Songkran Check List for Chiang Mai
If you ever dreamed about having the ultimate water fight when you were a kid, you can definitely live that fantasy in Thailand. For five days in the middle of April, the country celebrates Songkran, a Thai new year festival that involves throwing water on people wherever they may be.
The most famous celebrations take place in Chiang Mai. While I was there, I was drenched, had my cheeks covered in talc and played in puddles for three days straight. However, I wish I would have been told a few essential things before I participated. Here’s what you need to know:
War Supplies (When you’re going into the battlefield):
1. Water Gun – If you’re planning to participate for multiple days, spend more money on the high-pressure soakers that don’t have a trigger. My ฿330 ($10.65) gun left me with several cuts all over my hands that began to sting once I finished with the water fights. Also, the barrel developed holes on the second day and began firing three weaker streams instead of a single powerful one.
2. Gloves – Wear some gloves that you don’t mind getting wet if you choose a gun with a trigger. These will protect your hands.
3. Goggles, Snorkel, Motorcycle Helmet – People are jerks at Songkran. There are people that will spray you in the eyes and mouth. While you can certainly deal with the deluge of water without any of these items, having them makes things easier. But you’ll trump everyone if you have a motorcycle helmet with a visor. You can keep blasting away with your soaker while everyone else runs away from you.
4. Bucket – Sometimes a gun just isn’t enough. You need more artillery to splash a group of people in a songthaew, barrage a group of girls or be traditional and gently pour water over someone’s head. Big buckets cost ฿20 ($.65) and come attached with a string. Most people refill in the river, but if you find locals nice enough, they may let you use some of their ice water (more on this later).
5. Swimsuit – This should be a no-brainer, but I’ll put it in anyway. You’re going to get wet. Wear a swimsuit. But remember, Songkran is still traditionally a religious holiday. Make sure that you wear a shirt (both genders), and if you’re a woman, something to cover up your bikini bottom.
6. Waterproof Camera – You can be extra careful with your traditional camera, but why take the chance? Get into the action with something that can get wet. You’ll get some great shots.
7. Plastic Bag – These are sold everywhere in Chiang Mai around Songkran for ฿20 ($.65). Get one. They work! I was pushed into the river. My money and cell phone still stayed dry.
1. Ice-Cold Water – This stops anyone in their tracks. I was able to get ice-cold water with a friend from a passing truck, but most locals charge for it. Optionally, you could buy packages of ice to cool your buckets of water.
2. Water Balloons – I’m surprised no one has thought of this yet. The next time I go to Songkran, I’m bringing water balloons. Just don’t cause an accident. That means no throwing at motorcycle drivers. According to National Multimedia, motorcyclists make up 78 percent of the wrecks during the holiday.
On Guard (When you’re trying to avoid getting wet)
1. Swimsuit – See above.
2. Plastic Bag – See above.
3. Rain Jacket with Hood – No matter where you are, you will be a target. Just because you’re in a songthaew, tuk-tuk, motorcycle, restaurant, hotel room, doesn’t mean that it’s safe. People will drench you, even if you’re on the highway. On long rides, you will get cold. Stay somewhat dry with the jacket.
4. Rain Gear – You don’t want your laptop, camera, iPhone, books or passport to get drenched. Make sure you put rain gear over your backpacks. People in Chiang Mai don’t care how much you paid for a camera or computer. They’re still dumping or spraying water on you.
1. Arrive two to three days early – This gives you time to find economical accommodation and water guns. Hostels and vendors jack up prices for Songkran. And don’t think accommodation is easy to find during the festival. Most places are fully booked. If you’re on a budget, you’ll pay more than ฿600 ($19.35) for rooms with air conditioning because that’s all that’s available. If you don’t mind the splurge for a week, go ahead. But that’s $100 (฿3,100) for a week when you could only be paying $50 (฿1,550).
2. Assemble a squadron – As much fun as it was to go solo most of my time in Songkran, it leaves you vulnerable to a barrage of water. With buddies, you have backup to defend you in case the water gets too intense.
3. Don’t camp near the river (for too long) – 99 percent of the people are having fun on Songkran. A few people take things too personally. The last day I participated in Songkran, four Thais surrounded me, threw a bucket of water on my junk and pushed me in the river. The impact caused me to lose my foot-flops and bend my nail backwards on my big toe. It’s not fun. You’ve been warned.
4. Travel in the morning and at night – Songkran drenching isn’t supposed to begin until afternoon and stops when it gets dark. You still have some people participating, but you can let your guard down a little during these times. The people with buckets of water should be gone.
The first few days of Songkran are fun, but I got tired of the constant water fights. To get away, I suggest booking a jungle trek. I had a blast walking down narrow paths, crossing rivers on logs, riding elephants and rowing down the river with a raft made out of bamboo. I recommend timing your escape so you come back on the day after Songkran ends. Trust me … Coming back on the last day of Songkran was a poor decision. My group was drenched within 10 minutes on the road.
I can’t leave on a bad note. Songkran is absolutely amazing. Thousands of people line up on sidewalks near the river and drench each other in water. And it’s everywhere in Chiang Mai. You might find 100 to 200 feet of quietness on a street, but that elderly woman running the shop has a super soaker armed and ready to douse you when you pass. Stages are set up. Dancers are in the street. Parades are held. Flash mobs assemble, and foam is dumped on revelers. Songkran is full of surprises, and it’s now my new favorite holiday.