The Thai New Year or Songkran brings people from all classes, religions, and ages together. If you enjoy water-fights, dancing, or having fun, then celebrating Songkran would be an excellent addition to your travel bucket list. This nationwide water-fest highlights the hospitality, community, and love of the Thai people.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is Songkran Festival?
- When is Songkran Festival?
- How to Celebrate: Songkran Festival Traditions and Activities
- Songkran Modern Customs
Songkran isn’t just a water festival. It’s an important religious celebration and part of the Thai cultural identity that dates back thousands of years. In this guide, we’ll explore Songkran’s beginnings and traditions. Whether you’re planning a trip to Thailand or curious about Thai customs, we’ll show you how to celebrate.
What is Songkran Festival?
To outsiders, Songkran can seem like a nationwide water fight. People take to the streets on the hottest month of the year. Businesses and schools close as friends, family, neighbors, and strangers throw water at each other in the streets. This is all in the Thai spirit of good fun and celebration.
It seems like a big party, but Songkran has ancient origins that continue to unite Thai people to this day. Before learning how you can celebrate, read below how Songkran started, it’s purpose, and where the best locations are to celebrate.
Songkran has ancient Sanskrit origins. Sanskrit is an ancient language dating back 3,500 years. Songkran means to “step into” or “enter.” As the sun moves into new astrological signs, it signifies the beginning of a new year. Similar festivals around the world celebrate the movement of the sun like the Indian harvest festival Makar Sankriti.
Additionally, Songkran finds its roots in the Buddhist religion. If you already know what to expect at a Buddhist funeral, then you’ll be familiar with the chants and prayers happening during Songkran.
The celebration of Songkran itself originates from a Buddhist story. Legend has it that Kadilla Brahmā—a Buddhist God—lost a challenge with a child.
Since he lost the bet with the child, he had to cut off his head, but instead, the god left his head with his seven daughters. Each New Year’s day, the daughters took turns carrying the head with many faces on a tray. This ritual is now known as Songkran, and the seven daughters represent the days of the week.
Songkran has marked the New Year since ancient times. Today, it’s also a symbol of family, religion, and community. People give gifts to the elderly, clean temples, and organize community events. Songkran brings the entire Thai nation together as the most important holiday on the national calendar.
Where it’s celebrated
Songkran takes place throughout the entire country. Where you celebrate depends on the activity. People may visit schools, offices, or temples to clean them to worship ancestors, or they take to the streets to celebrate.
Parts of Thailand have different customs. Regional groups may focus on traditional offerings, while tourist destinations turn cities into splash zones. If you’re looking for places to celebrate, you’ll want to put these on your list:
- Bangkok, Thailand: See the original Songkran story engraved in stone at the Wat Phra Chetupon Buddhist temple or get splashed walking on Khao San Road—the epicenter of water celebrations.
- Chiang Mai, Thailand: To combine a traditional and modern experience, this tourist destination is a great choice. It’s common for Songkran participants to make sand art for monasteries.
- Phra Pradaeng district: This area thirty minutes outside of Bangkok holds a traditional three-day festival.
When is Songkran Festival?
Before 1989, Songkran fell on a different day in April each year as a result of following the traditional Buddhist calendar. After 1989, the official dates for Songkran were set according to the western-based Gregorian calendar. Since then, the Songkran festival has been an all month affair.
Although celebrations continue all April, the ‘New Year’ is split into three parts—April 13-14-15 of every year. The first is Maha Songkran or New Year’s when people begin to prepare themselves for the New Year. Next is Wan Nao or the ‘middle day.’ Lastly, Wan Thaloeng Sok or ‘New Year’s Day’ is the Songkran Festival.
Thailand isn’t the only country to celebrate Songkran in April. Asian nations around the world also observe similar festivals based on the sun’s movement. In Myanmar, it’s called Thingyan and in Cambodia – Moha Sangkran.
How to Celebrate: Songkran Festival Traditions and Activities
Since ancient times, the Thai people celebrate Songkran with traditions that continue today. While the modern generations added fun to the celebration, traditions like giving ‘merit’ still happen.
As mentioned above, Songkran means to “enter.” It’s a time of rebirth, renewal, and remembrance. All participants, whether Thai or not, can remember loved ones as they celebrate the New Year to come. You don’t have to live in Thailand to celebrate Songkran, either. Let’s take a look at Songkran activities—both new and old—below.
Happiness for the coming year comes from merit-making. Puñña or merit-making is the practice of giving, virtue, and meditation.
Merit builds a strong foundation for Buddhists to develop a strong self of who they are with positive actions. Songkran fulfills this practice in many ways. Traditionally, all Songkran activities lead to merit-making, but in modern times it’s become a festive celebration, too.
First, to develop merit, Songkran participants give to others. In addition to making and offering food, it's customary to clean the community. Friends, family, and neighbors gather to clean temples, schools, and businesses. It’s also tradition to clean one’s home to prepare for the New Year.
Another way to gain merit is to learn and celebrate the past. Honoring ancestors is a time-honored tradition for the Thais. Remembering the past is an important way to gain merit. Songkran participants honor elders with water pouring. After cleaning, they may pray at the local temple to connect with ancestors.
Food and offerings
Thai food, in general, is delicious but it takes on a life of its own during Songkran. Thai families prepare feasts to share with their family and friends or give to Buddhist monks. Foods like noodles with peanut sauce and fresh fruits and vegetables are Thai staples.
It is traditionally a woman’s job to prepare the dishes. The older generations pass family recipes to their children and grandchildren. Women gain happiness and satisfaction from donating and preparing food for their families. Also, cooking is a Songkran tradition to remember ancestors through generational recipes.
Food offerings are a common Buddhist tradition. During special occasions like Thai funerals or Songkran, people give monks food.
Monks rely on people to give them food and the people rely on monks for purification, positivity, and healing. It’s also a way to break away from the cycle of rebirth and into Nirvana, a place of peace and happiness.
Thailand turns into an enormous splash zone on Songkran, but water fights aren’t just entertaining ways to celebrate. Cultures around the world hold water as sacred and pure. It’s readily available regardless of age, race, or economic class. It's an offering anyone can make.
Water offerings go back to ancient times when people left water bowls for Buddhas and monks like they do today. Traditionally, people offered seven bowls for the seven types of Buddhist prayer like confessing wrongs or teaching others.
On Songkran, people come together to give water offerings to monks, the elderly, and each other. Water bowls may be placed in front of Buddha statues or other images. The water is mixed with roses or other flowers for a pleasant smell.
Strangers turn into friends as entire communities take to the streets. Even squirting another person with water is a fun way to bless their life for the upcoming year. As you can see, water is a simple and free, but powerful, way to unite the Thai community.
Songkran Modern Customs
As the Thai culture becomes more open to the rest of the world, Songkran customs change every year. There are some rules of etiquette you should know before attending.
While you may want to wear a bathing suit during the water festival, keep in mind, the Thai culture is more conservative than the West.
In recent years, safety has become a priority. Car accidents from drunk drivers and throwing water at vehicles have prompted the Thai government to launch a safety campaign.
Thailand’s government continues to raise awareness of Songkran’s roots. They highlight activities that gain merit, so participants can not only celebrate but also know why they are celebrating.
Celebrate the Thai New Year
For three days, the Thai people focus on their community, friends, and family. Whether you choose to celebrate traditionally or get involved in a water celebration, you’ll honor Thailand’s Buddhist roots.
Songkran is a reflection of the past year and planning the next. Have you thought about what your next year will look like? Songkran teaches us to plan for the future. Beginning end-of-life planning is one way to embrace yours.
- Bhikkhu, Thanissandro. “Merit.” Metta Forest Monastery. www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/merit.html
- “What is the Songkran Festival and where are the best places to celebrate?” Kenan Foundation Asia. www.kenan-asia.org/songkran-best-places-to-celebrate/
- “The magic and traditions of Thai New Year (Songkran).” Tourism Authority of Thailand. 02 April 2014. www.tatnews.org/the-magic-and-traditions-of-thai-new-year-songkran
- Melton, Gordon J. “Religious Celebrations.” ABC-CLIO. books.google.com/books/about/Religious_Celebrations.html?id=KDU30Ae4S4cC