Songkran in Chiang Mai: A Guide to Thailand’s Water Festival
Updated: 16/12/20 | December 16th, 2020
Consider yourself very lucky if you ever get to participate in the annual Songkran Festival in Thailand, however if you want to get to experience the very best of it then you should choose to celebrate Songkran in Chiang Mai.
The Thai Water Festival is constantly and consistently lauded as one the best travel festivals in the world and after experiencing it for myself I can confirm that it lives up to every bit of its hype.
Update: Due to a virus that rhymes with Shmovid, which I can’t mention in this article because it’ll be shadow-banned on social media, The Songkran Festival was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic. I’ll update this post with any news for Songkran in 2021.
It came at a simply perfect time for me, as I had just started to make decent online income after locking myself away in my room in Chiang Mai Old Town for almost a year, so I was ready to let loose with less work and more play.
It proved to be the perfect tonic.
Fast forward to 9 years later and I came back to officially call Chiang Mai my home after visiting over 100 countries
After returning to my first travel love, I feel like I have a sense of duty to highlight why Songkran in Chiang Mai is the absolute creme de la creme of Songkran destinations, whilst simultaneously educating non-Thai people about the deep and meaningful, religious and spiritual significance of the Songkran Festival.
And as an added bonus, I will arm you with the best information so that you will be fully primed for the wet and wild craziness that will await your eager eyes in Thailand.
Before we get into the fun part, let’s look at the origin of the Songkran Festival and what it means to Thais. To us farangs it’s a cool, once-in-a-lifetime party, but to Thai people it has a profound symbolic meaning.
I’ve found them to be a particularly superstitious nation, which ties into the origin and tradition of Songkran. In accordance with the Zodiac calendar, this time of year is actually a new year for those who believe in it.
If you were to make a similarity in western culture, this is their December 31st-January 1st as it’s a transitionary period from the old to the new. It’s a time for contemplation and to spend more time with loved ones, to be grateful for what they have.
As a loose translation, Songkran means “to move into.” The symbol of the water-splashing is to cleanse all misfortunes and bad energy of the past year, to welcome in a new start.
Songkran is also recognised and revered in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar but it’s a relatively tame affair in comparison to Songkran in Thailand.
Just because Thais have a more philosophical appreciation of Songkran, that doesn’t mean they take themselves too seriously…Thai people certainly know how to party!
Try to envisage walking out your door to complete sensory overload; with emphatically loud music blasting as quite literally, thousands of people are engaging in a no-holds-barred, gigantic water fight.
I’m not exaggerating here, it’s complete pandemonium from the very first second until it’s over.
You will not be able to walk 2 metres without getting completely soaked by someone from all angles. Water guns are the most popular weapon of choice, however, occasionally you will get a nasty wake-up call as someone from above pours a bucket of ice-cold water over your head.
It’s important to be mindful of religious processions taking place and to lay down your arms when they do (more on this later in the rules section).
Booze will be everywhere, good luck finding anywhere peaceful enough to eat a meal and don’t be surprised when the police get stuck right into the Songkran spirit and douse you when your guard is down.
Trust no one. That lovely, smiley old Thai lady that you’re sharing a heartfelt smile with, she will go full on Aqua-Terminator and drench you with her Super Soaker Turbo Farang Destroyer 5000 as soon as you break eye contact.
That cute little kid with innocent, gentle eyes will pour cold water down your back milliseconds after you have made up the imaginary ceasefire in your head.
This is water warfare, go hard or go home.
After talking to friends scattered around Thailand I confirmed my suspicions that Songkran in Chiang Mai lasts longer than most cities in Thailand. The festival officially lasts 5 days all over Thailand, but in terms of the water fight itself, Chiang Mai is a solid 4 days.
There is not too much information online that backs this and I’m sure you can find exceptions where it isn’t true, but there have been several times when my mates have text me saying that their water fighting is over after 2 days, while it’s still in peak stage in Chiang Mai.
So if you’re wanting to go the most hardcore, then choose Chiang Mai.
The other main reason to celebrate Songkran in Chiang Mai is access to water. The whole town is built on a moat, so water is in abundance. You won’t have this in Bangkok and it’s an extra tick in the box for anyone with deep-seated disdain for water waste, as the water in the moat is not drinkable.
On that note, as great as the constant supply of water is (and I don’t regret a thing) for full disclosure I should let everyone know that I had a nasty eye infection thanks to spending too much time in the moat, which lasted for 2 weeks with medicine and cream.
Something to consider for anyone with sensitive eyes for sure. This post from Bangkok Hospital should be of some guidance.
With all things considered such as the unlimited water source, the beautiful religious processions and the length of the water fighting (if that’s your cup of tea), Chiang Mai really is the epicentre of the Songkran Festival.
First thing’s first; get there with ample time. The water fighting will take place from the 12th April until 16th April. You do not want to be arriving during this time (I saw a couple of backpackers do this, they looked traumatised haha).
Aim to be there for a week before so that you can gather your bearings for when everything kicks off. Chiang Mai is a really cool city to visit (although I am slightly biased as an adopted Chiang Mai-er) and you’ll get to see how it is before the madness kicks off.
Also, getting there earlier means you might be able to buy water guns before they are sold out. Ideally buy them beforehand so you can get the best guns (trust me, my friends had crappy guns and they got annoyed pretty fast) but this may not be an option to you if you’re already on the road as a massive water gun takes up substantial room in your luggage!
Book your accommodation early: I’m not going to tell you where to stay, but I am going to tell you where not to stay. I’m surprised to see some online sources suggesting staying in the tourist area, Nimmanhaemin Road.
I’m sure there will be some decent religious displays on show over there, but it is way too far from the moat to get the best out of Songkran in Chiang Mai. We went all over in those 4 days and Nimmanhaemin bored me. Also, it’s going to come at a premium staying in the touristy part of town during the most important festival of that year.
Not worth it for the extra burden of having to walk further to get to the moat where all the action is.
Nimmanhaemin gets a lot of hate from the Chiang Mai “my way is the only way” snobs. I live close by it and I like it, but when it comes to Songkran; anywhere in the Old City is the best place to put down your roots.
Buy a waterproof ziploc bag: You will get soaked from head to toe and will need to be incredibly careful about the timing of bringing out your phone. You can also purchase smaller touchscreen ziploc bags solely for your phone.
Wear Songkran-friendly clothes: You’d think that topless would be the way to go, but Chiang Mai has no beach and that idea didn’t work out too well for this lad.
Flip-flops are inferior to waterproof trainers as they get slippery when wet so more chance of having an accident. I wore flip-flops on the first day and learned the hard way. A swimsuit or shorts and a t-shirt will do the trick, but make sure you bring quick-dry fabrics such as nylon or polyester.
Wear swimming goggles with sun protection for next-level Songkran legendary status.
Waterproof cameras only: If you bring a standard camera, the odds of it breaking due to water damage is extremely high.
Roughly 90% of the time, it’s utter anarchy however there are some rules that must be respected if you don’t want to be an ugly farang.
- Monks are off-limits: They are seen as sacred in Buddhism and most Thais are Buddhists. This is a no-brainer, but that being said I’ve met a lot of travellers who are a couple of Wagon Wheels short of a lunchbox.
- Babies and Mothers carrying babies: I should not have to elaborate on this one. If you’re splashing kids too, be mindful that they’re tiny humans. Even if a kid gets you real good, they can’t really quantify how hard they get you, but you can. So be gentler.
- Same with the elederly: Eastern culture is all about protecting the older generation. It’s considered wildly offensive to attack them at Songkran.
- Don’t splash people on motorbikes: This is dangerous and sadly a common way to kill or seriously injure someone during Songkran.
- Be mindful of your power: It’s easy to get swept away in all the excitement. When I say “go hard, or go home” I mean jump into Songkran fully. Embrace the wildness of it all and expect to be very uncomfortable very often. But this is supposed to be fun and I’m sure you don’t want to hurt anyone, so be mindful of your force, especially with people who seem more vulnerable than you.
- Lay down your arms for religious processions: Enjoy the armistice while paying respects to the deeper meaning of Songkran and locals will love you for it.
- Use your head: For us farangs, The Songkran Festival is 4 days of hedonism but for many locals they still have to get from A to B because they still have to go to work. Try to remain vigilant by reading body language, if someone really doesn’t want to be doused with water, their mannerisms will reflect that.
Songkran in Chiang Mai: My Experience
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I stepped out of my front door at 9am from my apartment and into the mayhem in the Old City. I had been so entrenched in getting my blog off the ground pre-Songkran that I somehow completely managed to miss the buildup of it.
I didn’t read up too much about the event beforehand and I couldn’t consciously remember any locals talking about it as I was so inward-focused.
Luckily for me, James and Ian made me buy a solid water gun a few days earlier and I was honestly 5/10 excited for the event. The 5 immediately turned into a 9 as I stepped out into the street, witnessing the madness around me while I felt the intoxicating fervour bouncing off everyone.
Overwhelmed by the noise from the music blasting out of the speakers in all directions and children squealing in glass-shattering screeches, I was quickly taken out of my temporarily catatonic state as a rush of the notorious ice-cold water via a bucket drenched my whole body.
And that was that. A pivotal moment for me; my very first official welcome to Songkran in Chiang Mai.
I won’t bore you with long-winded, nostalgic personal anecdotes because most people reading this are more interested in the logistics of the Songkran Festival than reading my personal diary.
As a conclusion I really have to hammer home an important point; Songkran is not for everyone. Different strokes for different folks, it won’t take you long to find negative online reviews about it and I personally have met both Thai and farang folk who loathe it.
You need to really get it into your head how incredibly intense this festival is. It might look cool on a screen in the comfort of your own home, but you will have to be prepared for feeling uncomfortable and even at some times irritable.
Control freaks and party poopers need not apply.
Even though I am now a Chiang Mai resident and I absolutely loved my Songkran experience, I always leave the city during this period. Once is enough for me, no point in tainting the good memory that I associate with it.
The main highlight for me was recruiting cute kids to lurk underwater like a shark in the moat and attack our friends. You will see that my very own trained soldier was smarter than me and actually wore protective goggles, unlike my soon-to-be infected eyes!
If your personality fits, Songkran in Chiang Mai is brilliant. Come and soak it up.
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Further Chiang Mai Travel Resources
Where I stayed
I was living in Chiang Mai when I wrote this, (I still am now) and I found it via the old-school method of just rocking up and finding a place via word of mouth. You can’t do that during Songkran as everything will be fully booked.
I find Agoda to be the best online booking agent when travelling in Asia, but if I am wanting to live in a local apartment for a period of time I find one on Airbnb. If you don’t have an account already, sign up to Airbnb using this link for a $38USD/£34 credit towards your first trip.
Best Travel Insurance
Finding the right travel insurance can be one of the most stressful things about the planning process. After 9 years on the road (and a handful of bad experiences) I’m well-versed on this topic and I have been raving about SafetyWing ever since I switched over.
You can sign up to a monthly contract, they’re cheap as chips – starting at $9USD per week and they cater for both world travellers and digital nomads. You can read my full review blog post here, or you can get a hassle-free quote here.
Thailand Travel Guide
Planning to see more of Thailand after Songkran? Check out my comprehensive guide with the best Thailand Travel Tips. Everything you need to know about travelling in Thailand on one page!
Want to Start a Blog?
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Maybe that doesn’t appeal to you and you just want an up-to-date travel journal, or a place to showcase your interests/talents. Cool! If you’re interested in getting started then check out my guide How To Start A Blog Before You’ve Even Finished Your Cup Of Tea!
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