Songkran in Chiang Mai

I receive quite a lot of emails nowadays from starry-eyed traveller wannabe’s, asking me where the ‘best’ place is, to go and get away from the daily grind. I’m usually a little disappointed that I can’t help them (yet) because since I left English shores, it’s been more work than play. However after last week, my outlook on the question has changed tenfold.

I’m not sure where the ‘best’ place is, or if it truly exists – the beauty certainly is in the eye of the beholder. My answer now to such people wanting to escape the 9-5, taking mind-numbing trips to Tesco with the highlight of their week being a 2-for-1 deal on ‘Golden Grahams’ (OK, fair play – they are pretty God damn special) would be without a doubt:

Go and celebrate the ‘Sonkgran’ festival in Chiang Mai.

Songkran is the official Thai New Year….it’s also a national water fight.

Yes.

A NATIONAL WATER FIGHT! They say ‘boys don’t grow up – they just get taller’, and I couldn’t agree any more. I know you get me, Gents! I’ve sat in restaurants before, watching the kids run riot in the ball pool while I sit and pretend to care about mundane adult conversation. Smiling a fake smile while thinking “I don’t care about you and you work problems, or the state of the economy – I wanna play in the ball pool!”

Then there’s the times when people tell you that you’re ‘soooo good with kids’ because you’ve sat for hours and entertained them with their new toys – unknown to compliment giver, that you only did it to relive that childhood that slipped away from your grasp all them years ago. Then there’s the cutting words that shake the soul of any person with an enthusiastic spirit; grow up.

Big kids!

Songkran is the perfect excuse for reliving your childhood, living in the moment and collecting them feel-good vibrations that we humans crave. I’m not sure I can do it justice by words on a computer, but I can only try. Imagine going out in your street right now and everywhere you turn you are met with buckets of water (sometimes ice water) being thrown over your body, an abundance of kids with water pistols running by and shooting you with a delightfully mischievous “hehe!”

Envisage a traffic jam for 4 days, with people dancing on top of their cars and pockets of your city with foam parties on make-do stages…Imagine walking past a police officer and getting drenched from her and her Super Soaker 5000! That’s the experience that James from Nomadic Notes had. Don’t worry, James – I got her back good!

Songkran Chiang Mai - water fight

Chiang Mai’s Songkran festival is notoriously longer than other cities in Thailand (four days instead of two). And the beauty of it – the city has a bed of moat that the city is built around, meaning refills are quick and easy so that you can be back in battle in an instance. See the photo’s below to look at the revenge attack by a little girl, who has now been christened ‘The Songkran Ninja.’

I ambushed this cute little Thai lass with my most impressive stealth skills and got her good with my Super Soaker…

Happy in my battle victory, I paused for a pose with Ian from Where Sidewalks End – check out the karma attack by my opposing soldier…

Songkran Chiang Mai - waterfight revenge

The highlight of my four days was swimming in the moat with these super-cute (gaaaaah, hanging out with far too many North Americans, I never used to say “super” as an adjective) kids, who we trained to be elite Songkran soldiers with our guns – who turned on their mentors!

Ian taught his soldier to shoot men in the crotch, I taught mine to swim under water and have the barrel pointing out – so he could kill and not be killed. Our recruits revolution for their own army and dominance was reminiscent of ‘The Terminator’ movies, as our own creations became more intelligent and waged a spine-chilling war for freedom of the army – leaving James, Ian and myself completely unarmed.

Songkran Chiang Mai - Playing with kids in the moat

But in all seriousness, as we left the children I experienced one of them beautiful and noteworthy moments that many travellers search for. The cute little kid who I trained (Under Water Songkran Ninja, statues will be made in years to come, I tell you!) told me to wait, swam to the bottom of the river, swam over to me with a big, beaming, teethy smile and handed me a snail shell. I’ll keep it forever. :)

Songkran Chiang Mai - child in the moat

I’m finding out that travel isn’t just about taking snaps of The Eiffel Tower and country collecting – it’s about them special moments that give you Goose Pimples and make your life that little more gorgeous. Not that there’s anything wrong with visiting landmarks, I’m climbing a mountain in Malaysia next month and can’t wait – but I do feel that there is so much beauty around us and that we are missing it on a regular basis. The other day I sat for an hour and watched a caterpillar escape from its cocoon and go off into the world as a butterfly. Amazing.

Anyway, enough about me and my new-found hippy serenity, let’s touch on some Songkran etiquette. Do you want to be a part of this next year? Fancy reliving that childhood? Here’s my take on how to have the greatest Songkran experience:

Songkran Etiquette For Dummies

Buy your weapons early

Songkran Chiang Mai - 3 girls

Oh how they laughed at me, when I enthusiastically bought my gun two weeks before Songkran. And oh how I laughed harder, when their last-minute crappy weapons malfunctioned or didn’t suffice!  :p I went through two guns until I found my baby – you’re in a free-for-all water fight for four days. Make sure you have the best arsenal at your disposal! I bet these are the same people who shop on Christmas Eve and complain about the queues ;)

Book Early

Duh! Songkran is the biggest Thai festival and Chiang Mai is the most popular city for the event. Book your accommodation and flights as early as possible. The sooner you book the more likely as well that you’ll get cheap tickets.

Manchester United Fans and arrogant girls who think they are hot, but are just really annoying and shallow

In that order, shoot them first.

Use your intuition

Some people are on their way to work and really don’t want to get wet. Use your intuition, and you’ll see who is not up for it – even though they are hard to find. Don’t squirt people on a motorbike with babies, don’t attack Monks and don’t face-shot when in close proximity. This is supposed to be fun, be wise.

Go hard, or go home!

Slight contradiction to the above? Allow me to elaborate. Listen, Princess. I know your mascara is like oxygen to you, but don’t be coming to the worlds biggest water fight and then start whining when you get wet! I know you’re used to the world revolving around you and getting your arse kissed, but today is not that day. And Princess, when you pout – it only makes me want to drench you even more. Songkran in Chiang Mai is not the place for party-poopers, but it’s always wise to cover yourself in case of injury or loss while travelling. Go hard, or go home!

Respect the meaning

Songkran Chiang Mai - Songkran wedding

Songkran Chiang Mai - traditional Thai dress

To you it might be a water-fight – to the Thai’s it symbolises the cleansing of bad shit from the past and moving on to the next chapter in a positive light. You don’t have to be Thai to appreciate that, but don’t forget it and make sure you’re not trigger happy when the traditional ceremonies take place.

Don’t be a moat snob!

Songkran Chiang Mai - buckets of moat water

People get a little pissy (North American word again) when people squirt with moat water, go near the moat water, or even speak of the moat water. One guy lectured me for ten minutes about how it’s disgusting because you don’t know what’s going in your body…he said this with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Such beautiful ignorance, I’m almost jealous.

Man up, or shut up.

Only take waterproof cameras

Which is why I left my Sony Cybershot at home :( All photos here accredited to James from Nomadic Notes. Cheers, mate!

One set of clothing

It’s a bit minging to wear dirty-watered clothes for four days, but there really isn’t any point in wearing anything else as you can’t go ANYWHERE without getting soaked. Undress as soon as you return home, blast your battle clothes with fresh water and leave them to hang in the blistering sun.

Kindness is a boomerang

Songkran Chiang Mai - refilling water gun

Help out a stranger who is less mobile than you and refill their gun, before refiling yours. I can 100% guarantee that this kind gesture will be repaid around this kind city.

Soak up every minute

Songkran Chiang Mai - car dancing

James makes an excellent point, that the day after Songkran – he wandered the streets wondering if it was all a dream. I get that, I really get that. Make sure you live in the moment and soak up every bit of this crazy festival.

Final Thoughts

Songkran Chiang Mai - child gunner

Songkran Chiang Mai - Girl with Minnie Mouse gun

Would I go again? Yes, in a heartbeat but I hear it clashes with India’s festival of colours so I’m not so sure I’ll make it next year. I’m deciding to take a break from my projects and am moving on from Chiang Mai at the end of the month, as it was becoming boring and my wanderlust (and cabin fever) have been crazy-intense lately.

Songkran was the perfect send-off to me and let me tell you – I’m pretty hard to please. I’m the kind of guy who has huge expectations that are hard to be matched, as my imagination is always better. I’m the kind of guy who walks out of the cinema with despondency, as the gang I am with sooooo loved the movie that I predicted the ending to one hour into the movie.

Songkran ticked all the boxes and even made its own boxes. It surpassed my imagination on a grand scale and I feel so lucky that I was part of it. If you’re considering a visit next year, my advice – book the ticket now. I really doubt you’ll regret it.

Have you ever experienced a Songkran festival? What was your experience?

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30 Responses

  1. paul | walkflypinoy

    very nice read! summed up all there is to know about songkran. including, of course, its very sober religious significance. i experienced songrkan 2012 in chiang mai myself. and i loved the water fights with the neighborhood kids, most especially. the street parties and the driving around on the back of a pick-up truck was just secondary. cheers.
    paul | walkflypinoy recently posted..Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: The BudgetMy Profile

    Reply
    • Anthony

      Hey Paul,

      Thank you. Yep there were many ‘no alocohol’ signs up, but they were pretty much ignored! I’m glad you were hear this year and that you enjoyed yourself :)

      Reply
  2. hayadeen

    i really enjoy this piece of writing. So beautiful!

    and I agree with your point on the beautiful things around us that we just didn’t notice. Have you watched a video about a master violinist gets ignored by passer-by just because people thought he was just another broke street performer? i recommend you to watch it because it is soooo amazing..

    about the songkran festival, i remember few people tweeted about it before the festival begins and I was wondering how ‘fun’ it is. You know..with Malaysian weather now, which is raining everyday, the last thing i thought would be fun is getting wet on the street..hehehe.

    Obviously, i was wrong. Minus the storm, lightning and gloomy sky, getting fired by water guns from strangers on the street is something i will surely enjoy :)

    Reply
    • Anthony

      Why thank you, Hayadeen!

      I have not seen the video that you are referring to, but I have seen the photo and story on Facebook. Haha no that doesn’t sound too fun. I’m going back to Malaysia in just over a week – to Borneo! :)

      You should check out Songkran, should you get the opportunity to!

      Reply
  3. lauren

    looks so fun! love all the pictures. glad it exceeded your expectations – mr. hard to please!

    cheers – lola

    Reply
  4. JoJo

    Amazing read and photos. Sounds spectacular.

    Having been fortunate enough to know you for so long, and share many movie watching experiences, i appreciate how hard you are to please! Glad you got to experience it :)

    If and when we do get any nice weather here my lot love a good water fight, which generally involves me getting soaked with a hose, so to multiply that to the extent you had and with such a purpose must be incredible!

    Hugs jx

    P.S – I love the intent on the face of your karma soldier attacker, she’s got skills !!

    Reply
  5. Kieu ~ GQ trippin

    You were there too?!! Ahh man, we missed a few faces. Looks like you guys had a blast. Wished we could have had a massive tweet up over fruit shakes. Sawadee pi mai. Great pics, btw. :)

    Reply
  6. Scott

    Sadly, this was “penciled” in for us, but just kind of got erased as our travel plans evolved. Sure looks like you had enough fun for us though!

    Reply

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