Thailand is about to ring in the New Year and there’s no doubt it’s going to be a blast — a blast of icy cold water in the face. Songkran is the name of the three-day New Year festival, which runs between April 13 and 16 every year. Water plays a key role in the tradition, which is all about cleansing and renewal. Traditionally, Thais marked the New Year by bathing images of buddha in water. The runoff was then collected and poured over elders and family members to ensure good fortune in the coming year. But today the water part of the festivities has become more of the focus, and locals and foreigners alike engage in good-natured water warfare in the streets.
Chiang Mai, a small city in Northern Thailand, has some of the biggest, wildest and best-known celebrations. The timing couldn’t be better — April is typically the hottest month of the year in Thailand with temperatures reaching beyond 40ºC. Street vendors sell water guns and super soakers, while others just arm themselves with plastic buckets.
The name of the game is dousing pretty much anyone you cross paths with. If you’re in Chiang Mai during Songkran, you’re going to get wet, whether you like it or not. This means you might as well resign yourself to this fact and get in on the fun, and it also means you should leave your camera back at your hotel room. You will get soaked. And watch out, sometimes ice is added to the tanks of water used for refilling buckets and super soakers, meaning that watery blast you get will be extra, extra refreshing.
There’s typically a cease-fire in the evening, so you can change into nicer clothes and still enjoy what the city has to offer.
Quick Facts – Songkran in Chiang Mai
Best time to visit: The festival in Chiang Mai runs form April 12 – 16 this year.
Worst time to visit: During the rest of April, before or after the festival, you’ll get some of the hottest temperatures but none of the perks of being doused in water.
Average hotel price: $50 will get you a very good room (though you’ll pay over $600 at the Four Seasons).
Do: Pick up a bucket and get in on the fun.
Don’t: Bother trying to avoid getting wet and don’t get angry when you do.
Top 10 experiences in Chiang Mai
- Go on an organized trek to visit the hill tribes in the hills around the city.
- Scour for bargains at the daily Night Bazaar.
- Learn how to cook your favourite Thai dishes at one of the city’s many cooking schools.
- Visit the many buddhas at one of the 300 wats (temples) in the area.
- Take part in a ‘Monk Chat’ session and help young monks practice their English while you learn more about their lives.
- Help feed and bathe the rescue elephants at Elephant Nature Park.
- Get a Thai massage from the pros.
- Learn a thing or two at the (air-conditioned) Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre.
- Climb the 304 steps to the copper-plated Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and admire the view from up top.
- Go to a Kantoke Dinner — it’s a bit touristy but a good introduction to traditional food and culture in Northern Thailand.
Closer to home
Though Thai communities across Canada hold their own Songkran celebrations, it’s still a bit chilly here in April to be tossing water on one another. So if you’re looking to get a good soaker closer to home, you’d be wise to wait until the warmer months. Calypso Park, just outside of Ottawa, is Canada’s largest outdoor water park, with 35 waterslides and a wave pool the size of 3 NHL rinks.