Songkran I found myself in Chiang Mai and being alone, got tagged along by Pi, my kindly Thai guesthouse owner into the festivities. I was staying at the cozy Baan Thalang at Chiang Mai and it could not have got pleasanter than there. A nice clean guesthouse, Pi and Chelsea, the in-house pet are its biggest attractions. It’s close proximity to the old city and street food courts make it a perfect choice for those who want it all, without being in the middle of the action. Being alone and bit wistful for a friend, I cheerfully teamed up with Pi and a bunch of neighbourhood kids.
The rituals of Songkran before the wet and wild party
The activities started in the morning and Pi kicked off the festivities by pouring water on her father (a ritual to express respect). After that, she painted sandalwood designs on our cheeks (traditional Songkran ritual for skin protection) and then went wet and wild. Songkran continued for next consecutive 3-4 days but after my first wet day, I had enough of it. Moreover, a German Chiang Mai resident by then introduced me to a more unique Chiang Mai specialty and that is the incredible Monk Walk.
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The incredible Monk Walk of Chiang Mai
It happens a few days before the Songkran schedule and is a spectacle to behold. Hundreds of monks, after finishing the Buddha bathing rituals, silently line up to walk on the flower-strewn route, which goes through the old city and along the moat. The sight is truly awe-inspiring. Monks are revered in Thailand; however, the common sight of them on a daily basis sometimes make it hard to understand the reverence Thai people have for them in their hearts. Thousands of faithful with bowed heads folded hands, and offerings line up along the sidewalk. They sit on bended knees for hours and offer flowers in exchange for blessings to the monks as they pass by.
Where spirituality can be seen amidst a thousand flower petals
A complete silence falls on the crowd, as a long serpentine queue of silent, placid monks of all ages clad in deep saffron walk nonchalantly on a path made of flower petals, among thousands of bowed heads. It’s a morning spectacle and immediately thereafter the rowdy fun of wet, wild Songkran starts. It is another side of this deeply religious festival and Songkran parties continue well past sunset. Roads get blocked with water trucks, people revel in the festive spirit, and hundreds of snacks and beverage carts mushroom all over the place. Crazy, frenetic Songkran usually overwhelms the first timers and if you step out of your hotel, you are bound to get wet.
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Choose the gentler Loy Krathong festival, if Songkran is too wild for you
Loy Krathong, on the other hand, is a gentle, photogenic, and an extremely touristy affair. Held in mid-November this beautiful festival is celebrated best at Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, and Surin, where they even have an elephant parade. In Chiang Mai, it is known as Yee Peeng and includes hundreds of devotees floating handmade krathongs (banana stalk boats filled with flowers, candles, incense etc) down the Mae Ping river. This ritual supposedly washes away the sins and makes a follower pure until the next year. Evening brings out the grand and much-awaited celebration of releasing thousands of illuminated paper lanterns into the night sky. It is one of the most breathtaking sights in the world (and a safe one, unlike rowdy Songkran parties) and to watch a dark velvety sky getting lit up innumerable twinkling lanterns is absolutely a must do once in lifetime experience.
Though not crazy like Songkran, Loy Krathong is captivating
A virtual golden shower, Loy Krathong/Yee Peeng lantern experience is simply celestial. My Loy Krathong photos were ruined because of overexposure and the breeze make it one of the hardest phenomena to capture on camera. The moments remain embedded on my mind, and I clearly remember the collective gasp which went through a playground full of people as the lanterns floated into a dark, velvety eternity. Releasing of lanterns however are not only restricted to Loy Krathong because on a dark Sunday Night Market evening, I unexpectedly stumbled upon a sky full of them floating above our heads. Having been caught unaware coupled with the glowing lights of Sunday Night Market, I dismissed my camera and rather enjoyed the sight of these fiery beauties as they slowly bobbed out of sight.
That special Thai festival tip for stunning photos
For those interested in experiencing the spiritual side of Chiang Mai, don’t miss out on the incredible Buddhist festivals held in the city. On the 9th April of every year, nearly 500 Dhutanga monks come out for their annual walk to pay obeisance to Buddha’s relics. It begins at 9 in the morning at Wat Phra Singh and continues as the procession of the monks meanders through the city, markets and along parts of the moat. The procession finally ending at Wat Chedi Luang. 500 orange-robed monks walking over a sea of yellow marigold petals as people pray in reverence is a most awe-inspiring sight. Locals line the moat near Thapae Gate with petals and await the monks with folded hands and humbled heads of obeisance. This special procession happens a few days before the Songkran festival.
How to make the most of Songkran Festival?
The Songkran Festival is also the Thai New Year. The usual dates of this festival are from the 13th of April to the 15th of April.
Where is it best celebrated?
- Bangkok – It sees the largest of Songkran parties being held on the Silom Road, Khao San Road, and RCA.
- Ayutthaya – In Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya beautifully painted elephants join in the festivities and are given huge barrels of water to spray onlookers with.
- Pattaya – Check out the sand sculpture parade and beauty contest held on every Songkran at Pattaya.
- Chiang Mai – This city is believed to have the best Songkran celebrations.
How to celebrate Songkran?
- Traditionally, one celebrates Songkran by pouring water over yourself and others. It was seen as a way to cleanse your sins, but over time this ritual has escalated into a wet and wild event. Be prepared to get wet.
Top 10 Tips for Songkran Festival
- Dress Appropriately – You are going to get very wet and stay like that all the time. So wear comfy, quick dry clothes and avoid donning white. It’s a religious festival, not a wet t-shirt party. Also consider wearing waterproof open sandals to avoid getting wet, mushy feet.
- Waterproof Everything – Since it is a water festival, it makes sense to put all your valuables and electronics in a waterproof bag. A plastic waterproof pouch or a Ziploc also works. Tuck in your bag inside your shirt to keep it safe.
- Waterproof your Camera – This is a MUST, even if you are not planning to join the action and only intent to photograph it. Alternatively, use one of the modern waterproof phones.
- Cover your eyes with goggles – Getting squirted with water in your eyes can get painful. So stay safe and play hard, by protecting your eyes with well-covered sunglasses or goggles. Swimming goggles are not required.
- Don’t take things to the heart – If you get splashed with water on Sogkran, don’t take it as an offence. It is a water festival and that’s how people celebrate Songkran. So, lighten up and join in to enjoy Songkran to the fullest.
- Invest in your own water gear – To get fully involved in the celebrations get geared with your own water pistol. If you have some extra cash and a competitive edge, opt for the water blaster over the puny squirters. Remember, bigger guns win this crazy water fight.
- Avoid wet powders and stick to water – Many people apply wet powder on the face as a part of Songkran blessing. However, if you are allergic or fear to cause irritants on others, avoid the wet powder and stick to water.
- Play by the Rules – Use clean water, which is room temperature. Avoid hitting people with ice cubes, though ice water is acceptable by most. Water pistols, garden hoses, and water buckets are safe. High-pressure hoses are prohibited for safety reasons. Heavy fines are levied on those breaking the rules. Avoid spraying people in the eyes. Monks are highly respected in Thailand, so never throw water at them. People riding a motorbike could have an accident if suddenly soaked. Avoid driving motorbikes during Songkran. Use four-wheeled public transport or walk. Avoid swallowing the water being sprayed at you. You don’t know where it came from. Be cautious of wet, slippery floors. Secure your valuables in your room and be mindful of any you do take with you. If you want to stay dry, don’t venture out. Do make sure to say, “sawadee bee mai”. It means: “Happy New Year!”
- Beware of potential gropers – Being a wet and wild party, in which alcohol flows like water, Songkran festivities tend to have some nasty drunks. Women should be aware and take precaution as some alcohol-driven party-goers may get a little touchy.
- Visit a Thai Temple on Songkran – To experience the more traditional celebrations of Songkran, spend a day at one of the Thai temples.
So, what do you think? Do you want to experience Songkran this year? Check out the 2019 dates here.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE