Songkran 2018 Guide: What is Songkran, Where to Celebrate, Seven Survival Tips, What to Pack & Where to Stay
Songkran is one of the most anticipated festivals in the world. This water festival attracts millions of people around the world to Thailand. I joined the party in 2017 and had lots of fun. Songkran truly lived up to its reputation for being the party of the lifetime. It brought out the child inside of me and gave me an opportunity to appreciate Thai culture and people. Speaking from my Songkran 2017 experience, I highly recommend this festival.
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Songkran 2018 Dates: April 13 – 15
What is Songkran? Songkran Festival is Thailand’s New Year celebration that takes place for three days each year from April 13-15. The festival is originated from the northern city of Chiang Mai. Traditionally, the Thai people blessed each other by sprinkling water. This tradition has evolved into the biggest water fight, happening every corner throughout the country.
Where to Celebrate Songkran in Chiang Mai
While Songkran is celebrated every corner of Thailand, previous party goers all seem to suggest Chiang Mai is THE place. It makes sense as Chiang Mai is believed to be the birthplace of Songkran. As the city was already on my wishlist, I decided to celebrate Songkran there.
The central stage for Songkran in Chiang Mai is around Tha Phae Gate. On April 13, Thai New Year’s Day, all Buddha statues from the temples are brought out for annual cleaning. Along the Rachadamnoen Road near Tha Phae Gate, you will see a spectacular parade of these Buddha statues and representatives of each temple in traditional costumes.
My husband and I decided to hang out in front of an Italian restaurant. People from this restaurant had prepared a bowl of rose water, which was so fragrant. They respectfully sprayed these rose water at the Buddha statues and monks on the float. They generously shared this scented water with us, so we followed what locals did and ran up to the float to bathe Buddha and got blessed by the monks.
Many foreigners also took photos with the people in traditional Thai costumes participating in the parade. Please be respectful when you do that. I ran up to them when they already made the stop as I didn’t want to stop the whole parade.
The most popular place to throw water is around the moat. People pump the moat water out in a big bucket to throw at anyone or any vehicle passing by.
I personally didn’t want to run the risk of getting sick from dirty water. So I stayed away from the moat. In the Old City near Tha Phae Gate, restaurants and hotels generously offered facet water (still best not to drink) in a large bucket. Some places also put a block of ice in the bucket to keep the water icy cold. I simply scooped the water out and filled up my bucket and water gun.
Other than the parade day, I preferred to be stationed in one place. My next door hotel was throwing a party out in the small street. I saw a bucket of icy-cold water and beers, and joined the hotel guests and staff in the party! It was definitely more fun to squirt water to passers-by. During the “downtime,” I got to mingle with other travelers. When we didn’t have other targets, of course, we threw a bucket of water overhead to bless each other.
Seven Survival Tips for Songkran 2018
1. Book As Early As Possible
Songkran is probably the most famous and popular event in Thailand that attracts travelers from all over the world. Expect the accommodations to be fully booked.
By the time we searched for the airline tickets, they were way more expensive than we wanted to pay. We decided to use the airline mileage. But it was nerve-wracking as we were put on the waiting list for three different departure/return dates and didn’t get confirmed until two weeks before. We knew we couldn’t wait for the flight confirmation to book the rooms, so made hotel reservations with free cancellation. As you can image, it was hectic because we had to come up with three different itineraries. Once the flights were confirmed, we had to make some changes to our hotels and tours. If I had to do it all over again, I would book my accommodations earlier for a piece of mind.
2. Expect to Get Wet…Everywhere
If you don’t want to get wet, it’s best to avoid traveling to Thailand during the festival. Of course, each city has a central stage for massive water fights. However, it is truly a countrywide celebration! There is no way of getting around it.
That said, be ready to get wet during the festival. Songkran festival supposedly lasts three days. But in my experience, it sporadically started one day before. You might randomly get sprayed with water on the street. Locals and tourists were there for the festival, so no one really got mad (and you shouldn’t be, either).
If you think you can hire a vehicle and cruise around the town to just look at others get wet, you are wrong! Motorcycles are fun moving targets. So are tuk-tuks and songthaews. Some songthaews installed make-shift vinyl curtains to protect passengers from getting wet, but people will make an extra effort to uncurtain and throw a bucket of water inside.
3. Protect Yourself But Do Not Go Overboard
It is important to protect yourself from not-so-clean Songkran water. No one uses filtered or bottled water to throw at you. In Chiang Mai, many people use water from the moat. You don’t need to test it out yourself to know the water is not clean.
It may sound silly, but if you want to play safe, consider wearing goggles (or sunglasses) and maybe even earplugs. Try not to open your mouth while being watered. Drink a bottled water. If Songkran water gets in your cup by accident, you are in trouble.
On the other hand, overprotecting yourself will backfire. If you bring an umbrella or wear a raincoat, you are really asking for it. The more you look ready, the more people will want to target you.
4. Have a Plan to Take a Break
Water fighting is fun. You will feel like a kid again. It’s one party that everyone is happy. But you will be exhausted after playing water out in the sun.
Mind you that this festival happens at the beginning of summer in Thailand. After a couple of hours of playing, you might want to go back to the hotel for a quick nap. Or sit in the cafe to stay hydrated and regain energy. Don’t forget to re-apply sunscreen.
5. Be Respectful
Songkran is the biggest celebration in Thailand and the most anticipated party. The water festival is fun. However, at times, it can get rowdy and unruly. Please don’t be that jerk who ruins the party for everyone.
- Do not spray water at monks, babies or elderly.
- Do not aim at the faces. It’s not only disrespectful but also dangerous.
- Always put safety first. Although party-ers love to target motorcycles, it can cause an accident. Be mindful of the safety of you and fellow festival goers.
- The party stops after sunset. Don’t play at night. No one likes to get wet again right after a shower.
- Be friendly to others. After all, it’s not really a fight. Others are giving you blessings by spraying water.
6. Have Enough Cash with You
Songkran is a national holiday, which means that banks and many foreign currency exchange offices will be closed.
I made a mistake of not exchanging enough money before Songkran. Banks were closed for three days. All the foreign currency exchanges I could find within the Old City were closed as well. In the end, I managed to find a currency exchange in the Nimman area; however, it was hectic to ride a motorcycle to the other side of the town amidst of Songkran craziness on the road.
7. Bring an International Driver’s License
If you plan to rent a motorcycle or any vehicle, make sure to bring international driver’s license and have it with you when riding a vehicle. During Songkran, there will be multiple barricades throughout the city to check all vehicles for driver’s license. If you don’t have it with you, you will be fined.
Some rental shop may assure you that you would not have a problem renting and riding a motorcycle with overseas driver’s license and passport. Don’t listen to them!
On the first day of Songkran, we got pulled over multiple times by local police. We forgot to bring an international driver’s license but were able to pass the first stop by showing the U.S. driver’s license. Unfortunately, at the second stop, we got a citation for 400 BHT and were told to go pay at the police station 500m away. For some confusing reason, we were later asked to pay 200 BHT in cash, which we obviously didn’t question. With the fine receipt, we were allowed to ride a motorcycle for the next 24 hours and pass other stops without further question.
The funny thing is that the police didn’t seem to care much about whether we have the international license or not, as long as we paid the fine. Who knows? Maybe it was a trap targeting stupid foreigners like us. Don’t make the same mistake.
What to Pack for Songkran: 9 Essential Items to Survive Songkran
Songkran is fun. You go out on the street and squirt water at others. Everyone gets wet but still smiles back at you. Everyone seems to be in a great festival mood. I love this energy during Songkran!
However, if you want to fully enjoy the festivity, you will need to be prepared. Here are 9 essential items you need to either pack or locally purchase BEFORE Songkran.
💡Pro Tips: When you are packing for Songkran, think about what you would bring to a waterpark. Basically, waterproof and sunproof everything.
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1. Swimsuit (Innerwear): Throughout the day, you will repeatedly get wet. I’d wear a bikini top and bottom inside your outfit for comfort. Prepare two sets if you can, so you can hang dry overnight and alternate the next day.
2. Rashguard & Running Shorts (Outerwear): I wore a rashguard and running shorts over a bikini. (Also, prepare two sets if you can.) They not only protected my skin from the blazing sun but also dried quickly. If you prefer a tank top as many others do, you can. But just know that you will get a suntan or even burn at the end of the day. No matter what you choose, I’d not recommend walking down the street with a bikini top (or birth suit for boys). Please respect rather conservative local culture. If you want suntan, you better go to a beach or swimming pool.
3. Water shoes: Many people wear flip-flops, and it’s okay to do so. But those get slippery. I’d recommend wearing water shoes for comfort and mobility. And you would want to pack them before getting to Thailand. I didn’t really look for them, but I also didn’t see any stores selling them in the city.
4. Sunglasses, Hat & Sunscreen: You wouldn’t go to a water park without these sun protection gears, would you? April in Thailand is hot, like over 100 Fahrenheit. Getting soaked in water all day doesn’t help your cause, either. Make sure you protect yourself from heat and UV. Pack your sunscreen lotion and aloe vera gel. I paid hefty 720 BHT ($23 USD) for sunscreen at the local store.
5. Waterproof Cellphone Case: If you don’t need to bring cell phone out, it’s best to keep it in your hotel. But that’s a bit unrealistic as we all rely too much on our cell phone. The next best option would be protecting your cell phone in a waterproof case. As Songkran approaches, stores and street vendors start selling clear waterproof cases although I would examine thoroughly to find a good quality one.
Because I didn’t want to take a chance, I bought this sealable waterproof case on Amazon. It allowed me to take photos without taking my phone out. I also safely kept some money and a copy of passport (legally required to carry at all time in Thailand) inside the pouch.
6. GoPro or Waterproof Camera Cover: I kicked myself hard for not purchasing GoPro. I would’ve been able to record video and take photos without worrying too much about getting my camera wet! Instead, I purchased a cheap waterproof camera case, which did an excellent job of protecting my camera but left round black edges on the images as it didn’t completely fit my camera lens. If you opt to get a waterproof camera cover, test it out before use.
7. Medicine for Diarrhea & Eye Drops: I carry anti-diarrhea medicine and eye drops in my travel first aid kit no matter which country I go. Even if you wouldn’t care to bring these two items for other trips, I would consider for Songkran. Wearing sunglasses didn’t completely protect my eyes from getting in contact with water during Songkran. I returned to the hotel every night and cleaned my eyes with eye drops. Probably I was a bit paranoid. Nevertheless, it’s better to play safe. Besides, it’s good to have first aid kit handy anyways.
8. Water Gun & Bucket: If you want to play, you would need to arm yourself with a water gun and plastic bucket. You can easily purchase these at local 7-Eleven or street vendors. I found a Hello Kitty water gun (100 BHT) at 7-Eleven and couldn’t resist. But it was too slow to reload water and too weak to combat fellow water fighters that I had to ditch it. Instead, I bought a plastic bucket on the street for 50 BHT. It was easier and quicker to scoop out water, also more adequate as armor. If you are more serious, you can purchase Super Soaker or a water gun with a water tank to carry on your back.
9. Mosquito Spray: Whether Songkran or not, you will need a mosquito repellent in Thailand. If there is a particular brand that works for you, it’s best to bring it with you. If you are not too picky, you can run to a local Boots store or 7-Eleven to get one. Also, you can easily find tiger balms everywhere in Thailand, which repels bugs and relieves itchiness from bug bites. It has a strong menthol, herbal smell, but it works well.
Best Areas to Stay in Chiang Mai for Songkran
The Old City
If you are visiting Chiang Mai to celebrate Songkran, I’d recommend staying in the Old City.
When you look at the Chiang Mai map, you will notice a small square marked by water path. Inside this square is the area called the Old City. The Old City is the historic district with must-visit temples in Chiang Mai. It’s convenient to stay here because these tourist attractions are all located within the walking distance. This area is also popular among backpackers as guest houses and inexpensive hostels can be easily found.
Accessibility is a huge plus, especially during Songkran. Tha Phae Gate and the moat being the central places for Songkran celebrations, reaching these destinations is super easy. When you get tired of water fighting, you can either visit temples for a quiet time or walk back to your hotel for a quick break.
Not only walking is convenient but also safer. During Songkran, traffic accidents notoriously spike up. Locals and travelers all drink. The roads are slippery and crowded. People target-spray water at motorists. Go figure, right?
Nimmanhaemin (Nimman for short)
If it wasn’t for Songkran, I might have chosen to stay in Nimmanhaemin. It would be my alternative recommendation.
Contrary to the historic Old City, this neighborhood definitely has more modern yet calm vibe. Although Nimman Road doesn’t seem like much at the first glance, it is a pretty hip neighborhood with fashionable shops, modern restaurants, trendy cafes and boutique hotels.
If the Old City is not your cup of tea, or if you want to participate in Songkran while avoiding the intensity of the main event, Nimman would be a great alternative to you. I have to warn you, though, that you will still be squirted with water in this area. There is just no safe place to hide from the festival.
However, if you want to participate in the main Songkran event or visit cultural attractions, the lack of accessibility to the Old City would be a major drawback. Getting a ride would be a hassle, not to mention traffics in the area.
For more information on other areas in Chiang Mai, read Where to Stay in Chiang Mai, a Neighborhood Guide.
I’d love to hear your Songkran experience. Please leave me a note below.