Although Thailand celebrates New Year on December 31st along with the rest of the planet, the ancient Kingdom also has its own Lunar New year festival in April based on a centuries old tradition rooted in the harvest seasons. The Songkran Festival, as it is known, is still the most significant holiday of the year for most Thai people.
Although previously based on Thai lunar calendar, Songkran is now on the Western calendar and therefore falls annually on 13-15 April. IN some provinces, the celebration starts well before and ends several days after the official holiday, with most Thai people paying visits to their extended families around the country and taking part in a wide range of activities, parades and ceremonies throughout the month.
A National Attraction
The traditional Thai New Year ritual involves the gentle pouring of water on each others shoulders to bring good luck for the coming 12 months, but in the last 2 decades Songkran has morphed into a nationwide water fight, as well as the ultimate excuse to party day and night. As many Thai employees take very few extended holidays through the year, most companies actually close for a few days over Songkran, allowing their staff time to head back to their hometowns and celebrate with family and friends. Songkran Festival is also a major tourist attraction with people from all over the globe taking part in the water fuelled fun and this year the Tourism Authority of Thailand is offering visitors a choice of festival highlights and events across the country.
For many Thai people, Chiang Mai is considered the best place to enjoy Songkran to the full. The entire city becomes a playground for entire week with extended watery street battles and trucks touring the town loaded with grinning families and vats of iced water to splash on everyone they pass. The official opening ceremony of the Songkran Festival 2012 will see a colourful procession around Chiang Mai with the more sedate version of the festival showcased through the pouring of Thai scented water on a Buddha images and elders, followed by cultural performances highlighting Northern Thai traditions, as well as a tempting array of fine food offered at street stalls in the Old Town.
In Bangkok, visitors can also enjoy plenty of tasty local dishes and colourful cultural performance at Nagaraphirom Park. The official Songkran opening ceremony will be held on 9 April and all the cities famous temples will hold specials ceremonies, including the royal temples of Wat Phra Kaeo, Wat Pho, Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn). Two more lively parts of the city to join in the fun are at Rattanakosin Royal Square and neighbouring Bang Lamphu, while the popular tourist areas around Khaosan Road are the focus of frenzied celebrations and continuous splashing.
In Bangkok's unique mangrove covered enclave known as Phra Padaeng, Songkran Festival is still celebrated in the Raman style, featuring a spectacular parade. Visitors interested in the cultural side of the festival can witness "saba" the ancient Raman folk play and also enjoy various forms of village entertainment.
Songkran on the Beach
Not to be out-shined by its inland cousins, Phuket also throws an exuberant Songkran celebration. The annual holiday sees the entire island tale to the streets, splashing copious amounts of water on each other and dabbing scented powder on each others faces. Local people set up camp outside shops and houses, armed with high pressure water guns or hose pipes and buckets and hoses and everyone who ventures out is guaranteed to get wet. Local events organised around the festival also include sports competitions, long boat races, artistic and live musical performance, food fairs and even ice sculpture contests. Hotels, resorts and villas also offer special packages and traditional Thai dinner presentations with dancing and entertainment.
Midnight in Had Yai
The southern city of Had Yai celebrates songkran with a unique midnight procession and also holds one of the most famous Miss Songkran beauty contests in the KIngdom, a traditional event that sees girls dress up in traditional clothes and often also singing and dancing to impress the judges. Traditional Manora plays and other festival games are also part of the fun and with few foreigners in attendance, offer insights into the distinctly local version of the festival
Other Songkran highlights include the Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Songkran Festival, the Suphanburi Maha Songkran 2012, the Ko Sichang Songkran Festival and the distinctive Isaan Songkran Festival in Khon Kaen. In fact, whatever town, district, island or city visitors find themselves in from April 9-15, the Thai New Year festivities will be hard to miss. With a child like appeal that brings a permanent smile, it is a unique cultural legacy well worth experiencing to the full.