Songkran in Chiang Mai: A Guide to Thailand’s Water Festival

A young Thai lady smiles with a water gun during Songkran in Chiang Mai

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.

The Meaning of the Songkran Festival

A pretty Thai lady in traditional dress smiles at the camera

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.

What Exactly Happens During Songkran?

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. 

A policewoman laughs as people have a water fight.
James of nomadicnotes.com getting stuck into the Songkran spirit.

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.

A policewoman poses with tourists in Thailand.

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.

Why Songkran in Chiang Mai?

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.

Thai women smile during Thai Water Festival.

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. 

Hundreds of people gather around a moat.
Chiang Mai’s Old City. The moat is packed all the way through Songkran.
A young boy dances on a car in a packed crowd.
Wet and wild from dusk till dawn.

How to Prepare for Songkran 

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. 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.

Respecting Songkran Rules 

A boy and girl smile at a religious ceremony in Thailand.

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.

A cute female toddler splashes the camera with a water gun.
Tourists smile in a moat during Songkran festival
Me and Ian from wheresidewalksend.com refuelling in the moat.
A young boy in goggles lurks during a water fight.
My very own trained Songkran assassin.

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. 

Like this post? Pin it for later…

A young boy smiles at a water festival
Travelling Pinterest fans: Feel free to pin this post to your account!

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?

Starting this blog was honestly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. When used correctly and taken seriously, it’s a powerful tool with the ability to upgrade the way you live and mine is living proof of that. Don’t listen to anyone (including the voice in your head) telling you that it’s too late as it’s a “saturated market.” Plenty of the cake to go around, come get a slice.

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! 

Want to Save Money and Travel Better?

Feel free to check out my travel resources page, which talks in detail about the best companies to use around the world for less stress and more savings.

Anthony Middleton

Former loser who took a risk. Visited over 100 countries. Trying my best to not get skinny-fat during Covid.

33 Comments

  1. Gaelle on April 17, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Hehe, I told you :p
    (no other comments needed)

    • Anthony on April 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm

      You’re taking credit for Songkran? 😛

  2. paul | walkflypinoy on April 17, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    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.

    • Anthony on April 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm

      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 🙂

  3. hayadeen on April 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    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 🙂

    • Anthony on April 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm

      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!

  4. lauren on April 17, 2012 at 5:18 pm

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

    cheers – lola

    • Anthony on April 18, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      It was amaaaaaaaaaazing 🙂

  5. JoJo on April 17, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    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 !!

    • Anthony on April 18, 2012 at 2:37 pm

      Hey JoJo

      Haha yep, and the experience bettered my expectations. She’s a tinker! 🙂

      x

  6. Dave on April 17, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Nice one Ant, not got to the text yet, just enjoying the pics.

    • Anthony on April 18, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      They’re pretty awesome pics, jealous I didn’t snap them!

  7. Ayngelina on April 18, 2012 at 8:10 am

    It kinda sounds like Carnaval in South America, although maybe less intense?

    • Anthony on April 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm

      Hey Ayng,

      I hope I’ll get to find out! Plan to be there for the world cup, or maybe sooner 🙂

  8. Kieu ~ GQ trippin on April 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    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. 🙂

    • Anthony on April 20, 2012 at 11:19 am

      Hey Kieu,

      Ah maaaaaaaaan, bummer! Where are you off to next? I’m heading to Borneo next week 🙂

  9. Adrian Collins on April 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Sounds like an experience is to be had, most try to get to one of them some day! As I believe in bringing out my Inner Child as much as possible, I’d have a complete field day at Songkran!

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention! 😀

    • Anthony on April 20, 2012 at 11:17 am

      Ah mate,

      I still can’t believe that I experienced it. It’s a MUST!!!

  10. Scott on April 21, 2012 at 7:35 am

    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!

  11. Callie on June 23, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    A guide to Songkran – brilliant! This looks SO fun, I’m hoping to go next year!

    • Anthony on June 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      Hey Callie,

      It was the BEST!! I Highly recommend it 🙂

  12. […] Participating in Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand […]

  13. Toni on January 27, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    i was there during the same Songkran, was amazing…5 days non stop Songkran!

  14. Songkran: The world’s biggest water fight! on March 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    […] Check out Anthony’s story on Songkran, here: Man Vs Clock […]

  15. Michael on December 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Looks like a heap of fun. My inner child is on display most of the time, so I would have a great time!

    Unfortunately we are visiting middle of next year, so looks like we will miss out :p

  16. […] was a very hard decision to not have my second experience of the Songkran Festival in Thailand as it is the best festival I have ever been to, and the most fun I’ve ever had with my […]

  17. […] was a very hard decision to not have my second experience of the Songkran Festival in Thailand as it is the best festival I have ever been to, and the most fun I’ve ever had with my […]

  18. […] was a very hard decision to not have my second experience of the Songkran Festival in Thailand as it is the best festival I have ever been to, and the most fun I’ve ever had with my […]

  19. […] going on to not be boring. It has an abundance of fun festivals (personal favourite being the Songkran Festival) and you’re spoiled for choice with regards to weekend/day trips away in […]

  20. Mohamed Al-Omar on September 24, 2015 at 3:24 pm
  21. Patryk on January 17, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    Songkran in Chiang Mai is the best time in Thailand 🙂

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In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

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