Celebrating the Songkran Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand (+Photos)

Soaking up the culture in a foreign country is always among the most enriching aspects of travel, and there’s no better way to immerse yourself in local traditions than to time your visit during a festival or celebration.

Thailand has some incredible annual events, including Loi Krathong, often dubbed as the Lantern Festival, and the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, but Songkran is the biggest and best of them all.

After my first visit to the Land of the Smiles, I made it my mission to align my next trip with one of these amazing cultural events. Having learned of the significance of Songkran for Thai people and heard tales of the thrilling water-fight antics, I was set on experiencing this unique festival at least once during my travels.

Songkran is the Thai New Year and is considered to be the most important of all the Thai celebrations. Whether you’re unfamiliar with what this festival entails or are keen on planning your own Songkran adventure, you’ll find all the need-to-know details throughout this article.

In this post, we’ll cover:

What is Songkran?

Songkran festival

Every year, on April 13th, Thai people celebrate their New Year with a sacred holiday called Songkran. Though the main festivities take place on the 13th, the celebrations usually last for three days and even longer in some communities.

The word itself translates to ‘passing’ or ‘approaching’ and is among the most meaningful times for Buddhists, particularly those in Thailand.

Songkran takes place on this particular day each year, as April 13th is the day when the sun passes into the Aries constellation. As Aries is the first sign in the zodiac, this date signals the start of a new year.

There are a whole host of traditions and rituals that play a part in the Songkran jubilations, the most famous of which is the pouring of water. This applies to covering both people and Buddha images or statues with water, and the locals certainly don’t hold back!

This process is believed to symbolize cleansing the year gone by in preparation for the new year, and it’s also thought to bring good fortune.

During this time, the streets of Thailand turn into a fun-filled battleground for the most exhilarating and enjoyable water fights, where family, friends, and strangers spend the day using buckets, water guns, hoses, and everything in between to drench each other with water.

Best Places to Celebrate Songkran

Best Places to Celebrate Songkran

Songkran is a country-wide holiday, meaning even small villages and remote towns will still be filled with water-bearing locals enjoying all the celebratory traditions.

That being said, there are some locations that pull out all the stops during Songkran, and these are typically the larger cities and more populous regions.

Based on suggestions from locals and fellow travellers, I’d whittled down my top two destinations to Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The capital seems to hold the largest celebrations, but Chiang Mai’s smaller size means that the action takes place in a more concentrated area, which confirmed my decision.

Chiang Mai is the diamond of Northern Thailand, and it’s a far more compact city compared to Bangkok. As most of the events centre around Chiang Mai’s Old Town, it was a much more straightforward choice than deliberating between the different neighbourhoods in Bangkok, as each area seemed to have its own activities lined up.

Should you be planning your Songkran experience around a trip to the south of the country, the likes of Phuket and Koh Samui are excellent alternatives. If you’re after something a little off the beaten path, the western city of Khon Kaen throws quite the spectacle, too.

Getting to Chiang Mai

Getting to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was a fantastic place to experience Songkran, and getting there is pretty simple, especially if you’re already in Thailand ahead of the holidays.

Although it has an international airport, most people visiting Chiang Mai will likely need to make a stop in Bangkok before, as the bulk of long-haul flights will land here.

You’ll have a couple of options to get to Chiang Mai from the capital, but the most common ways are to take a 1-hour flight or the backpacker favourite, which is the overnight sleeper train. I opted for the latter, as I was including Songkran in a more extended trip around Thailand.

These trains typically take around 12 to 14 hours, and it’s best to snap up your tickets online at least a few days in advance as it’s not uncommon for them to sell out. The majority of trains travel through both Krung Thep Aphiwat Central Station and Don Mueang Station, but the former is an easy starting point as it’s closer to the city centre.

It’s possible to make the journey during the day, but the overnight option saves you from arriving late at night. Plus, the beds in the sleeper carriages are much more comfortable than you might expect!

Traditional Rituals

Traditional Rituals

When you begin your Songkran research, you’ll probably find that most images that appear online showcase the crazy water fights and parades, but there’s also a range of other traditions that play a role in the celebrations.

Family gatherings are an integral part of the Songkran festivities, and it’s a particularly special time for Thai people to show appreciation for their older relatives. Feasts full of classic local dishes and family game nights are also commonplace.

Many of the city’s temples are filled with worshippers throughout the day, and locals will pour water over many of the sacred Buddha images as a symbol of purification while also making offerings to the monks. I was lucky enough to witness some of these in action, which gave me a much better understanding of how significant Songkran is to the Thai people.

This ritual also links to an old tradition during which younger family members pour water over the hands and feet of elders as a sign of respect. These two customs have escalated over the years and have gradually developed into the full-scale water fights with which Songkran has become so synonymous.

City-wide Water Fights

Water Fights

Now, onto arguably the most famous part of all the Songkran happenings: the wild and wonderful water fights!

Chiang Mai is centred around an old walled city, which is where most of the Songkran festivities are concentrated. You can’t go too far wrong with anywhere in this area, but the Chiang Mai Gate and the Thapae Gate tend to be the most bustling areas in town at this time.

The celebrations really are a sight to behold. If you imagine every person on the street equipped with buckets and water guns, local bars blaring music, drinks flowing, street parties, and swarms of pickup trucks filled with water-clad locals, you’ll get a pretty clear image of how Songkran goes.

No one is spared a soaking, as every person you pass will be out to totally saturate whoever comes their way! However, you don’t have to be only on the receiving end, as you’ll be able to purchase the giant super-soaker water guns for yourself from one of the many vendors lining the streets.

This tradition extends far beyond the main party areas, as anyone you pass, even on quieter corners, is likely to drench you in water the second you walk by. If you’re travelling on a motorbike at any point during Songkran, you can also expect to have bucketloads of water thrown at you while driving. As a result, it’s best to avoid doing this even if you’re an experienced rider!


Buddha Phra Singh parade

Amidst all the chaos of the water fights is an annual parade that features Buddha images taken from some of Chiang Mai’s most sacred temples.

While there are usually a number of different parades scheduled throughout the three-day celebration period, the main procession takes place on April 13th. Monks, musicians, and dance performers in traditional dress partake in the parade each year, and locals sprinkle water over the Buddha statues as the march makes its way around the city.

What is Songkran

If, like me, you spend most of the day around the Thapae Gate area, you won’t have to go far to catch the parade, as the procession passes through here every year during the mid-afternoon.

The march continues until it finishes at Wat Phra Singh, one of Chiang Mai’s most stunning temples in the heart of the Old City. To catch a glimpse of the parade without squeezing between hundreds of others, I suggest moving towards the temple and further from the gate, where the crowds start to thin out.



Just because things kick off early in Chiang Mai during Songkran doesn’t mean the party wraps up after dark. If anything, the celebrations become even more exuberant as the night goes on.

All over the city, water fights rage on long after the sun goes down, so it’s best to hit the bars in your already-soaked clothes, as you’ll likely find that the soakings continue into the night.

Pretty much every bar in the city is buzzing when Songkran comes around, so you can’t go too far wrong no matter where you choose to go for an after-party. I stuck around the Old City for most of the night and had an absolute blast bar-hopping around the Lanna Square area.

Songkran is somewhat of an all-night event, as there were foam parties, DJ sessions, and even poolside bashes in many of the hotels, many of which continued until the early hours.

Unless you have the stamina for late-night revelry, it’s wise to choose a hotel that’s just a little out of the centre. This way, if you’re not eager to hit the town, you won’t be kept awake all night long, which is almost a given for more centrally located accommodation.

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