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Water fights, cultural traditions and new beginnings: A guide to Songkran, Thailand’s annual New Year festival

<i>John S Lander/LightRocket/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>The beloved Thai classic: mango with sticky rice and coconut cream.
John S Lander/LightRocket/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
The beloved Thai classic: mango with sticky rice and coconut cream.

By Karla Cripps, CNN

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) — On the surface, Thailand’s annual Songkran festival appears to be just one great big water fight.

Every April, people young and old take to the streets all over the country, armed with plastic guns and water buckets, and engage in hours-long battles from morning till dusk.

And while that’s certainly the most famous aspect of the celebrations, Songkran is filled with unique cultural traditions, making it an excellent time for travelers to visit.

What exactly is Songkran?

Songkran marks the start of the traditional Thai New Year and is usually celebrated from April 13-15, though some cities stretch out the fun a few extra days.

Taking place at the height of the Thai summer, it’s a time to take a break from work and hit the road, with many people journeying hundreds of kilometers to their hometowns to reconnect with family and friends.

The word “Songkran” is said to have derived from ancient Sanskrit, used to describe the monthly movement within the zodiac.

In 2023, UNESCO added Songkran to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, noting that it refers to the sun’s annual passing into the Aries constellation, the first sign of the Zodiac, which marks the traditional start of the traditional Thai New Year festival.

“Pouring water is a significant act during Songkran, symbolizing cleansing, reverence and good fortune,” says the UNESCO inscription.

“Other activities include bathing important Buddha images, splashing water on family and friends, folk plays, games, music and feasting.”

It’s the splashing that has turned Songkran into a global sensation in recent decades, with massive water fights held on closed city streets everywhere from Khao San Road and Silom Road in Bangkok to Chiang Mai’s historic Old City.

Pipad Krajaejun, a history lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, says it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the water fights became such a key part of the festival.

“However, old photos shot by Boonserm Satraphai of Chiang Mai in 1964 show that numerous people engaged in water battles in the Ping River,” he tells CNN Travel.

“According to many elderly people, water fights have been taking place in various places in Thailand for 60-70 years.”

In those days, Pipad says, “everyone played with water in the village, everyone knew each other, and there was kinship,” unlike today’s battles, which can involve thousands of revelers and high-powered water guns.

Bangkok event to highlight Songkran’s cultural side

Today, Songkran celebrations take place all over the country in pretty much every city, town and village. (We’ll share more on the water fights below.)

Some events are organized by local government bodies, while many hospitality businesses including theme parks, hotels, restaurants and bars host their own Songkran-themed parties. Some towns limit the water fights to one day, so be sure to check ahead if you’re planning to join the battles.

Thailand’s Tourism Authority has put together a list of celebrations taking place all over the country, but for those who would like to engage in the cultural side, Bangkok is shaping out to be a top destination for Songkran travelers this year.

The inaugural Maha Songkran World Water Festival 2024 will take place from April 11-15 in the city’s historic old center, around Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue and Sanam Luang, near popular sites such as the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Among the highlights of the festival is the Maha Songkran Parade, which will happen on April 11. Starting from the Phan Fa Lilat Bridge and concluding at Sanam Luang, it will include 20 grand processions and more than 1,000 performers.

At Sanam Luang – a massive open field in front of the Grand Palace – cultural and musical performances will take place throughout the festival, including the famed Khon masked drama, while a dedicated zone will highlight traditions and festivities unique to the northern, northeastern, eastern, central and southern regions of Thailand.

Splashing will happen in a dedicated water zone with a musical dancing fountain, water tunnel, gigantic wading pool and water station.

Tradition with a touch of modernity

Though Songkran traditions vary all over the country, Thammasat University’s Pipad says two main rituals are still widely carried out today.

On the first day of the new year, on April 13, “people, particularly the elderly, visit temples to sprinkle water on Buddha images” – a ritual that’s known as Song Nam Phra.

“However, each region of Thailand has a slightly different practice; for example, in northern Thailand – or Lanna – people utilize a naga waterspout to pour water on a Buddha image rather than directly,” he says.

“The second tradition (called Rot Nam Dam Hua) is to pour water with perfume and flowers on the hands of the family’s older members, then the elderly will bless their lineage.” This traditionally happens on April 14.

Nowadays, visitors will see Buddha statues placed in businesses too, even in places like shopping malls, accompanied by small silver-hued cups floating in pools of scented water.

Pipad says the act of carrying out Song Nam Phra in shopping malls likely took root in the 1970s or 1980s when retail giants like Central Department Store and MBK started to build large retail centers.

“Song Nam Phra could have worked as a leisure activity because the mall was primarily a destination for urban residents and their families,” he says. “In addition, malls provided air conditioning, which could convince people to come inside rather than visiting temples.”

Safely enjoying the water fights

As water fights take place on streets and in outdoor spaces all over the country, visitors won’t have any issues joining in. Water guns are available for sale everywhere during Songkran, with street vendors often setting up near popular water fight areas.

But there are some important things to consider before heading out.

In terms of safety issues, the number of fatal road accidents is notoriously high during the holiday period, with drunk driving a key factor, while complaints of sexual harassment have been reported as well. Thai officials advise visitors in need of emergency assistance to call their tourist hotline at 1155.

Those heading out should put their valuables in a waterproof pouch – even waterproof phones. Getting wet, white powder smeared on your face is often part of the experience and can result in a gooey mess.

To avoid eye irritation – water cleanliness can be questionable – consider wearing goggles or large, transparent glasses.

The usual common sense applies when out in the heat. Stay hydrated, wear a hat and put on sunscreen. It’s summer in Thailand, with temperatures creeping up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees F) and beyond this time of year.

On the flip side, heading into an air-conditioned vehicle or building while dripping wet can be a real shock to the senses. A towel and a change of clothes in a dry bag come in handy when the splashing is over.

Got an old Hawaiian shirt you’ve been looking for an excuse to wear? Now’s your chance. Songkran revelers often dress up in bright, colorful, flower-covered shirts.

Thailand’s seasonal culinary delights

With Songkran such an important family holiday, food is a huge part of the equation.

This is a diverse country filled with many regional cuisines, meaning every province will have its own culinary traditions.

But there are a few dishes that are particularly special in the summer months.

Among these is a delicacy called “khao chae,” which translates to “rice soaked in water.” A refreshing meal served during the summer months, usually from late March to May, it appears on many seasonal menus, with high-end hotels often serving their own rendition of the classic.

For instance, the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s classic khao chae set includes jasmine-infused water with ice and an assortment of side dishes, such as kapi balls, deep-fried shallots and fish, stuffed peppers, shredded pork and fresh vegetables. 

And of course we can’t forget the ubiquitous mango sticky rice, a tourist favorite found everywhere from the streets to high-end Thai restaurants. In this special dish, eaten as a snack or dessert, sweet sticky rice is drizzled in a coconut cream sauce and served with ripe mango.

Though available all year, it’s particularly popular in the summer months when mangoes are in season. If you don’t mind battling the crowds, K. Panich is a Bangkok institution that has been serving up mango sticky rice for close to 100 years.

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