Songkran Survival Guide – Thailand’s Water Festival

Songkran in Thailand

During my first, second and third year living in Thailand, I didn’t merely survive Songkran, I fully embraced the weird and wacky festival to the max! I bought the best super soaker that I could find and was out there immersed in the water war for all the daylight hours that I could manage.

I spent my first Songkran on Khao San Road in Bangkok…

Songkran on the Khao San Road Bangkok
Khao San Road, Bangkok.

My second in Chiang Mai…

Songkran on Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai.

My third in Chiang Mai…

Songkran around the moat, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Around the moat, Chiang Mai.

The fourth-year came and I decided that I could handle just one day of the festival… The fifth year, I stayed safe inside my beach bungalow in Koh Phangan and let the madness go on without me.

There was a drought in Thailand that year and yet Songkran went on as normal. Bah humbug, I thought as I heard the frivolities going on outside my room. It dawned on me. In five short years, I had become a Songkran Scrooge. So is it your first Songkran? Or are you old and jaded like me?

Even if it’s your first Songkran, it’s okay to admit to being a little bit nervous about the madness that is about to ensue! You know when people build things up into a much bigger deal than they actually are and then it’s all a bit of an anti-climax. Well, Songkran is the complete opposite of that. You are going to be more soaked than you have ever been in your entire life.

Child, baby, pregnant lady, old granny, policeman, monk, anxious foreigner – all FAIR GAME. So as people gear up for the world’s biggest water fight, if you’re secretly dreading it and are wondering if it’s okay to book yourself a posh hotel, buy lots of beer and avoid the next three – five days, then read this guide on how to survive Songkran, and make up your mind…

What is Songkran?

Buddhist new year is a time for renewal, spiritual cleansing and super soakers… If you happen to be in Thailand between the 13-15 April, you can’t fail to get involved in what is the world’s biggest water fight!

People of all ages across the land gather together in the streets to celebrate in the wettest way possible. Garden hoses, water pistols and buckets filled with ice cold water are chucked at innocent passers-by. Don’t even think you will be able to stay dry during the festivities as pesky kids loiter at corners waiting for a victim who has not yet been completely drenched. So if you can’t beat them – join them!

Get yourself kitted out with the best water pistol money can buy at the 7-11 and become part of the excited crowds! Spiritually, new year means new beginnings, washing off the previous year and starting afresh and the watery madness that exists today evolves from a Buddhist tradition dating back thousands of years.

People used to pay respect and wish good luck by pouring blessed water on each other’s shoulders. One important ritual today is to sprinkle Buddha statues with water to symbolise purification and hope for prosperity in the new year. In many cities across the land Buddha images from the temples are paraded through the streets on floats for people to throw water over them.

What is the history and culture behind Songkran?

Traditionally, Songkran is the welcoming of the Thai New Year and is symbolically a time for new beginnings and spiritual cleansing. As well as celebration, it is also an important time to spend with family members and pay respect to elders. On the first day of the festival, Thai people clean their houses to welcome in the New Year and visit temples to pray and offer food to the monks.

Songkran traditional, monks blessing.
A traditional monk blessing during Songkran in Thailand.

An important ritual is to cleanse or bathe Buddha images by gently sprinkling with scented water, a ceremony believed to grant prosperity and bestow good fortune in the New Year. The exuberant soakings of today originate from this once mild ritual, as people used to pay respect and wish good luck to others by gently pouring this ‘blessed’ water on people’s shoulders.

12 FAQ’s asked by naïve travellers wanting to survive Songkran

1. Is any part of Thailand safe?

No. The festival happens all over Thailand, in every village, town and city. Nowhere is dry. Oh, and there are similar festivals in Cambodia (Pchum Ben), Laos (Pi Mai) and Myanmar (Thingyan) too, so don’t go thinking that you can seek asylum across the border and survive Songkran that way.

Pee mai festival in Laos.
Meanwhile in Laos…

2. What if I just politely say I don’t want to get wet?

Haha! The more that you look like you are trying to avoid the festivities the more of a fun target you will become.

3. How long does it go on for?

The official dates this year are 13th – 15th April, but many towns and cities have their own schedules and water throwing can start a few days before and continue a few days after the main event – so be prepared at all times if you want to survive Songkran!

4. What should I do if I have to travel on these days?

Forget tuk tuks and motorbikes. If you have a plane/train or bus to catch, take a taxi directly to and from the airport/train station/bus station. Wrap up any valuables and electronics in 25 plastic bags and take a change of clothes to get changed in the bathroom just in case you still can’t avoid getting soaked along the way.

Backpacker travelling during Songkran
Backpackers beware! It’s not a good time to travel during Songkran.

You can also plan to travel really early in the morning or late at night to try to avoid the worst of the shenanigans.

5. What about my electronics? 

If you can avoid it, don’t even think about taking your laptop, phone or expensive camera outdoors for the entire week of Songkran. If you must, stock up on plastic bags and put your phone in an airtight ziplock bag. Waterproof/dry bags that people use for diving are also great and can be purchased at supermarkets beforehand. Or, if you want to be a real Songkran Pro invest in a top-quality waterproof backpack for added protection!

Zip lock bags to help you survive Songkran.
Zip lock bags are a great idea for your phone / camera.

6. Ah come on! It’s only a little water right? That can’t hurt. Plus, it’s 38 degrees outside, a little cold water will be nice!

It’s not just water. For added shock factor, many people add big chunks of ice to those buckets full of water, so you may cool down a lot more than you think! Foam is also becoming an extra ingredient in many water buckets lately, which makes roads very slippery for driving! In the villages and in many parts of Bangkok, you’ll find that the water is mixed with scented talcum powder and then smeared all over your face. Apparently, the talcum powder is meant to signify the sins of your past year, which are then washed away – with a 100km/hour jet spray.

Talcum powder at Songkran.
Talcum powder is the secret weapon.

7. What if I’m eating in a restaurant, can I still be targeted?

Yes. Remember no-one is exempt. Try not to look nervous as you tuck into that pad-thai which will soon become a noodle soup. Squirt! Never relax.

8. Can a drive a scooter during Songkran?

This is perhaps one of the most dangerous Songkran activities and should be done only in emergencies and with extreme caution. You never know from which direction you may get soaked or have an ice-cold bucket of water thrown at you. Plus, the roads are really slippery, which is an extra challenge for those drunk drivers! Totally avoid if you want to survive Songkran.

How to survive Songkran - don't ride a motorbike!
Be careful if you’re riding a motorbike and you want to survive Songkran!

9. Is it safe after dark?

In theory, people should stop throwing water after 6pm, or when the sun goes down. It’s considered foul play to squirt someone when it’s dark, but hey, when you’re on your 10th Chang, who cares?

10. Are the shops still open? 

7-11’s and supermarkets are still open, but many other shops close. If you’re planning on avoiding the whole thing, stock up with plenty of food (and beer) beforehand. 7-11s are open 24 hours, even if a war breaks out, which you will think it has!

11. Excuse me, is that clean water?

Most of the water is straight-up tap water. If you’re in Chiang Mai for Songkran, be warned that the dirty brown moat water will get used as ammunition. Keep your mouth closed to avoid swallowing it, and be sure to wash your hands before eating.

Moat water used in Chiang Mai at Songkran
The moat water in Chiang Mai is used as back up ammunition!

Don’t want to get water in your eyes? Keep your sunglasses on at all times – those high-pressure water pistols can be powerful. Want added protection, why not wear a snorkelling mask?  Many do! You may also like to wear earplugs to avoid too much water going into your ears, as people have been known to get ear infections. 

12. So, if you can’t beat them, should you just join them?

YES! Don’t be a Scrooge like me! If it’s your first Songkran, get out there and have an amazing once in a lifetime experience that you can’t have anywhere else in the world!

Top 3 Places to Enjoy Songkran in Thailand

1. Songkran in Chiang Mai: 

The number 1 place to play Songkran has to be northern Thailand’s capital of culture, Chiang Mai. Thousands of people descend on the city to celebrate Songkran in a big way. Pick up trucks circle the moat armed with endless supplies of water soaking anyone within reach, the cruelest making sure that it is ice cold for added effect! Music blasts from bars, people dress in the ubiquitous brightly coloured flowery shirt and the old town becomes an all-day party!

2. Songkran in Bangkok (Khao San Road):

It’s not just tourists that enjoy Songkran in the backpacker enclave of Khao San Road, as Bangkok locals head here to enjoy the festivities in an international setting! Here, you will not only get completely drenched, but you will also likely be covered in talcum powder which is smeared over people’s faces and in their hair – just for fun!

3. Kanchanaburi:

It’s Songkran with a difference in Kanchanaburi where locals and tourists can rent a bamboo raft for the day on the tributaries of the River Kwai and use it as a vehicle with which to soak those having a picnic on the banks of the river… mwahahaha! Later in town, cheap alcohol (10 baht rum & coke!) and great live music ensure a party lasting into the night.

Top 3 Songkran Tips

  1. Mobile phones, cameras, electrical goods of any kind will get wet! You can try to wrap them up in plastic bags, but unless you have a really good waterproof bag, our advice is to leave them at home.
  2. Don’t think because you are out in the countryside in the middle of nowhere that you will be able to stay dry. Songkran takes place all over the country and rest assured that a child will find you driving around happily on your motorbike in a remote province and chuck a bucket over your head.
  3. It’s the hottest time of the year in Thailand, so wear sunscreen, drink some water rather than throw it all over everyone and go easy on the alcohol.

See more events in Southeast Asia here.

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

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