Songkran in Chiang Mai: What to do during the Festival?
Songkran in Chiang Mai is easily the wettest – and probably the most fun - of any of the nationwide celebrations of the Thai Buddhist New Year. Bangkok’s parties may be the biggest and Pattaya’s are the longest, but nowhere sees as much water flying as Chiang Mai, which makes it one of the most popular places in the whole of Southeast Asia to visit in mid-April, particularly with overseas tourists and backpackers.
The Songkran holiday lasts from 13th – 15th April 2016, and the whole of the road around the old part of the ancient city becomes one giant party for that time. It has a friendly atmosphere which is warm and welcoming, in stark contrast to the cold water which will frequently be poured over you as you walk around the city.
As said, Songkran is the Thai New Year. As in many other cultures, it marks the passage of time and symbolizes change and transformation. There are many traditions surrounding Songkran, too many to name here. But in general, across Thailand, Thai people celebrate this holiday by paying their respects to their elders by visiting them and by visiting the monks at the temple by bringing food and praying ('giving merit') and by symbolically washing statues of Buddha and each other with water.
At the temples, this includes monks gentle sprinkling some water (sometimes with white or brightly colored chalk) from a bowl to bless those that give merit.
Out in the streets, it's a whole different matter. Streets are closed off so that everyone can indulge in the huge water fights that Songkran is known for. But still, there are traditional elements even in this; it's good custom to thank someone after a good exchange of 'watery blessings' by giving them a smile, a small bow with the traditional folding of the hands, the Thai “Wai”.
In the whole of Thailand, Songkran is celebrated from the 13th to 15th of April. In Chiang Mai, Thai kids and tourists start the first water fights already on the 12th and the whole week there are cultural celebrations going on. On the 13th, celebrations kick off in the morning and then keep going into the 14th and 15th of April. On the 15th, the party goes on deep into the night.
The main events during Songkran in Chiang Mai will be from 13th until 15th April.
For a sample of full list of activities please check the schedule below.
Top 9 things to do during Songkran in Chiang Mai
Join in with water fights at Thapae Gate
Thapae Gate is a major entrance into Chiang Mai’s Old City and the area is awash with revelers—quite literally awash—for Songkran. The humungous water fight here has to be seen to be believed, with Thais and foreigners, young and old, all throwing themselves into the watery fray with gusto. Large stages are set up with various performances and competitions and you’ll see plenty of people wearing traditional Thai costumes. Foam machines are common. Do note that there are strict limitations on drinking around this area.
Walk along the moat
The long stretch of road next to the moat is lively, with many water battles and lots of laughter. Do be careful not to let water get in your eyes, ears, and mouth, though; a lot of the water being thrown has been taken from the moat and it’s certainly not the cleanest! Local bands fill the air with music. There are many stalls to tempt you with an array of street food, as well as souvenir and clothes sellers. (Note: don’t hurl water at street vendors!)
Get wet along Nimmanhaemin Road
Nimmanhaemin Road, usually shortened to simply Nimman Road, is one of the more modern and trendiest parts of Chiang Mai. There are plentiful water fights along the street for Songkran and different DJs and performers entertain the crowds in front of Maya mall.
Wander the smaller streets of the city
People stand outside their homes with hoses and large tubs of icy water, just waiting for the next “victim” to walk past. Moving away from the dense crowds and taking time to explore these smaller roads can lead to lots of fun interactions with locals, not to mention plenty of friendly soakings.
Give alms to monks
Marking the Thai New Year, Songkran is a time for people to make merit and seek blessings. Monks clad in saffron robes are a common sight on the streets, especially early in the mornings when they go out to collect alms. There are more monks and more merit-makers over Songkran; wake up early to watch the stunning line of monks walking the streets.
Watch the large Buddha procession
Sacred Buddha statues are brought out from a number of Chiang Mai’s temples and paraded through the streets. The images are beautiful in their own right, but seeing them en masse is really quite spectacular. Buddhists gently sprinkle water on the statues to symbolise cleansing and to show respect, while hoping for luck and prosperity for the coming year ahead. Dancers and musicians add plenty of joy to the colourful procession.
Take a tuk-tuk tour
If you don’t want to walk, grab a tuk-tuk to experience Songkran on the streets of Chiang Mai. You’ll still get wet—that’s part of the fun!—but you can cover more ground and have watery fights with more faces. Many Thais hop into the back of pickup trucks, armed with barrels of water, bucket, and water guns, to also travel around.
Visit revered temples
Many Thai people visit temples to pray, give donations, and perform a number of rituals. Chiang Mai is filled with historic and attractive temples; take your pick! You’ll see Buddha statues being washed and sprinkled with water, people taking buckets of dirt to the temples to signify replacing the earth that was carried away on people’s feet over the last year, colourful flags, and more.
Bar hop in the evenings
Spirits are high over Songkran and nobody wants the fun to end. As night falls, the bars become packed with energetic locals and tourists alike, all still in excitable moods and keen to party. Drinking, dancing, chatting, and plenty of sanuk (fun) are all but guaranteed.
Dos and Don'ts during Songkran in Chiang Mai
Celebrations like Songkran involve a fair amount of drinking in Thailand. It is one of the few holidays the hard-working Thai have, and they make the most of it. But with traffic already being dangerous at normal times, it means you should take extra care during these days. To keep it simple; DON'T DRIVE and only get on the back of a pick-up truck to splash people with water at your own risk.
Water Fighting customs are there so that everyone can have a good time. If people do not want to be splashed with water, do not splash them. Because Songkran is about respecting elders, do not splash old people unless they are actively joining in the water fight. And be sensible; don't splash whole buckets of waters in the face of people while they are driving; that's how accidents happen.
Protect your valuables. Being outside, you WILL get wet, so it is a good idea to put your wallet, phone and ID in a plastic zip lock bag. Ask your hotel or guesthouse; they often get a supply ready for their guests. Otherwise, hop to the nearest 7/11 or convenience store and get one there. That is also where you can buy your water-gun. If you really want to get into it, we suggest you get a big one!
In Chiang Mai as well as the more rural places in Thailand, people use surface water in the celebrations. That means you should try avoiding swallowing any water and if you want to be perfectly safe, you might want to wear goggles so that the water doesn't get into your eyes. It is also a good idea to wear a swimsuit of course, and slippers or shoes you don't mind getting soaked.
The predicted temperature in Chiang Mai for 13th, 14th and 15th April is 42 degrees Celsius in the daytime. Please make sure that you drink enough water, stay hydrated and don’t stay in the sun for too long. It will be very hot even for the Thai people!
Be respectful; Thailand is a traditional society so keep your shirt on and don't go out into the street wearing only a bikini.
Most importantly: have lots and lots of fun! Have a great Songkran!
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