Songkran: The Thai New Year’s Festival

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Songkran is a traditional festival celebrated in Thailand that marks the start of the Thai New Year. It is also known as the Water Festival, as it involves splashing water on one another as a symbolic gesture of cleansing and washing away the sins and bad luck of the previous year.

However, it is since evolved into something much more than a religious observance. It has become the world’s biggest water fight. 

Learn more about Songkran, the Thai New Year’s celebration, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I will often toss a personal anecdote into episodes, but for this episode, I want to start with one. 

In 2010, I was in Bangkok on the first day of Songkran. I walked out of my hotel in the morning to walk to a convenience store one block away. I knew it was Songkran, but I had no idea what that really meant. 

As I was walking down the street, a woman who I had never seen before in my life walked up to me and pulled the collar of my shirt. She then proceeded to dump a bucket of water down my shirt and said, in English, Happy New Year. 

I found out in my first few steps out the door just what Songkran was about.

Getting water dumped down my shirt was the first of many wet Songkran experiences I had over the next few days. 

So, what exactly is Songkran, and what does it have to do with dumping water on strangers?

The Thai New Year’s Celebration actually has ancient roots. 

Mainland Southeast Asia has been referred to as Indochina. It is a term that isn’t used much anymore, but it reflects the fact that India and China have heavily influenced the region. 

However, all of the countries in the region weren’t influenced by India and China equally. Countries like Vietnam were more influenced by China, mainly due to geography. Countries like Burma and Thailand were more influenced by India. 

The traditional New Year’s Day in India was calculated when the sun entered the constellation of Aires. Centuries ago, this occurred right around the spring equinox, so determining the new year by calculating the position of the sun against the constellations made sense. 

Over time, the precession of the Earth resulted in the Sun entering the constellation Aires weeks after the equinox. 

They stuck with the movement of the sun as the definition of the new year, not the equinox. 

The name of the sun’s entrance into Aires in Sanskrit is me?a sa?kr?nti, which is the origin of the word Songkran. 

As Hinduism spread eastward into southeast Asia, the tradition of determining the new year came with it.

Today, almost every Buddhist and Hindu country in South and Southeast Asia has a celebration around the same time. In Thailand, it is Songkran. In Myanmar, it is Thingyan. In Cambodia, it’s Choul Chnam Thmey. In Laos, it is Pi Mai. 

Some of you might be wondering, but Gary, Southeast Asia isn’t Hindu, it’s Buddhist. 

To which I would reply, you are correct, but the entire region used to be profoundly Hindu. Angkor in Cambodia, My Son in Vietnam, and Prambanan in Indonesia were all ancient Hindu temples. The last vestiges of Hinduism in the region are on the island of Bali. 

Buddhism has existed in the region almost since the religion began, but it was only in the last one thousand years that Theravada Buddhism became dominant. 

The Buddhists kept the practice of celebrating New Year when the sun entered the constellation Aires. 

While Buddhists kept the date, they added more traditions to the new year celebrations. 

In particular, for the purpose of this episode, they used the new year as an opportunity to clean the temples as well as the statues of Buddha. In particular, they used water to clean the statues as the water is a way to wash off the old year. 

Temples and statues aren’t the only things cleaned during Songkran. It is an excuse to clean homes, offices, and schools as well. It is also the time of the year when people travel to be reunited with their families. 

People will visit temples, make offerings of food, and give food to monks. 

Different regions in Thailand will have their own particular traditions surrounding Songkran.  In the east, pagodas or stupas made out of sand will be constructed. These can be enormous structures that are only temporary. 

In some places, they will have colorful parades. In other regions, the practice of releasing fish and birds into the wild. 

Songkran became so popular in Thailand that the government officially expanded Songkran to three days, setting the dates from April 12-14 in most years. However, the starting and ending dates can vary by a day.

The celebrations which are held around South and Southeast Asia all occur on April 13 or 14, depending on the country. Many of the celebrations, especially those in Southeast Asia, are very similar to the traditions found in Thailand. 

However, none of what I’ve mentioned so far can explain why someone would walk up to a stranger and pour a bucket of water down their shirt. 

All of the things I’ve mentioned so far are traditions that are not very visible. If you happen to be in Thailand during Songkran, you will definitely know something is happening, but it isn’t for any of the things I’ve said.

In addition to washing statues with water, it is considered good luck to sprinkle water on someone’s head.

This tradition has somehow morphed and escalated into the entire country becoming a three-day giant water fight. A giant aquatic battle of everyone vs. everyone. No one is safe, and there are no excuses. 

The weapons in this water fight include everything from buckets and hoses to super soakers. 

When I walked down the street during Songkran, I became an unwitting combatant in a water war that I didn’t know was taking place. 

If you are driving down the street on a motorbike, someone will hit you with water. There are people set up on some streets who just try to hit passers-by. 

It doesn’t matter if you have electronics on you that might be damaged. Don’t carry them out in public during Songkran. 

When I was there for Songkran in 2010, I went to participate in one of the biggest Songkran events on Khao San Road. 

Khao San Road is normally a shady place where backpackers stay, and I usually did my best to avoid it. 

During Songkran, almost all of the businesses on Khao San Road shut down as it turned into the biggest street party in the city. Everyone had some sort of squirt gun. I brought my camera with me to photograph it, but no one cared that I was carrying a sensitive piece of electronics. 

I had to jerry-rig water protection for my camera by putting it in a plastic bag and then attaching the opening of the bag around my lens hood.

Thousands of people moved up and down the street, getting hit with water from every direction and from people with hoses on the sidelines. 

In addition to the water, many people will also create a type of paste out of water and talcum powder and smear that on people as well.  

While Khao San Road was the epicenter for this in Bangkok, this was happening all over the country. 

When I was there in 2010, it was in the middle of a massive political event known as the Red Shirt Protests. 100,000s of people had descended on Bangkok to protest the government. Before everything died down in May, dozens of people would be dead and thousands injured in political violence.

However, despite what was happening, both sides seemed to have an effective ceasefire during Songkran. 

Driving around the city, I saw impromptu musical performances on street corners, as well as the ever-present water guns. 

This same scene was taking place in other cities all around Thailand. 

I should note that there is a dark side to Songkran as well. You probably wound’t be surprised to hear that traffic fatalities usually double during Songkran each year. 70-80% of those fatalities happen on motorbikes. 

Thailand is a very popular tourist destination, however, during Songkran, it becomes extra busy as people come to take part in the festivities. 

I can’t say I blame them. I wasn’t in Thailand for Songkran, but being there for it was a unique experience and one that I will never forget. 

If you are the sort of person that doesn’t like having water dumped on your head by strangers, and I can totally understand if that is the case, then, by all means, avoid Thailand during Songkran. 

For those of you who are in Thailand or are celebrating new years festivities in any of the neighboring countries, let me just say a hearty

sa-wat-dee pi mai (happy new year)

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

I have some boostagrams to share with you. Remember that boostagams are direct messages sent with a small donation on new podcast apps that you can find over on 

The first is a 2500 sat boost from Scott over on He writes, 

Thank you for all the amazing content! I loved the episodes on Ramadan and Easter, as they helped me learn more about fascinating Muslim customs, as well as some history of my own Christian religion. Props.

Thanks, Scott. I hope you also were able to learn something today about Songkran as well. 

I also have been getting regular 111 sat boosts from Joelw, who also sent a 1000 sat boost for episode number 1000. 

I also want to thank Dave Jones, uzza, Petar, waldi, amaanki, janilton03, and many others who have sent boosts as well.