What’s This About Songkran?

Songkran 2009

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Red Shirt riots aside, just what IS สงกรานต์ (Songkran)…

One of the benefits of writing posts for WLT is being inspired to look up the many details I don’t know about Thailand and its culture. And while I realise that Songkran is officially over (isn’t it?) my previous post needed a trim. And besides, the Red Shirts have muffed up my posting schedule anyway, so why not go for broke?

Songkran 13

Before this year, my knowledge of Songkran was limited to opinions from irritated expats as well as Thais, and travel articles. Apparently, all that exuberance surrounded by the throwing of water can get to be a bit too much for some, but not all.

Songkran 8

But whether you enjoy the festivities or not, there is no getting around the dangers of Songkran. And no, I’m not talking riots, burning buses, and flying bullets.


Take a speeding motorcycle overloaded with occupants, a truck armed with water throwing maniacs wielding hoses (any of whom are most likely three sheets to the wind), and there you have it, a hard and fast recipe for six feet under.

The history of Sankhara, Sankranti, Sangkan, Songkran, Songgran…

Paraphrasing from Chiangmai-Changrai.com: Academics believe that Songkran came to Thailand via the pre-Buddhist Dtai’s (some are hanging around Vietnam even today).

The word Songkran comes from the Pali language, which evolved from Sankranti to Sangkan, and depending on your spelling preference, to Songkran or Songgran.

For the Thai people, Songkran signifies the movement of the sun from Aries to Taurus; a window in time between the rice harvest being over and the rains to come.

And although Thais celebrate the Western New Year in January, Songkran is traditionally the Thai New Year. So instead of saying “Happy New Year”, in Thailand one says สุขสันต์วันสงกรานต์ (Happy Songkran Day).

Songkran guns

In Songkran’s distant past, it was customary for the younger generation to pay respects to their elders by the gentle pouring of scented water over expecting shoulders. That was then and this is now. And now, buckets, water pistols, and hoses are added to the mix.

Songkran 2

In the name of warding off evil, an elder would anoint faces and body parts with a white powder or paste carried around in a silver bowl. Today, the ritual has evolved into a modern free for all: silver bowls have been replaced with coloured plastic bowls of choice; teens to young children join in as well.

Songkran 3

Most expats living in Thailand know about the merit-making attached to releasing birds and fish. But what I didn’t know until I started poking around was the common sense behind the ritual.

Songkran is not only hottest time of the year in Thailand, it is also the driest. When the water dries up, locals gather the flopping fish from the shrinking ponds. The larger fish are eaten immediately, but the smaller fish are cared for until they can be released back into the water, gaining merit for the villagers along the way.

Songkran Chedi

Another ritual practiced during Songkran is the making of sand chedis at the Thai temples. Thais used to believe that worshipers visiting temples carried sand away on their feet. As an act of merit-making, during Songkran Thais bring sand to the temples from nearby rivers to form into temporary chedis. Some chedis are decorated with flags and flowers, while others are left plain. After Songkran, the sand from the chedis is used to replace the sand supposedly lost over the past year.

And as Songkran is so much more – cooking, cleaning, string tying, Buddha washing – please drop by the informative resources below:

Songkran resources…

  • beachpatong.com: Songkran Festival
  • chiangmai-chiangrai.com: Songkran Customs, Old and New
  • chiangmai-chiangrai.com: The Origins of the Songkran Festival
  • chiangmai-chiangrai.com: The Rites of Songkran
  • Wikipedia: Songkran

Until Songkran next year, enjoy…

4 thoughts on “What’s This About Songkran?”

  1. Ouch. It’s terribly dangerous here during Songkran, all through the region.

    Of course, I’m too chicken to ride motorcycles at any time!

  2. A group of young’uns threw buckets of water over me in Cambodia, nearly knocking me off my moped. Funny looking back, but not so funny at the time.

  3. I’m glad you found the post useful as I had a great time tracking it all down. I had to dig to find the resources with meat in them – a lot which didn’t fit here – and next year I plan on gathering in the scattered bits to put in one post.

    I would have loved joining in for real but my problem this year was the camera as I didn’t have a water proof case. I found instructions for wrapping the camera in Saran Wrap but that meant I couldn’t use the zoom so I stayed in the car on the second day and took photos from the window. Sad.

    Next year, I’ll have a protective camera case and for sure it’ll be game on! Lao khao and red lipstick included 😀

  4. I started reading this post and found myself getting more and more engulfed in it. I count myself lucky to have remained dry during my read. The traditional Songkran rituals you mention have given explanations that I have wanted to know about for a long time. Thanks for that, my google searches usually end up branching off into a land of pop up windows and a left click on my virus checker.

    A couple of years back I spent a wonderful Songkran in an Udon Thani village, no water cannons there, only old buckets and plenty of spirit. I went to the local Tesco store in Udon and loaded up with water pistols and handed them out to some of the kids, saving the biggest one for me. Game on. Believe me Rambo wouldn’t have lasted long in that village, I got absolutely soaked…..and very drunk. I finished up filling my gun with a couple of bottles of lao khao and visiting a few of the houses. Plenty of the villagers took the offered squirt of drink. I eventually woke up at Wilai’s mother’s house with my face pasted white and a thick lipsticked red cross on my face. St George defeated by the water shooting village kids. Great memories.


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