Celebrate Thai New Year in Bangkok

Get ready to get wet with these tips for experiencing Songkran like a local.

Apr 9, 2014
Thailand culture: Thai New Year in Bangkok, Thailand
The Songkran water festival, celebrated throughout Thailand, symbolizes washing away misfortune and beginning the New Year with a clean start.
Photography Thinkstock

Bangkok’s Skytrain at rush hour is not unlike public transport in other cities around the world—except during Songkran. The Thai New Year takes place April 13–15 in Bangkok, and around the same time in other Thai destinations. Ordinarily, local passengers are a mix of office workers, business types and students heading home; dressed neatly in the latest fashions, smart suits and ties, or school uniforms; reading books, checking cellphones or chatting.

On the first evening of Songkran, however, the scene is different. Thai passengers wear their scruffiest clothes, waterproof pouches hang around their necks to protect valuables, and everyone is armed with water pistols. Catch a train later that night, when locals are heading home, and they’ll be drenched and dripping with water.

Thais don’t participate in the world’s biggest water fight simply for the fun of it. The traditional Songkran celebration is packed with symbolic meaning. The main idea is to wash away any wrongdoing or misfortune from the previous 12 months and begin the New Year, quite literally, with a clean start. In the days that follow the first night’s water fight (which can last longer, depending upon where you are in Thailand), Thais focus on making merit, or karmic giving to earn good will. They do so by aiming to visit at least nine sacred temples, cooking food for monks, and cleaning homes and businesses. The period is also a time for family gatherings.

It’s no coincidence that Songkran takes place during Thailand’s hottest month, when spirited drenchings are welcome. While most of the water throwing in Bangkok occurs in two main areas—tourists make a beeline for the backpacker zone of Khao San Road, while locals prefer the entertainment district of Silom—the entire city participates in the celebration. Thais stand outside their homes and businesses with buckets and hoses, dousing passing cars and passers-by. Friends crowd into pick-up trucks and hire tuk-tuks to cruise the city, squirting water pistols and throwing buckets of water.

To witness more sedate (and drier) New Year customs, head to Sanam Luang, opposite the Grand Palace, where on the first day a sacred Buddha image is carried through the streets from the National Museum. It remains there for three days, so Buddhists can visit and sprinkle jasmine-scented water on the Buddha image. Head to temples such as Wat Pho or Wat Arun on the second day to see other merit-making rituals, including the building of sand stupas, which are decorated with flowers and strings of colourful pennants featuring animals from the Oriental zodiac.

Tips for celebrating Songkran from Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok

  • Wear clothing that can get wet.
  • Pack a survival kit (or get one from the Hotel). This should include your own water pistol, scented water called nam ob Thai for offering blessings (you’ll find this at any local grocery), and a plastic bag to carry and protect your valuables. Many local street vendors sell these as well as water pistols.
  • Don’t miss the traditional khao chae, available at Spice Market at Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok April 12–19. This jasmine-scented rice dish is topped with ice and served with six side dishes, including deep-fried shrimp paste balls, sweet dried turnips, deep-fried shallots with shredded pork, sweet shredded fish, and steamed green chilli stuffed with minced pork. The meal requires ancient culinary expertise, making the recipe a rare treat.
  • Remember that this is a religious celebration so be respectful. Get a sense for this deep tradition by attending one of the Hotel’s authentic events, which take place April 10-11. Participate in alms and blessing ceremonies with Buddhist monks, or join a Songkran parade through the Hotel. (Be prepared to get wet.)
  • For a true local experience, opt for public transportation. The BTS (Skytrain) or MRT (underground train) are also speedy ways to avoid the heavy traffic on the streets.
  •  Learn how to say สวัสดีปีใหม่ (Sa-wad-dee Pee Mai), which means “Happy New Year” in Thai.

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