By Hilary Cadigan, Rob Royall, and Tanapat Dangmeon
Chiang Mai is known around the world for being perhaps the greatest place to celebrate Buddhism’s wettest and wildest holiday, and there is plenty to do in the city and surrounding areas during Songkran. Here, we break it all down, just for you. Happy splashing!
Songkran in the City
Love it or hate it, this city of ours is the ultimate place to celebrate Songkran, if you have the stamina for a five-day water fight. It’s also a religious hub for those celebrating traditional Songkran by visiting temples, since they’re so tightly packed around here. Here’s a breakdown of the main areas and what happens in each one.
- Old City: Songkran in the old city (mostly on the north and east sides) is the ultimate Chiang Mai experience, but be prepared for LOTS of tourists. Unperturbed? Here are some must-dos:
– Set up shop at your favourite bar and spend some time sipping drinks and nailing passersby with buckets of icy moat water.
– Hop on a truck and take a slow ride around the moat, drinking, splashing and truck-hopping with friendly strangers as you go.
– If you’ve never swam in the moat before, you gotta do it at least once (and Songkran is the only time it’s considered acceptable), so plug your nose, shut your mouth, take a shot of Sangsom and jump in (unless you have any open wounds, in which case we suggest you wait until next year or risk amputation).
- Tha Pae Gate: This is where the action happens, and the road usually turns into a lake by day two. Check out the concerts, dance performances, beauty contests and the infamous foam party before heading down Tha Pae Road to watch the parade, stopping to buy street beers and all manner of fancy water weapons on the way (the simple tube shooters are the best, FYI).
- Kad Suan Kaew: The area in front of the mall on Huay Kaew Road is a Songkran standby, with blessedly fewer tourists but just as much energy and crowd crush from hoardes of Thais and expats. Here you’ll find a massive stage where musicians will be jamming all day, with occasional breaks to make sure the crowds remain thoroughly soaked.
- Riverside: The Ping River is the starting point for many of the parades and ceremonies, including one in which locals carry sand from the riverbank near Narawat Bridge to various temples throughout the city in an ancient Buddhist ritual. Meanwhile, the bars along the river are bustling with live music and Songkran revellers.
- Wat Phra Singh: One of Chiang Mai’s most notable temples is a hub for religious activities during Songkran. The main Buddha statue is removed and paraded through the city before returning to the temple, where various ceremonies take place for good luck in the new year.
- Want to leave the urban crowds behind? Grab a songtaew and head out of town. On the way, your driver will be sure to slow down at every possible opportunity for you to get splashed by enthusiastic neighbourhood folks lining the roads of small villages.
- Spend the day at Huay Tung Tao, where many locals go to celebrate Songkran Chiang Mai Beach-style. Grab a hut, order up some som tam and Chang, and mingle with local families lounging lakeside.
- Bus or bike up to Chiang Dao for a vibrant but laid-back Songkran, featuring floating stages in the Ping River, fish release merit-making, and Muay Thai demonstrations amidst the mountains.
- Head to Lamphun, which is hosting their second annual Umbrella and Bicycle Beauty Pageant (great photo op!) on 13 April from 1-6:30 p.m.
- For one of the strangest (but oddly sweet) Songkran rituals of all, go to Mae Jo University where the Faculty of Animal Science and Technology hosts a merit-making ceremony for deceased lab animals, thanking them for their sacrifices in the name of science. Then go outside for the yearly laab cook-off on 13 April. http://www.mju.ac.th
- Take a bamboo raft down the easy rapids of the Mae Wang River, getting splashed all the way, then join the locals in temporary riverside shelters (built specially for the holiday) for grilled meats, eggs on a stick and plenty of booze.
- Leave your sopping clothes behind and join in…wait for it…a naked water fight at the Oriental Village in Mae On, Northern Thailand’s only clothing-optional resort. Here, the Naturist Association of Thailand will be hosting their first ever nude Songkran from 11-15 April. http://www.orientalvillage-chiangmai.com
- Hop over to Lampang to join their unique Silver Urn and Giant Drum celebration (featuring attractive shirtless men) from 9-15 April.
- Bring a picnic and join local Thai families for a laid-back day of watery fun at any nearby waterfall, such as the amazingly climbable Sticky Waterfalls (also known as Bua Tong) in Phrao.
- Check out the village of Baan Yang Luang in Mae Chaem, where locals take part in a unique Songkran ceremony, wiping their bodies with flour dough, building rafts from banana tree trunks, and floating them away down the river, which symbolises taking illness and bad luck away from the body.
- Pack up family and friends for a trip to the houseboats at Mae Ngat Dam, where you can avoid the splashy fracas of the city and spend your holiday fishing, sunbathing and floating your cares away.
- If you don’t mind a bit of a journey, hop on a plane, bus or train to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, where you can take part in an elephant water fight with residents of the local elephant palace, who get all painted up with colourful chalk to mark the occasion.
- And if you really want to piss off your Thai friends, join the first Songkran in Singapore on 12-13 April, which will coincide with their H20 Music Festival and include (much to the dismay of TAT) Muay Thai tournaments, Thai food and live music. The only catch? No water.
All in the Family
Despite its reputation, traditional Songkran involves hardly any of the water theatrics one might see around Tha Pae Gate. Many Thai families use the holiday to come together for large gatherings in which every relative brings water to the main house. Relatives take turns sharing the water with one another, making sure to bless the elders, who impart wisdom to their young grandchildren. It is also traditional for families to invite local monks to their homes for brunch and to visit the temple with offerings of flowers and gifts. Songkran is a time to celebrate new life but also a time to celebrate those who have passed, so many Thai people will also go to the temple to clean and pay respect to the urns of their ancestors, and to receive holy water blessings from monks. Then, afterward, everyone has a picnic and heads out to watch the parades.
Tips and Tricks
- Wake up early and visit nine temples (an auspicious number in Thai Buddhism) to make merit and guarantee good luck in the new year by washing away your sins.
- If you live far from the action, rent a cheap room in town for a few nights. You’ll be thrilled to have a dry, quiet place within walking distance of the party where you can store your aqua arsenal and return for midday naps (and avoid drunken motorbike rides home through traffic).
- Form a team with your friends and make t-shirts. On top of helping you keep track of your pals in the crowd, this makes for great group photo ops.
- Set up headquarters in the old city and make pitchers of “jungle juice” to drink and share with revellers passing by. Bonus points: put some of your special cocktail in a water gun to spray down the thirsty throats of consenting adults.
- Choreograph a rain dance (or just start a spontaneous rain dance party) to help bring an end to the dry season. Let’s not make it a flash mob, however. The rain gods agree those are so 2008.
Originally published in the Apr 2014 issue of Chiang Mai Citylife.