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Chiang Mai, Thailand
To celebrate the traditional New Year, Thailand’s crazy Songkran water festival is held every April all over the country. But the best place to be is Chiang Mai.
Picture tens of thousands of men, women, and children roaming the streets armed with squirt guns, water cannons, and buckets of icy cold water searching for their next victim.
They travel on foot, piled onto scooters or in the back of pickup trucks.
No one is safe from their wrath. If you’re dry, you won’t be for long!
Songkran is Thailand’s craziest holiday, and the whole country comes to a stand-still for a couple of days while everyone cools off during the hottest month of the year.
Traditional New Year
The official Thai Buddhist calendar begins with the death of the Buddha 543 years before the start of the Christian calendar.
It’s also celebrated in April according to sun & star alignment rather than the beginning of the lunar year.
Originally, scented water was poured over statues of Buddha for good luck. This water was then saved and gently sprinkled onto loved ones as a blessing.
Eventually, that time-honored and holy tradition has morphed into filling giant super-soakers full of dirty moat water and blasting it into the faces of complete strangers!
Songkran in Chiang Mai
While big celebrations are held all over the country, the northern city of Chiang Mai is the best place to be. The old city is surrounded by a large square-shaped moat. Four miles of it to be exact.
This moat is used as a refill station. Most people congregate around it for Songkran. Families lower buckets on strings into the moat, filling them up to be unleashed on the crowds passing by.
Pickup trucks and tuk-tuks inch their way around the loop loaded with 55-gallon barrels full of water.
Massive blocks of ice rest inside these containers for an extra kick.
The festival lasts longer in Chiang Mai too, with at least 4 full days of madness compared with only 2 in other cities.
Possibly the Best Festival Ever
I’d heard stories about Songkran from many other travelers who claimed it was the best festival they’d ever been to. After experiencing it for myself this year, I have to agree. Why is it so special?
- All ages participate, from 3 year olds to senior citizens.
- Tens of thousands of people take to the streets.
- You get to act like a kid again without judgment.
- Everyone is smiling and having a blast.
- No tickets to pay for (well, aside from the cost of a water gun).
- It’s both brutal and incredibly polite at the same time.
I can’t tell you how many times someone poured a bucket of freezing cold ice-water down my back, then apologized for it!
Everyone is your friend during Songkran. I frequently just hopped up on the back of a truck and joined a group of strangers who happily welcomed me onto their mobile splash assault vehicle.
All Kinds of Entertainment
In addition to the roaming hoards of water soldiers, you’ll also find stages and tents sponsored by local and international companies. They usually include professional dancers dressed in skimpy outfits, spraying water from hoses onto the crowd.
Large machines sporadically spew mountains of bubbles into the street creating an impromptu foam party.
Religious processions march through town with statues of Buddha on beautifully decorated floats. Spectators try and spray water on the Buddha’s shoulders in the traditional fashion, for good luck.
You may get splattered with a muddy mixture of white chalk too.
Kids randomly pop out of barrels on the back of trucks shooting you in the face, others run around in full costumes or Halloween masks.
Songkran is a complete shock to the senses.
Getting Into the Action
To prepare for Songkran I donned my best Rambo gear and picked up a fully automatic water-uzi. It even had a removable clip for a reservoir. While the little blue & orange gun didn’t have the best range — I could hold down the trigger and spray to my heart’s content.
I proceeded to conduct drive-by soakings all over town on my moped.
Now riding a scooter in Thailand is already pretty dangerous, but during Songkran, it’s a bit suicidal. Alcohol flows freely for 4 days, and no one thinks twice about throwing large buckets of water into your face as you drive by.
So I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have plenty of scooter experience, a motorcycle license, and are as stubborn as I am!
The Chiang Mai Songkran experience is a wild good time. I would love to go back again in the future if I can. Until I find a contender, it’s the coolest festival I’ve ever attended.
And with all that ice-water flying around, I mean it. ★
Watch Video: Songkran Water Festival
(Click to watch Songkran Festival – Thailand on YouTube)
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand [Map]
Festival Dates: Usually in April
Useful Notes: Beware the moat water! You can easily get sick from it. Try to keep your mouth closed too. The water guns can be contaminated with all sorts of stuff.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Thailand
Suggested Reading: Sightseeing
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Have you ever celebrated Songkran in Thailand before? Did you like it?