Thailand is a country with a rich cultural heritage. There are holidays and celebrations all through the year: Songkran, the Thai New Year, is the most important one followed by the famous lantern festival in Chiang Mai.
With celebrations lasting up to a week, the New Year marks the end of the dry season with religious ceremonies and water fights, now a trademark of the festival.
Water is an extremely important part of this festival. As a symbol of renewal in Buddhism, water is splashed on statues of Buddha for good luck, and younger generations bathe the hands of the elderly to receive their blessing in return. Finally, people gather in the streets to join huge water fights.
In 2020, the Thai New Year will be held from April 13th to 16th: if you’re traveling in Thailand, don’t miss the opportunity to join in the joyful celebrations.
Celebrations for Thai New Year
The word Songkran comes from Hindu and literally means “astrological passage”. Usually, the New Year celebrations last three days:
- April 13th: on the first day, there are processions of Buddha images all across the country. This is the day when the biggest water fights happen.
- April 14th: this day is also known as Wan Nao and it celebrates the old Thai New Year’s Eve. This is also the National Family day: everyone spends quality time with their families.
- April 15th: on this day, the New Year begins. There are parties and celebrations everywhere, with ongoing water fights, concerts, street food and much more!
Customs in different parts of Thailand
Since Thailand is such a big country, people in different places follow different customs.
- North: here there are firecrackers and gunfire to ward off bad luck on the 13th of April. On the 14th, people visit temples to offer food to the monks and receive their blessing. Important activities are to wash statues of Buddha and the hands of the elders.
- Central Region: everyone dresses up in traditional Thai clothing and cleans their house. The holiday is celebrated with lots of offerings: food is given to the monks and sand to repair the temples, a requiem is sung for one’s ancestors and so on. To gain merit, people release animals such as fish, birds, buffaloes, and cows.
- South: here there are three rules: do not work too much to save money; do not hurt other human beings, and do not lie.
- East: the holiday is celebrated the same as in other parts of the country, but here people build sand pagodas all day long to gain merit. Some food is given to the elderly.
Water fights are an important part of the New Year celebrations. April is the hottest time of year in Thailand, and fighting with water is an excellent way to cool down.
Streets are closed to traffic and used as arenas: huge crowds of people gather to fight with water using pipes, buckets, and water guns. It’s an activity that the younger generations love: foreigners are more than welcome to join in!
Enjoy the water fights with a light heart: this is the Thai people’s way of giving you their blessing and sharing their joy with you.
Where to celebrate Thai New Year
If you really want to experience the best of the festival, go to Bangkok or Chiang Mai: where the biggest celebrations are held.
A 3-day celebration in Bangkok
The capital of Thailand is a unique place if you wish to enjoy New Year.
On Silom, a five-kilometer long street in the center of the city, thousands of people gather to splash everyone with anything they can find, from buckets to water guns.
Opposite the Grand Palace, on Sanam Luang, you can admire the statue of the Buddha on the 13th of April. The statue will be carried around so people can sprinkle water on it for good luck. People will also build sand pagodas and visit the temples for merit-making.
Heading to the temples will let you participate in traditional Songkran customs: people go there to offer food to the monks, and to gain merit by paying their respects to the Buddha and to their ancestors and by pouring scented water on the statues of Buddha.
A 7-day celebration in Chiang Mai
This beautiful town in the north of Thailand hosts the biggest Songkran celebrations in the world.
There are water fights all over the city: if you find yourself near the Ping River, or near canals or lakes, be prepared to be soaked from head to toe.
On 12th April, you can participate in a parade with Buddha images from all over the city, accompanied by minstrels and local people.
Buddhists spend the 13th and 14th going to a wat (a Buddhist monastery) to pray and offer food to monks. They wash the statues of Buddha in their houses with perfumed water.
People carry sand to their monastery as compensation for all the sand they brought away under their feet during the year. The sand is used to build a stupa decorated with colorful flags.
On the 15th, people pay homage to their ancestors and elders.
A Buddhist way to purify the soul
The holiday is extremely important to Buddhists, and the most important part of the celebration is merit-making. Merit is a fundamental concept in Buddhism: it is an external force which gains strength from good actions or thoughts, and protects the Buddhist from evil forces.
Offering food to monks in the local temples is the most common merit-making practice. Buddhists wash themselves and the Buddha statues to get rid of sins and bad luck. Young people usually pour water on the palms of the elderly to receive their blessing in return and to gain good luck for the coming year.
Another important part of the holiday is the appreciation of family. People travel back to their hometowns to spend the holiday with loved ones and pay their respects to dear departed.
Origins of the festival
During Songkran, the sun will pass from one zodiacal sign to another. On this particular one, when New Year is celebrated, the sun goes into Aries. For Buddhism, this is an auspicious movement of the heavenly bodies, hence the importance of the day.
In the past, the New Year was held in the first month of the lunar calendar. Today it is in the fifth month: the reasons for this change relate to the former customs of the Thai people in the south of China, their culture of rice farming and Buddhism, which incorporates a lot of astrological beliefs.
The Thais migrated from southern China into Thailand around 200 BC. Their calendar was lunar, but after migrating southwards they had to adapt to the different temperatures of Central Thailand, and they had to switch New Year to April, to coincide with the end of the dry season.
Useful festival tips
Water fights are an extremely fun way to celebrate the end of the dry season. If you want to join them, follow these tips to avoid any problems.
- Follow the rules: it’s a “war”, but there are rules. Use clean fresh water and water guns (high-pressure guns are prohibited), and don’t shoot people in the eyes.
- Be careful: April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand, with temperatures that can reach up to 40 degrees.
- Wet powder: a lot of people will spread wet powder on your face to bless you (except on Khao San Road in Bangkok, where it is prohibited). Carry a bottle of water to wash your face afterwards.
- Dress code: it’s better to use swim goggles and swim suits. Always wear a t-shirt (fighting topless is illegal).
- Protect your electronic devices using a waterproof bag.
- Avoid driving: traffic in Thailand is extremely dense. During Sonkgran, thousands of people will be driving on the streets, making the roads particularly dangerous in those days.
Check out Other Beautiful Asian Festivals
If you like having authentic experiences with locals while celebrating a beautiful festival, then make sure to look into Holi in India. Holi is the festival of colors that celebrates the victory of good over evil with a giant chaotic country-wide color fight.
During Holi, you can throw colored powders, dyed water, and flowers to celebrate while also capturing stunning photos.
If you want to release floating lanterns into the air and experience the beauty of a fairytale-like celebration of light, then you can't miss the Thai Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai. If you are looking for streets lined with candles and beautiful religious performances, take a look at India's festival of light, Diwali.
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