Songkran for Newbies
Ian Robert Knight
Travel Photographer, Canada
Thailand’s Songkran Festival dates back hundreds of years. But the Songkran that participants celebrate today is a far cry from the Songkran from only a few generations before.
Songkran is Thailand’s New Year’s Celebration. Many of Thailand’s holidays are based on the lunar calendar, but this is one of the few exceptions. In Thailand, New Year’s Day is observed on April 13 every year. The official holiday period is extended to April 13-14-15. The name Songkran gets its origin from a Sanskrit word (samkranti) meaning ‘astrological passage’. This makes sense, given that it marks the beginning of a new year. Thailand’s calendar is based on the Buddhist Era, so this year will be 2559 (543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar).
A typical water fight in Bangkok during Songkran
Back to my point about how much Songkran is different today. Originally, the traditional activities that Thais practiced during Songkran were pretty solemn. It mainly involved paying respects to their elders, and to Buddha. To do this, devout Thais gently pour water onto the hands of their elders, and also on statues of Buddha. They also sprinkle water one another to bring about good luck to others. Thais also observe other traditions, like cleaning their houses, donating items to local temples, and by releasing animals into the wild. (Read Randy’s story “Old vs. New at Thailand’s Songkran Festival” on his blog, too!)
Little water guns can’t compete with fire hoses.
You’re gonna get wet!
But today, Songkran is better known as the ‘world’s biggest water fight’. This may sound boastful, but when you experience it at ground level, you’ll quickly agree. It’s widely understood that the street water fights that take place today are just exaggerations of the concept of sprinkling water on people to bring luck. Things have evolved way beyond that now, and everyone throws or shoots water at any moving target, using large buckets and water guns.
In the larger cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, major roads are closed to traffic in order for massive street parties to take place. And even fire trucks get in on the action, spraying thousands of people with powerful water hoses. The street parties start in the morning and run on well past midnight every day for 3 days.
Fire trucks bring out the big water guns
Songkran for Newbies: Five Useful Tips
1 – Face the fact that you will get wet. Know that up front and be prepared for it physically and mentally.
2 – You should wear lightweight clothing like you would to go to the beach. It’s usually quite hot out during the day anyway, so heavy fabrics are not helpful, especially when they get wet. Thais usually wear very colourful clothing, similar to flowered Hawaiian shirts.
3 – As ugly as they may be, Crocs or other close-toed sandals work best, since your feet will be wet all day, and often get stepped on in large crowds.
4 – It’s wise to keep your valuables in watertight bags. You can pick up plastic pouches with lanyards in most places in Thailand during Songkran. This will hold your phone, money, hotel card, etc. We can’t go outside without all that stuff, so you may as well do your best to keep them safe and dry.
5 – It won’t be easy to shoot photos with a mobile phone, so forget that. But if you can get a compact waterproof camera or a GoPro camera, that will be good. You can also get large waterproof cases for your DSLR, but those can run into the thousands of dollars. I’ve used a plastic rain pouch designed for a DSLR, but it didn’t really keep my camera dry, and I won’t use one again.
The best way to enjoy Songkran is to just relax and have fun. But play fair and be kind. You’re taking part in a massive water fight, so it can be overwhelming. Let people spray you, and cover you in white paste. It’s all part of the experience.
Check out my upcoming adventure vacation to Thailand in April 2017, starting with Songkran!
Ian Robert Knight Photography
Ian is a professional photographer, specializing in travel editorial and street photography. Find out more about Ian's background and experiences in the bio page here.
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