The delights of the Songkran Festival

pick any beach like Chaweng and prepare to party

Thailand’s biggest and most eagerly awaited annual festival and cultural extravaganza falls in the month of April. In days gone by, Songkran was the traditional New Year celebrated in much of Southeast Asia. Although Thailand now marks the changing of the year at midnight on 31 December, Songkran is still a time of great rejoicing and fun and the occasion of a three-day national holiday.  

The official Songkran holiday runs from 13 to 15 April. In the days prior to the festival it seems like the whole country is on its way south to Samui and other southern Thai beach destinations. Traffic on Highway 4 from Bangkok is heavy and ferries from the mainland at Surat Thani to Samui are crowded. Demand is also high for bus, aeroplane and train tickets. Visitors planning on taking in Songkran on Samui should try and reserve their tickets beforehand.

The old traditions of Songkran are still carried out in islanders’ households and at Buddhist temples, but for most the famous water fights are the principal activity at Songkran in modern times. These take place on the main roads thorough the resorts of Lamai, Chaweng and Bophut as well as Nathon Town.  

Songkran revellers arm themselves with plastic water-cannons, guns or buckets and line the sides of the roads and wait to ambush passing pedestrians, motorcyclists, tuk-tuks, songthaews and pick-up trucks. All comers are valid targets and it is next-to-impossible to go anywhere on Samui without getting wet for the duration of the festival.

Pick-up drivers load up with barrels of water and people in the back use it to replenish their weapons. The pick-ups travel slowly down the main roads, which allows their passengers to enjoy pitched battles with people on the pavements. People waiting beside the roads wish each other sawat dee pee my (happy New Year) while squirting or throwing water.

Due to the fact that Songkran falls right in the middle of the hottest season of the year, a bucket of cool water over the body is a heavenly feeling after standing around in the midday sun for anything longer than 10 minutes. People heading down to water-fight zones should keep mobile phones and other personal possessions in waterproof bags.

The smaller villages and more out-of-the way beach resorts on Samui are not exempt from the fun. Youngsters wait by the side of roads and try to give passing motorcycles and other vehicles a good soaking. Motorcyclists need to be extra careful when they see a wet patch of road because the water and the sand that coats many road surfaces on the island combines to make treacherous surfaces.

Thai people believe that Songkran water washes away all bad luck and misfortune. Likewise, the act of smearing powder on people’s faces during the battles is meant to bring the receiver good luck for the coming year and is derived from an old tradition practiced by monks for the same purpose.

The water battles evolved from two far more genteel traditions. The first of these is an activity called song nam phra. After listening to monks sermonise at their local temple on the 15 April, Buddhists symbolically prepare Buddha statues for another year by pouring rose and jasmine scented water over them.    

Lot nam phu yai is the second tradition. Younger people visit the homes of their elders and pour water over their hands, an action also said to cleanse any outstanding misfortunes. After the bad luck has washed away, elders then tie white thread around the wrists of the pourer in thanks. Both of these traditions are still practiced by Thai Buddhists to this day. 

a whole island of new best friends...

Another activity at Songkran is the carrying of buckets of sand into temple compounds. The sand is then tipped into a support container and added to until a pagoda-like structure is formed. The resemblance to a sandcastle is completed at some temples with the addition of flags. Thais say the ritual brings back the sand taken out of temples over the year by visitors and worshippers on the soles of their feet.

The 14 or 15 April is the best time to visit temples for anyone who wants to take in the cultural aspects of Songkran. The water fights invariably start on the 12 April and continue through until the 16. Outside the main tourist districts youngsters are often on the prowl for a week. Anybody not wishing to get soaked could try ya hot nam (don’t throw water). This sometimes works.

A number of the bigger hotels and resorts on Samui lay on special Songkran meals and cultural performances. Municipal authorities also organise culture themed events, music shows and that staple of all Thai festive occasions, a beauty pageant. Venues and timetables change every year. The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s website provides up-to-date details.      

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