There are three consecutive public holidays over the Songkran festival, which in 2017 fall on Thursday 13, Friday 14 and Saturday 15 April. Each of these days has particular significance in the traditional Thai new year celebrations, though across the country – and certainly in Bangkok – you’ll see water-based frolics and celebrations throughout this period.
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What is guaranteed is that you should expect to get wet if you venture outside at all during this time – nowhere is safe from water guns, buckets of water and friendly revellers armed with clay powder who are keen to dab some on your cheeks. All of this is harmless, hospitable and well-intentioned fun, so take it in your stride and join in with the party! That said, be sure to protect your phone, passport, camera and other valuables in a waterproof bag before heading outside, or they are likely to be ruined.
Though Thailand now adheres for all practical purposes to the western calendar running from January to December, Songkran is still celebrated as the traditional new year period in mid-April.
While practices vary slightly across Thailand, traditionally Thais spend the first day of Songkran cleaning their homes in preparation for the arrival of the new year. On the second day – a kind of no-man’s-land between the old and new years, when it is thought to be a bad omen to argue – food is prepared to offer to monks the following day.
Making offerings to monks is something that Thai Buddhists do throughout the year, since it is believed to be a merit-making act that will bring them good fortune in this and future lives. The third day of Songkran is celebrated by visiting the local temple, offering food to monks and pouring rose-scented water over Buddha images.
In reality, people may visit the temple and make offerings on any of the days of Songkran. Afterwards, you may also see them building sandcastles inside the temple grounds as a fun, family-friendly way to make an offering. After visiting the temple, people may pour water over the hands of the elders in their family to pay respect to them and welcome in the new year.
There are plenty of places to celebrate Songkran in Bangkok, and you’ll likely stumble into the middle of a water fight as soon as you step onto the street.
Particularly popular spots include backpacker favourite Khao San Road, in Bangkok’s old town area of Banglamphu, which is full of locals and tourists indulging in a frantic water fight throughout the day and into the evening. If you’re not staying in the area, either take a taxi or catch the Chao Phraya river boat from Sathorn pier (connected to the Skytrain’s Silom line at Saphan Taksin station), and alight at Phra Athit pier; note that boat services end around nightfall.
Silom Road is perhaps even busier, being closed to traffic from midday onwards and turning into an enormous battle of water pistols from around 3pm until late into the evening. As well as the main thoroughfare of Silom Road itself, which turns into a riotous circuit of people armed with water guns, buckets of water and clay powder, the small alleys just off of it are also packed to bursting point with revellers. Get there by Skytrain, alighting at Sala Daeng station, or by MRT subway to Si Lom station.
By visiting a temple, you will witness the more traditional activities away from the craziness of the water fights. In previous years, special activities have been put on at seven spots along the Chaophraya river – including Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Wat Kalaya and Wat Prayun temples, plus the Tha Maharaj pier, Yodipiman River walk at Pak Khlong Talat flower market, and Asiatique the Riverfront – with a free shuttle boat service operating between them. It has not yet been confirmed whether the same will take place in 2017, but we’ll update this post with further information when we have it.
It is also common for an official Songkran celebration to be held at the ceremonial recreation ground of Sanam Luang, close to Khao San Road, featuring traditional performances. Details of events in 2017 have yet to be confirmed – check for information at www.waterfestivalthailand.com and www.facebook.com/waterfestivalthailand.
In addition, there will be concerts, food and other activities to accompany water fights in the Siam Square area as part of the Songkran – Pha Khao Ma event for all three days, the wet-and-wild S2O Songkran Musical Festival at the Show DC Oasis Arena in the Rama 9 area, and the alcohol-free, family-friendly Bangkok Songkran Festival at the front of Central World, including traditional activities and a foam party.
This year’s Songkran holiday will begin exactly six months to the day that Thailand’s King Bhumibol passed away on 13 October 2016, and during a period when the country remains in official mourning. While it’s not yet exactly clear what impact this will have on the nature of Songkran activities and celebrations in Bangkok and elsewhere around Thailand, it’s worth noting that public events over the western new year period in December/January were markedly toned down. Though indoor parties and other celebrations largely went ahead, a number of events were cancelled, and the usually raucous countdown festivities at spots like Central World were transformed into far more sombre occasions of candlelit prayers for the late king.
That said, festive Songkran shirts have already gone on sale in many places as normal, alongside water pistols, and many expect that celebrations will go ahead as usual, at least to a certain extent. The Songkran holiday period contributes hugely to the tourism industry and the Thai economy, with vast numbers of domestic and overseas travellers, and it is widely seen as unlikely that events would be called off altogether. But you should be mindful and sensitive of this year’s circumstances, and keep abreast of developments – we’ll also update this post with any changes to our understanding of the overall situation.
In addition, recent years have seen authorities attempt to camp down on excessive water usage during Songkran, while Thailand has suffered some of its worst droughts in decades. There have been announcements over the course of a number of years that access to water refill stations would be restricted, and that celebrations in popular areas like Silom and Khao San Road would be cut back from three to two days (asking people to consider spending the third day, this year on Saturday, with family or at a traditional celebration that doesn’t involve using water). In reality, however, festivities have largely gone ahead as always.
Large-scale security checks have been also put in place at popular locations like Silom and Khao San Road, with visitors to these areas officially disallowed from taking in alcoholic drinks and oversized water pistols – but again, in our experience these controls have been only inconsistently and haphazardly enforced.
Update – 27 March 2017: it has been announced that Songkran celebrations in the Khao San Road area will go ahead largely as normal, but without the usual concert stages and live music; click here for more details.
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Are you visiting Bangkok during Songkran? Take a look at our expert recommendations for:
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Photos by Wyndham Hollis, John Shedrick, fabulousfabs and Kim.