The Songkran festival highlights some of the nicest things about Thai culture. It is a time for sanuk (fun) and family – two things that are of supreme importance to people in this part of the world. When foreign visitors experience their first Songkran in Thailand, they usually have no problem joining in the spirit of the celebrations. The playful water fights are almost like a return to the sunny carefree days of childhood. Songkran is a time of renewal, and this is one of the best times of the year to be in Phuket.
Meaning of the Word Songkran
The word songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word sankranta and it means movement or change. In the case of this festival the word is being used to refer to the movement of the sun into the Zodiac sign Aries.
Date of Songkran
Songkran is the festival that marks the beginning of the New Year in the traditional Thai calendar. Up until 1888, Songkran was the official New Year in Thailand, but the country now uses the first of January for this celebration like much of the rest of the world. It used to be held on the full moon of the eleventh month, which coincided with the beginning of the northern spring, when the sun started moving northwards. These days the date is fixed, and each year the festival is held over three days from April 13-15. Festivals similar to Songkran are held at about the same time in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and in the Yunnan region of South-West China.
Songkran in Thailand
Songkran used to be observed only in Northern Thailand, leading some to believe that it was originally brought to Thailand by the Burmese. It is now celebrated all over Thailand, especially in tourist resorts like Phuket, although the celebration in the northern city of Chiang Mai is generally recognized as the most authentic Songkran celebration.
Traditionally, Songkran was a time when Buddha images from private homes and temples were cleansed with specially perfumed lustral water. In many cities, Buddha images are taken from the temples and paraded around the streets for this purpose. Also at this time sand is taken to the temples, sculpted into shapes like stupas (chedis), and decorated with colorful flags. At this time, many people take the opportunity to carefully clean their houses and to make New Year resolutions, promising to do good deeds and refrain from doing bad ones.
A feature of the celebration was that some of the lustral water used to bathe the Buddha images was collected. It was then gently poured onto elders and family members as a sign of respect and to ensure good luck and prosperity in the coming year. What has happened in modern times is that this aspect of the celebration has become its central theme, and has become much more intense. The result is that Songkran now resembles a three day water-fight in which any weapon, from high pressure squirt guns to buckets filled with icy water, is considered fair game. It has become very popular with younger Thai people, and the younger tourists from overseas, who see it as three days of fun, rather than a religious festival. In fact, most Thai people are happy to take part in this fun aspect of Songkran, particularly as April is usually the hottest month of the year, when temperatures can top 100? F (40?C). Every year there are calls from political and religious leaders to moderate the festival, particularly in light of the horrendous carnage on the roads, but every year these calls are ignored.
Songkran Festival in Phuket 2013
The official dates for the Songkran festival in Phuket are Saturday, April 13, 2013 until Monday, April 15, 2013. The fact that Songkran is falling on a weekend this year means that Friday, April 12, 2013 will also be a bank holiday, so this means that the celebrations will begin a day early this year. This is the most important festival of the year for Thai people, and they know how to make the most of it. All government offices will be closed for the duration of the holiday, and many businesses will give this time off to their employees.
In the main resort town of Patong Beach the Songkran holiday starts staidly enough, with a traditional parade of monks down Soi Bangla at about 5pm on the night before Songkran officially starts. After that the water pistols usually start to come out! Normal Songkran etiquette dictates that the water splashing ceases at sunset, but as the many Western tourists in Songkran do not always realize this, a certain leeway is allowed here. On the beach opposite Soi Bangla a stage is usually erected on which children’s contests and beauty contests are held. On the first day of Songkran this stage will feature Thai music in the morning, and other performances in the evening. Meanwhile, at the temple on the turn into Patong, there will be a ceremony in which rice is offered to the monks. After the monks have eaten, a gentle water-blessing ceremony for the elderly will be held. In this way local people can pay their respects to the monkhood and also to parents and elderly family members.
In the Old Town of Phuket Songkran is officially opened by dignitaries riding on trishaws to Soi Romanee, after which the Governor opens the festivities. Fairs and stalls are set up on the walking street at Soi Thalang and there is a general party atmosphere for the duration of the festival.
As in other Thai towns, the children and young people make the most of the situation to have fun. Young people will be driving around in tuk-tuks with the hoods down, equipped with water guns and buckets of icy water. Fire will be exchanged with pedestrians, motorcyclists, other young people riding shotgun in the back of pick up trucks, and just about anyone else who gets in the way. Those wishing to take part will find plenty of vendors willing to supply them with guns, water, ice and cans of beer. Those people riding motorcycles will need to take special care. In recent times the actual beginning and ending of the water splashing period has become more elastic, so expect to be suddenly soaked in icy water in the days just before and just after the official Songkran festival period.
Songkran Activities in Phuket 2013
Foreign visitors to the island will find that most of the festival fun will be focused around the following areas on the island:
- Phuket Town
- Patong – Bangla Road goes crazy.
There will be stuff going on in all the main tourist areas but one of the nicest ways to enjoy this festival is to be invited to spend time with some local Thais. Some of the more traditional activities that people will engage in during this time of year will include:
- A ceremony where the young people on the island will gently pour water over their elders and ask for a blessing.
- Many of the Buddha images on the island will have water gently poured over them – this is usually done with water containing a fragrance (nam opp Thai น้ำอบไทย) and flower petals.
- Thai Buddhists will visit a temple to make merit for the new year.
- It is fairly common for Thai people to make resolutions at this time.
Other activities at this time of year will include:
- Wat Chalong (วัดฉลอง) is the main Buddhist temple in Phuket, and there will be traditional events occurring here over Maha Songkran such as merit making and cleaning of statues.
- Phuket Fantasea will usually have a special show for Songkran.
- The Songkran International Soccer 7s will take place between Friday, April 12, 2013 and Sunday, April 14, 2013.
- Many bars and restaurants on the island will have special deals and activities arranged.
Water Fights in Phuket – Songkran Rules
Foreigners tend to mostly associated Songkran with water fights as this can be so much fun – although there are at least some visitors and expats who prefer to hide in their resort or villa until the whole thing is over. Those visitors who have never witnessed these festivities before may worry that the whole country has gone mad. In order to survive this festival here are a few things to consider:
- The best way to deal with Songkran is to just join in the fun.
- The throwing of water is never with malicious intent – it is just an attempt to wish other people good luck.
- The most intense water fights in Phuket occur on Bangla Road, and the skirmishes continue late into the night.
- It is common for Thai people to drive around in pick-up trucks with passengers in the back scoping water from a barrel and throwing it at anyone they pass.
- It is common for people to throw ice water – this is not as bad as it sounds because this is the hottest time of year in Thailand.
- Most people will buy their own water pistol for the event. These will be on sale everywhere, but some of the best and cheapest places to buy them will include the supermarkets Big C and Tesco Lotus.
- It is usual for Thai people to mix talcum powder with water and smear this on the faces of other people as a means of wishing them luck.
- It is not OK to throw water at monks.
- It is best to avoid throwing water at police officers or anyone who is obviously working the holidays.
- People can get a bit carried away by these water fights, but any form of aggression is a definite no no.
- It is strongly recommended that people avoid taking things outside with them that will be damaged by water – this will include things like mobile phones and tablet devices.
It may seem like unrestricted mayhem, but there is etiquette to be observed. Monks and pregnant women are not considered valid targets. You do not splash or shoot water inside restaurants, hotels or people’s homes. Most importantly, once the sun goes down, people go home to change into dry clothes and a general cease-fire then comes into effect. Tourists who do not understand these rules can occasionally find themselves in trouble both with offended victims and with the police. Observe what the Thais do, and you will not go far wrong.
Travel at Songkran
It can be a bad idea to go traveling far at this time of year, as this is when the roads are most dangerous. In 2011 there were 7 deaths and 52 serious injuries just in Phuket, and the statistics for other parts of Thailand were even worse. In the days around the festival the roads become chaotic as so many Thai people will be returning from the cities to visit their families in rural areas. This is also a time of year when drink driving is all too common despite increased police checks and warnings in the media. It is best to avoid long distance travel completely from a couple of days before the festival until a couple of days after.
If people are going to be driving, or riding a motorbike, around Phuket during the festival they will need to be extremely careful. Riders of motorbikes need to be aware that people will throw water at them, so they will need to slow down if they see a group of people gathered near the road. It goes without saying that people should only take to the road if they have not been drinking alcohol.
The traditional way to great people on Songkran is to say, suk san wan pi mai (สุขสันต์วันปีใหม่), and this means Happy New Year’s Day. It is also common to hear people say suk san wan song kran (สุขสันต์วันสงกรานต์) which means Happy Songkran.