Rather than breaking out the fireworks and champagne, Thai New Years, or Songkran, is celebrated by busting out the squirt guns and water balloons. For three days, the entire country enjoys blasting music, dancing through the streets, and completely dousing each other in water! The best place to get in on the action is Chiangmai, where the city’s surrounding moat is used to fill buckets and attack those running past.
We were actually in Chiangmai when we heard about this, but unfortunately we were coming up on the one-month limit on our visas. In love with the idea of such a fun celebration of culture, we decided to do a visa run the week before Songkran just to extend our time in Thailand! For the non-backpacker world, this means we literally took two buses and a van to leave the country for a day, entered Myanmar, and then re-enter Thailand and paid for fresh visas (baht). When we finally got back to Chiangmai— another two buses and a van ride later, we were prepared to go all out for the festivities.
We had our water proof bag prepared for hold any valuables, and we filled our camelbacks for easy water supply for refills. I came across some waterproof phone pouches that I could wear around my neck to keep our phones for getting too waterlogged. And we even bought super-soakers off the several street vendors selling all kinds of water toys in preparation for the festival. Lastly, we had our GoPro in its waterproof housing, ready to catch all the action!
The music began early in the morning. From our window we could hear the streets blasting high-beat, drum and base. We watched from the balcony of our hotel as people dresses in bright colored, floral print shirts (similar to Hawaiian shirts), standing outside dancing with squirt-gun, buckets, hoses, and drinks! This was the typical uniform during Songkran— a Hawaiian shirt and a squirt gun. Most of the homes had one or two large bins out front full of massive ice blocks, which they’d keep constantly full with a hose for a readily available, cold water supply. People would fill up smaller buckets from these bins of freezing water and dump them over anyone walking (usually running) by! It was indeed quite a spectical to see everyone joining in on the fun.
We quickly geared up— super-soaker in one hand, GoPro in the other, and a camelback full of water in the backpack for backup. We charged through the streets getting blasted with water from every direction! We were literally soaking wet by the time we made it out of the small alleyway where our hotel was.
As we made our way to the city center, the town became a war zone. The moat surrounding the town center was full of people jumping in to fill up there buckets and squirt-guns. It was impossible to walk by without getting absolutely doused in water! From small children to fully grown adults, everyone was getting in on the fun. We found a quiet street where we’d seek refuge for a brief moment, but even there we were attacked with a watering hose by an elderly woman who seemed like she was quietly watering her garden!
The streets were packed with these big pickup trucks, full of people and giant bins of ice water in the beds of the trucks; and they were each armed with buckets ready to throw freezing water onto other drivers and pedestrians. Driving during Songkran is generally discouraged— specifically for foreigners on motorbikes, because everyone on the streets is constantly throwing water at the drivers, making it quite unsafe to drive. Of course the streets are still full of trucks, tuktuks and motorbikes, and the drivers are usually joining in on the fun actually. We even saw tuktuks with ice water bins in the back so that their passengers could partake!
One of our buddies actually took us for a ride through the madness. We don’t recommend this, but Alec and I hopped on his motorbike for a joyride with him. As you can imagine, the three of us barely fit on the tiny thing! He drove around like a madman through the town honking his horn like crazy, getting everyone attention. As a result, we were literally hit with water from full buckets and squirt guns by everyone we passed! We could barely see, and my ear got hit by so much water, I could barely hear at one point... but the people were loving it! Again I don’t recommend this, unless you know our buddy Jimmy, who can drive through anything and is always ready to have a hell of a time— in which case, go for it!
We met a few other travelers and formed our own team, filling up each others water-guns and sticking together! While walking around, we stumbled on a massive concert going on outside, where the stage had water-guns and hoses to soak the audience. All of the local shops and cafes were packed with people— all soaking wet and still dousing each other in water left and right! Even the restaurant workers and servers were tossing water around. We enjoyed a few drinks outside with our new mates, in our soaking wet clothes, as the sun went down.
At night, the party continues, as local eateries and clubs are fully equipped with water sprays and hoses to keep the fun going! We met up with our buddies at the popular club, Zoe in Yellow, which was full of live music, neon lights, and MORE water. We couldn’t hear anything because the music was naturally too loud, and we probably had heaps of water in our ears too, but it was a wicked time regardless!
We had so much fun that day, and the best part was that this kept going for two more days! It usually dies down a bit by day three, but some of the crazier folks carry it on to day four or five. Local businesses begin to open back up, and people go back to work again. The town is covered in remnants of water balloons and broken super-soakers... until next year, when the epic festivities return again!
This was among our absolute favorite experiences throughout Southeast Asia during that entire year of travels. We made friends and memories that will last a lifetime. In fact, we’ve even met back up with our mate Jimmy down in Australia a few times later that year! For anyone considering a trip to the area and looking to have the time of their lives, we cannot recommend this experience enough. Book a flight, let loose, grab a super-soaker, and get ready for an epic adventure full of culture and fun; it was absolutely worth it!