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Thailand Songkran Festival explained (and where to celebrate it)

The traditional Thai New Year or Songkran is a public holiday in Thailand, that falls on April 13th-15th, based on the Thai lunar calendar. Since Aries is the first astrological sign in the zodiac, Songkran is celebrated when the sun moves into Aries.

Nowadays, Thais celebrate both the New Year, according to the Christian Calendar, and the traditional Thai New Year. The first time that Thailand celebrated the Christian New Year was in 1940.

Songkran continues to be a festive time for everyone, regardless of age, social background and religious belief; however, the first day of January marks the beginning of the year.

During Songkran, most towns and villages in Thailand close off part of the main street, for the traditional Thai New Year celebrations.

Khao San Road, in Bangkok, is a famous backpacker street. It’s also the most popular place to celebrate Songkran in the capital, for tourists and Thais alike.

Even though April is the hottest month in Thailand, foreign visitors literally pour in to celebrate Songkran, which is also called the “water festival”. Songkran is known for its water fights and white clay filler that ends up on your face and even on cars. It’s really refreshing to be soaked in water when it’s hot, so young Thais and tourists love to take part in it!

Wherever you go in Thailand, you will see people with water guns, buckets of water and white clay filler. In this article, you will find a list of the most popular destinations for water fights.

However, there is much more to Songkran than just playing with water. This post introduces you to the traditions of Songkran and you will also learn about the venues that offer authentic cultural activities.

Let’s explore the Songkran Festival…

Songkran Traditions

It's a tradition to pour fragrant water on a Buddha statue on Songkran.

Respectfully pouring Thai scented water on a Buddha statue. To the lower left, you can see
what white clay filler looks like. (Photo: Courtesy of V.magazine)

To gently pour scented water on each other’s hands or shoulders is the traditional way of wishing Happy New Year. This custom, as well as the activities listed below, have been passed on until today. Although they are not as common anymore, there is meaning behind it. Let me share the main practices Thais do over Songkran.

Visiting Parents And Respected Elders

You may already know that Thais have high respect for parents and elders. This is because our parents give us life and raise us. Thais view parents and elders as wiser since they have accumulated a wealth of wisdom and skills throughout life. As a result, we can learn valuable life lessons from them.

The 13th of April is Elders Day in Thailand.

As most young people leave their hometowns for school and work, they usually take the opportunity to go home for Songkran to pay respect to their parents, grandparents, elder aunts and uncles. Some also visit their teachers, mentors and people they look up to and know well.

A meaningful custom during Songkran is to pour Thai scented water over the palms of your parents and elders to wish them Happy New Year. While doing that, we apologize for our wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness and a New Year blessing. In return, the elders bless us.

It’s common to offer them a fresh flower garland on Songkran. Other popular Songkran gifts often have something to do with water and purification, such as soaps, towels, light cotton tops, multipurpose checkered cloth called pha khao ma and sarongs. More exclusive presents include silk and eau de cologne 4711.

Going To Buddhist Temples

Since Thailand is a Buddhist country, Songkran is a special time for Buddhist Thais to do merit at the temple with the family. Meritorious deeds include offering food to the monks in the morning, listening to Buddhist teachings, donating money and volunteering at the temple.

If you visit Thai Buddhist temples during the Songkran Festival, you will see a special arrangement of a Buddha statue with a bowl of fragrant water and a small cup next to it. Lay people gently pour the water on the torso or the hands of the Buddha statue. Thais believe this leads to happiness and a good start of the New Year.

Hotels and shopping malls often display Buddha statues over Songkran for the same purpose.

As most Buddhist Thais have Buddha statues at home, they normally clean the statues and pour some Thai scented water on them. It’s also common to clean the house thoroughly before Songkran.

Building Sand Pagodas At The Temple

Another activity is to bring sand to the temple to build small pagodas, and to decorate them with flowers and flags. This is a way to pay respect to the Buddha.

When the sand pagodas have been completed, the monks pray to share the merit with the ancestor.

In the old days, only temples and palaces were built with bricks. Sand was added to make the bricks stronger. As temples were often located next to rivers, during Songkran, lay people would bring sand from the river banks to the temple. Once the bricks had been made, they could be used for construction.

Nowadays, when sand is brought to temples for the purpose of building pagodas, it is left at the temple. That way, it can be used for construction and landfilling. This activity also strengthens the community spirit.

Doing Merit For Ancestors

In addition, Songkran is a time to do Buddhist ceremonies for deceased parents and ancestors. Buddhists believe that you can share good deeds or meritorious deeds with anyone, dead and alive. The Buddha taught that wholesome actions make for wholesome results. In other words, by doing good you will benefit from it in this lifetime and future lives; on the contrary, by doing bad you will suffer the consequences in this lifetime and future lives.

Since gratitude is an important part of Thai culture, Buddhist Thais continue to show respect to their parents and elder members of the family even after they have died, by doing meritorious deeds and sharing the merit with their spirits.

This is widely practiced in rural areas. Family members bring flowers to the temple and gather in front of the place where their ancestors’ ashes are stored. That could either be in the wall around the ordination hall or in small pagodas within the temple grounds. If the ashes are kept at home, they are brought to the temple for the ceremony.

Each family member lights an incense stick to pay respect to their ancestors, then they sprinkle Thai scented water on the small tomb stones that are housed in the walls and pagodas. It’s also common to open the lids of the urns, that have been brought from home, and to sprinkle fragrant water directly on the ashes.

In addition, 4 monks are invited to chant and share the merit with the ancestors. Thais believe that this practice brings peace to the spirit of the ancestors.

Spending Time With The Family

Songkran is such a special occasion for Thai families that April 14th is considered Family Day. During the Songkran holiday, different generations, from grand parents to great grandchildren, gather and do activities together. They often hang out, eat and go on excursions together.

To release fish and birds is a common practice over Songkran. It’s about freeing life. At the same time it is a symbol of letting go of illness and misfortune. This practice is believed to have originated from the old days when fish were picked up from dried-out ponds and released in rivers, during the hot summer months.

These days, the children often study and work away from home, yet Songkran brings everyone together and strengthens the family ties.

The fun part of Songkran, that both kids and young adults look forward to, is the water splashing which symbolizes a fresh start of the New Year.

Where To Celebrate Songkran (For Fun Lovers)

Talking about the most well known places to celebrate Songkran, here is a list of venues that you don’t want to miss out on.

Khao San Road, Silom Road, ChokeChai 4, RCA, and Central World

Chiang Mai
Around the city moat, Central Plaza Shopping Center, Kad Suan KaewTha Pae gate

Along Pattaya Beach Road

Patong Beach, Loma Park, Jungceylon Shopping Mall

Khon Kaen
Khao Nieo Road

Where To Celebrate Songkran (For Culture Lovers)

If you are interested in culture, check out these provinces.

Wisutkasat intersection up to Santi Chai Prakan Park on Phra Athit Road, next to the Chao Phraya River

Lan Khon Muang, in front of the Bangkok City Hall

Samut Prakan
Mon-style Songkran with many cultural activities in Phra Pradaeng

Mon-style Songkran with a unique Buddha statue purification ceremony using bamboo pipes at Wang Wiwekaram Temple, in Sangkhlaburi

Songkran with Cultural shows and folk games

Regional cultural floats and elephant parade in Si Satchanalai

Thai-Burmese Songkran Festival with traditional rope binding muay Thai boxing competitions in Mae Sot

Nakhon Phanom
Thai–Laos Songkran Festival

Nakhon Si Thammarat
Hindu-influenced Songkran Festival

Here you can find more information about Songkran events.

Note that during the Songkran Festival all businesses, both public and private, are closed.

Millions of people travel over Songkran. The roads are literally packed with vehicles and it’s the busiest time of the year for public transport. Passengers tend to book their tickets well in advance to get seats. Be aware of drunk driving.

I wish you all a happy Songkran. In Thai it’s Suk san wan Songkran kha for females speakers and Suk san wan Songkran krap for male speakers.