Travel Report: Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok.
Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok.
I will always cherish the time I spent exploring the Thai capital. Looking back, I’m certainly glad I ignored all those warnings to get out of town at the earliest opportunity. Because, as so many people insisted, “Bangkok is a shithole”.
Rather, I spent ten days hitting the sights and digging deep into this often misunderstood city. As luck would have it, my trip coincided with Songkran, Thailand’s frenetic New Year festival which takes place every April between the 13th and the 15th.
Songkran derives from the Sanskrit word saṃkrānti, which references a transformation or change. The passing, if you will, into a new period. Like us in the west, Thais view the coming of a new year as a clean slate. The opportunity for a fresh and exciting new time in their lives.
There are numerous ancient traditions associated with Songkran, but the one that’s up front and centre these days is its unmissable water festival. As a symbol of purification, water is key in washing away one’s sins and cleansing the body of bad luck.
Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok.
As a result, Thais flock to the city’s temples to wash their hands, bathe buddha statues and clean the hands of relatives and monks.
Less endearing, but completely unavoidable, are the insane water fights that break out all over Bangkok. Prior to arriving, I’d read that one had to truly brace themselves for the water fighting of Songkran. After all, this is not simply a case of people spraying each other with a few water pistols.
In the days leading up to Songkran, I could see locals, expats and tourists alike getting ready for battle. Everywhere I went there were market stalls selling balloons, pistols, buckets, machine guns and cannons.
Despite all the warnings, I initially resolved not to buy a gun. I’ve never been much up for crowds and figured I’d just lay low for a couple of days during the height of the water madness. You know, stay local to my hostel and wile away the time resting and watching Breaking Bad.
Nevertheless, I was at least wise enough to buy some protective casings for my phone and wallet. People don’t think much about people’s valuables when it comes to Songkran water fights. Hence I made sure to buy a Songkran-proof bag for my beloved iPhone.
Thailand’s World Famous Water Festival.
However, it was during my first trip outside that I realised I’d made a huge mistake in not buying a gun. In the middle of my Breaking Bad marathon I ran out of supplies. Thus I decided to do a quick 7-Eleven run for water, soda, snacks, maybe a hot dog for lunch.
The scenes that greeted me can only be described as absolute mayhem. Teams of garishly dressed Thai men armed with machine guns roamed the streets soaking anyone within sight. Kids sprayed each other with little pistols, while folk dropped buckets of warm, bubbly water down onto the street from their apartment windows.
Pressed up against a wall, I edged down the street towards the nearby and yet oh-so-far 7-Eleven. But of course there was no escaping it. Within a few minutes I was thoroughly soaked and cursing my own stupidity.
On my way back to the hostel I thought, screw it, I need to defend myself. So I bought a gun, but not just any old gun. In fact, I went and got myself the biggest gun possible from the nearest market stall.
Consequently, I learned that having a massive gun definitely equates to getting less wet. This baby came in really useful for my daily trips to the store and back. One afternoon though, when I got home, I saw that some water had gotten into my protective bag. Unfortunately, all my money was now soaking wet, so I had to dry them out on radiators at the end of my bed.
Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok.
Songkran is also a great time for trying Thai dishes. There are even more food stalls around than usual, I’m talking every dozen steps or so. All I had to do was walk outside my hostel and I had a zillion options, everything freshly cooked and wonderfully cheap.
I’d heard that Songkran is a popular and auspicious time for Thais to get married. Right enough, I spied several wedding floats over the three day holiday. For the most part brides, grooms and bridesmaids were more than happy to be pictured in their gorgeous costumes. Surrounded by flowers and sheltered from the fierce sun under a parasol, these sightings always brought a smile to my face.
On the last day of Songkran I made a trip to Chatuchak Market to pick up some much needed essentials. The receptionist at the hostel had told me the celebrations were already dying down, which made me drop my guard. So much so that I actually forgot to take my gun with me!
It was pandemonium of course and within an hour of arrival I was wetter than a dolphin’s duvet. At some point a group of locals had taken a shine to yours truly and set about mercilessly spraying me from an array of unrelenting guns.
Celebrating Songkran in Bangkok.
Luckily, a market stall owner took pity on me. With a weary shake of the head, he lent me one of his machine guns and openly encouraged me to exact some sweet revenge.
In the end, I felt surprised by the amount of fun I had during Songkran. In addition to being a visual spectacle quite unlike any other, it’s a window into Thai culture and what an important role water plays in the new year festivities. That said, if I ever go back to Thailand, I think I’ll time my visit for any month but April.
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Well, first, we absolutely agree that Bangkok doesn’t deserve its bad press; yeah it’s humid and crowded and has its seedy bits but it also has lots to offer. We didn’t experience Songkran but on the trip that COVID shortened we were due to be in Cambodia when there is a parallel event. We can only imagine the mess that Chatuchak must have been.
Thanks for following this series, guys. Enjoy Cornwall!
I’d heard about Songkran but your report truly brought the festival to light so much so that I’ve made a mental note never to visit Bangkok when it’s taking place though it did look fun and the water sprays probably nice and cooling in moderation in the searing heat. A well written enjoyable article Leighton.
Ha ha I hear you about wanting to avoid it! Thanks for the kind words, this one wraps up the Bangkok series!
This post made me smile! I had the pleasure of being in Bangkok for Songkran in 2019, and it was one of my favorite travel experiences to date. The life and vibrancy of the city truly shined. I do wish I had a gun like yours…. mine was ultra wimpy in comparison haha
Hey Katie, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. That gun was a beast, I ended up donating it to a local boy. I remember the gun being bigger than he was. Glad this piece resonated with you.
What an incredible experience to visit Thailand during Songkran. I couldn’t help but laugh at the picture of you holding the biggest looking water gun I’ve ever seen. You weren’t joking about that. Sounds like you had a blast!
It was a lot of fun as a one-off experience. But would never go back to Thailand again during Songkran. Thanks for commenting!
Haha.. was thinking the same thing!!
I also managed to spend a day in Bangkok during the last day of Songkran, in 2019. What fun! We didn’t bother picking up any water guns but took a walk down Silom Road and got soaked. It felt nice in the heat 😀
Cool! Silom Road is where I took most of the photos (and video). The heart of the action.
So happy to read that you jumped into the water fun. Somehow I had no trouble picturing you in the middle with the biggest water cannon available. You could take on Godzilla with that baby. I’m sure you will cherish these memories and the gun will get bigger every year.
Cheers Memo! Have just dropped you an email.
I’m not sure I’d like that, an hour or two might be fun, but several days … I’d rather not think about the state of the cameras. It reminds me of my last day in India which coincided with Holi, I stayed in the national museum for most of the day, not being able to change clothes before the flight.
Ha, hiding in the National Museum sounds interesting. I’ve heard similarly chaotic things about Holi.
Holi is not just water …
Yeah, I’m familiar with the festival and its customs.
It looks like fun, glad you bought the biggest water gun out there to protect yourself 🙂
As soon as I saw it I thought, yeah, that’s gonna get the job done!
It’s a nice place. Not fond of these water-based festivals.
I miss the short stories. Hope you will start a new one. 🙃
That’s kind of you to say Vivi. Next series should be going out over the summer.
Wow! I have never heard of Songkran water fights..lucky you could dry your cash and find a huge water gun.🔫
Thanks for reading!
That is so fun – reminds me of being a kid again! Glad you got to experience the Water Festival!
I had no idea that a water gun festival existed…but what a lot of fun! Looks like you loaded up and had a blast (literally) whilst exploring the streets. Goes to show that there’s more to a city than meets the eye, and places like Bangkok (reputed to be a “shithole”) ought to be given a chance to check out. Thanks for sharing, Leighton!
Glad you enjoyed the Bangkok series! Will be returning to Thailand after the next batch from Cambodia.
Your report makes me long for a good water fight.😊 Songkran is even wilder outside Bangkok although the neighborhood you were in took it very seriously. Songkran celebrations have been cancelled for the second year in a row because of Covid. Assuming the pandemic is controlled, next year will be epic.
Yeah, I read a few reports about the festival being a no go this year. As you say, next year should be all the more wild.
This is precisely the reason why we never went to Thailand during Songkran. Thai friends and colleagues advised us so. But your post now have us wishing we should have tried at least once.
I think once could be fun if you go prepared. Thanks for reading!
How crazy and fun! You’ve got to just give in to it. I was in Kathmandu for the Happy Holi festival when people throw powdered colors on each other. We got some packets of color and had fun with it (and I did protect my camera unless specifically in use).
Holi does sound like a special experience. Glad you were also able to get into the swing of it! Thanks for reading and take care.