Songkran in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Songkran Festival April 13th to 15th 2016

Songkran in Chiang Mai is easily the wettest – and probably the most fun - of any of the nationwide celebrations of the Thai Buddhist New Year. Bangkok’s parties may be the biggest and Pattaya’s are the longest, but nowhere sees as much water flying as Chiang Mai, which makes it one of the most popular places in the whole of Southeast Asia to visit in mid-April, particularly with overseas tourists and backpackers.

The Songkran holiday lasts from 13th – 15th April 2016, and the whole of the road around the old part of the ancient city becomes one giant party for that time. It has a friendly atmosphere which is warm and welcoming, in stark contrast to the cold water which will frequently be poured over you as you walk around the city.

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What is Songkran?

Celebrated across Southeast Asia, Songkran is the Thai name for the Buddhist New Year festival. Like with most methods of beginning a new year, Songkran is all about making a fresh start and wiping the slate clean. The difference is that the nations in this part of the world – most famously, Thailand – clean the slate with colossal amounts of water.

Where to Play – The Old City Moat

The reason why Songkran in Chiang Mai is the wettest is because the weapon of choice is not the water gun, as it is the other major cities, but the bucket, which ranges in size from small sandcastle moulds to industrial-scale pails. The city also has a unique and easily available source of water – the moat running around the old city. Go to any point around the city walls during the Songkran holiday and you can all but guarantee that you’ll get wet within a matter of minutes.

The biggest party can be found at the Tha Phae Gate on the eastern side of the city. There, you will find several stages set up and an open-air food market behind them. Even though the road is still open to traffic, it is usually blocked with ravers and revellers. In the evenings, once the water stops flying, this is also the scene of special performances on a further stage, including the Miss Songkran beauty pageant. Chiang Mai’s Walking Street market (usually held just on Sundays) starts just through the gate every evening during the holiday, and runs all the way along Rachadamnoen Road to Wat Phra Singh, almost on the other side of the old city.

The four sides of the perfectly square city centre each has its own atmosphere: The east has the most tourists and the biggest parties, the west has more locals and almost no tourists, the north is a mix of the two and features a few smaller stages with live performances while the south is the quietest of the lot, with whole stretches of pavement where you might manage to remain dry for more than a few minutes.

The first day of the festival is Family Day and is marked with a very long parade, led by the Buddha statue from in front of Wat Phra Singh, but featuring several more statues as well as traditional music, dancing and costumes. The procession travels along Tha Phae Road, through the eastern gate and right along Rachadamnoen Road before reaching Wat Phra Singh, where the lead statue is returned to its plinth.

Other Places to Go

For those looking for a change of scenery (or just to avoid that questionably murky moat water), another enormously popular place to head is Huaykaew Road, which leads up from the north-western corner of the old city. Every year, four or five huge stages are set up, welcoming some of Thailand’s most famous rock and pop bands, with DJs spinning dance tunes in between acts. The vibe here is distinctly more ‘local’ compared to the moat, but just as fun, and almost as wet. Keep going up Huaykaew Road to reach Nimmanhaemin Road, Chiang Mai’s undisputed nightlife epicentre. This is where the crowds flock after dark to keep the party going, and the Songkran period sees most of the clubs here (such as the vast ‘Warm Up Café’, ‘Monkey Club’ and ‘Infinity’) throw themed parties (although they’re mostly dry as it’s all indoors).

Hazards and Considerations

One look at the murky brown water coming out of the moat, and it’s almost needless to say that you don’t want to get too much of this in your mouth. Also, protect your eyes (whilst looking ultra-cool at the same time) with some neon goggles, and definitely buy one of those phone/wallet/camera waterproof zip-up bags to keep your valuables dry – an absolute Songkran-must.

The water-throwing may seem no-holds-barred at times, but do avoid motorbikes, young children, and elderly people. After dark, be more courteous too; no pretty girl wants to get wet again after just changing into their best dress.

With all that water flying around, driving or riding on anything with just two wheels can be quite dangerous, particularly if you suddenly get blind-sided by a bucket of ice water. It is much more fun to walk or, if you want to paint a giant bulls-eye on yourself, ride a tuk tuk or songtaew.

Most importantly, remember that the Thai expression for this giant annual water fight translates as “playing Songkran” – it’s just a game, so don’t take it too seriously. Be prepared to get as good as you give, win with dignity and lose with grace.


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