What is Songkran?
The Songkran Festival (เทศกาลสงกรานต์ /tae-sa-gaan-song-graan) is when the people of Thailand celebrate their New Year. The word ‘songkran’ derives from the Pali word ‘Sankhara’ which is usually translated as ‘formations’ but here refers to the movement of the sun. This is the most popular and arguably the most fun of all the Thai festivals. It is a celebration of change with gratitude expressed for the past and excitement expressed for the future. Songkran is also an important festival in other places such as Lao, Cambodia, and some parts of Malaysia.
History of the Songkran Festival
There is evidence of Songkran being celebrated since at least the Sukhothai period (13th Century), but its roots go back much further than this. When Buddhism arrived in Thailand at some point prior to the fifth century, it also introduced other influences from India and one of these was the Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti which occurs in January and celebrates the arrival of spring. It is believed that Songkran is inspired by this older festival.
Most foreigners will associate Songkran with water fights, but this is just one part of the celebratory activities. This a time when families come together. It is an especially exciting time in rural Thailand when family members working in the cities will return home for a few days. The way Songkran is celebrated differs around the country but some of the most common traditions include:
• Most families will visit the local temple in the morning
• This is a time when homes are given a ‘spring clean’
• Water is poured over Buddha statues
• Water (usually scented) is poured over the hands of elders as a sign of respect
• Songkran parades in places like Chiang Mai
• Beauty pageants
• New robes are offered to the monks
• People throw water at one another for good luck
There is music associated with Songkran just as there is festive music associated with Christmas in the west. It is usual to hear ear-shattering dance music blasting as people drive around in pickups looking for water fights, but there are also more traditional tunes such as เพลงรำวงวันสงกรานต์/ pleang ram wong Songkran (roughly translated as ‘the Songkran dancing song’).
This is the most dangerous time of year to be traveling by road in Thailand. This is partly due to increased traffic as people return to their homes for the celebrations, but there is also a high level of drunk-driving despite repeated crackdowns. In 2016, there were 3,447 road accidents and 442 deaths between 11th and 17th of April.
Water fights are mostly great fun, but things do sometimes get out of hand when people are inebriated. The best advice is to enjoy the celebrations but stay vigilant and leave if things seem to be getting a bit too rowdy (this is most likely to happen near the end of the day when people are drunk).
What is the Date of Songkran?
Some parts of Thailand start to celebrate Songkran Festival earlier or finish up later, but the official dates are between 13th and 15th of April. This is a public holiday so many businesses and government buildings are closed during this period.
Celebrating Songkran 2017 While Mourning King His Majesty
The Thai people are observing a year-long period of mourning for the loss of King Bhumibol Adulyadej who died in October 2016. This has meant many celebratory events have been cancelled. The Songkran festival will be taken place this year as usual, but it is expected to be far more low-key than usual. It is important for visitors to be respectful of local sensitivities during this time, and to expect events to be a bit more subdued than usual.