You thought fireworks were cool? Just wait until you see how Thailand marks the start of the Buddhist New Year: with a nation-wide water fight. This is real life.
From April 13th-15th every year, Thailand is consumed by the joy of celebrating Songkran, which comes from a Sanskrit word translating to ‘passing.’ Once a solemn, sacred event in which images of Buddha were bathed, young Thais sprinkled water on the hands of elders, and traditional dancing symbolically washed away the misfortunes of the previous year and warmly welcomed the new one. Even prior to Buddhism’s introduction to the Kingdom of Thailand, throwing water was part of a ritualistic Spring Festival in which farmers hoped for rain for their crops.
Well… times have changed. These days, Songkran has morphed into a super-soaker fueled, wet and wild water fight. It’s a truly joyful day in which locals, expats and tourists come together to literally bring the party to the streets.
Bangkok and Chiang Mai are among the most popular destinations to celebrate Songkran. In fact, Koh Tao isn’t even close to being one of the biggest draws — but we love our small island celebration and I can’t imagine spending the day elsewhere. While in many Thai destinations the party can rage from the 13th-15th, on Koh Tao, Songkran lasts just one day, April 13th. Conveniently, it’s one of the hottest, sweatiest days of the year.
Read more about Koh Tao’s annual holidays and events!
I’m lucky to be approaching my third Songkran here on Koh Tao. My first in 2011 was a blast, and the 2016 edition was even better. In preparation for 2017’s celebration, I’ve put together my top Songkran tips. While these are specifically written for those celebrating on Koh Tao, I’m willing to bet there are a few drops of wisdom for those ringing in the year further afield.
The Cardinal Sin of Songkran
This is literally the most important thing about Songkran: make sure you aren’t in transit during it! If you’re on the move, make sure to arrive on Koh Tao by April 12th at the latest (personally, I’d add in a buffer day in case of travel delays, and to leave a day to get prepped to party.)
And if you’re leaving the island right after the big day, be careful. The festivities may be over on Koh Tao, but Bangkok and Chiang Mai will still be popping off and you will not be granted mercy simply because you’re wheeling a suitcase.
If you absolutely must travel on one of these days (like I had to on April 14th last year), take a regional flight so you can pass through Bangkok without ever having to leave the airport. Bonus! You’ll get to see immigration officers celebrating at work in their cute Hawaiian shirts, a bizarrely charming part of the unofficial Songkran look (I’ve never been able to get an answer why!)
Also, Don’t Drive!
So you’ve made it safely to Koh Tao and are all settled in in time for the big party. Now, put away those bike rental keys for the day — seriously. I would never drive on Songkran!
Putting aside the fact that you’re most likely going to be boozing, and driving is the biggest safety hazard on Koh Tao on a good day, locals set up stations specifically to throw water and flour at passing bikes, which can cause a serious hazard for those not super experienced on two wheels. Accidents are crazy common. Stick to your own two feet to get where you need to go, and be extra careful on the road even when walking.
What To Wear To Songkran
You can’t just rock up to Songkran. No, you’ve got some serious prepping to do!
First, your outfit. Obviously, I’d start with the base of a bathing suit and wear fairly little on top of that — though I would wear something, because walking around in a bikini off the beach isn’t really cool in Thailand, and this day is no exception. Lots of Thai people wear the aforementioned Hawaiian shirts and lots of Western people wear ridiculous costumes. Last year I wore a surfing spring suit, a sparkly gold visor, and a donut pool floatie. So there’s that. You might also consider goggles or a ski or diving mask, especially if you have sensitive eyes. Believe it or not, Koh Tao has a pretty well-stocked costume shop in Mae Haad next to in the Lomprayah building. Go wild!
A lot of people go barefoot on Koh Tao and especially on Songkran, when they’re worried about losing their flip flops. Personally I’m not about that barefoot life — get a cheap pair of knock-off Havianas, do your best to keep track of them, and you won’t weep if they get lost, but best case scenario you won’t step on a broken beer bottle either. Win-win!
Waterguns are fun to have, but not necessary, so don’t fret if you don’t grab one. They often get broken or bored of fairly quickly; if you don’t feel like spending money or contributing to a landfill a second-hand bucket will also do the the trick.
If you plan to drink throughout the day, bring along a sealed bottle or a covered cup. Open-top cups are just asking to be contaminated with unfiltered water splashes, and I know you know you don’t want that.
Another thing to prepare for — many restaurants and shops close for the entire day. And you will want to line your stomach pre-Songkran. Last year, my friends and I did a big champagne brunch while we got ready — it was a blast! So ask around for somewhere that may be open or gather supplies for a snack-fest in your hotel before you go out. If you get stuck, 7-11 is always open.
Tip: Waterproof Everything
Aside from a water-tossing vessel and a beverage-drinking one, bring as little as possible. I usually have a small bag with my waterproof camera, some cash, and my house key. That’s it. As a contact-wearer who had way too many direct shots to the eye last year, I’ll also be throwing an extra pair into my dry-bag for this year’s festivities.
But basically — if you don’t want it wet, don’t bring it out of the house. If you do, you’ll spend the entire day getting agitated, and that’s no recipe for fun. Buy a proper diving dry bag (they are for sale all over Koh Tao and Khao San Road in Bangkok), grab one of those geeky phone pouches that goes around your neck or just simply seal things into ziplock bags.
But again, bring as little as possible. There’s a lot of spontaneous ocean swims and getting pushed in the pool, so you might want to tuck some cash into a pocket, put your room key on a string around your neck, and enjoy a day totally untethered.
Green Your Songkran
Koh Tao is a little tiny island with limited resources. Consider filling up your buckets, water guns and reserve tanks with sea water. The environment will thank you!
Next up: Read my guide to a sustainable Songkran here.
It’s easy to get carried away with day-drinking on such a debaucherous day. But remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint… or whatever it is people tell themselves to avoid blacking out early. Get a good night of sleep the night before, wear sunscreen, seriously drink a lot of water, remember to eat occasionally, and generally make a valiant attempt to pace yourself.
Make a Meet Up Plan
Because I don’t take my phone out on Songkran, I like to have a loose plan in place with my crew so we know where to find each other in we go off on solo adventures for a bit — intentionally or not. We usually kick things off at Banyan Bar before moving en masse down the beach, slowly making our way towards Fishbowl and Maya Bar with an obligatory stop at the DJL Pool. Last year we decided to retreat to a private villa party post-sunset, where I had a blast regrouping with anyone I’d lost throughout the day.
It doesn’t have to be that full-on, though. Just agree that if you get separated, you’ll meet at a certain bar at sunset.
Don’t Be a Jerk
Honestly, just don’t. Don’t put ice water in your water gun. Don’t put food coloring into the water you’re throwing on people. Don’t aim at people’s eyes, or ears, or drinks. (As if that needs further elaboration, you could ruin a contact wearer’s day, you could give a dive instructor an ear infection, or you could give someone a tummy bug. So just chill.) Yes, it’s a day of mayhem and no one should walk outside expecting special treatment, but it would be nice to just like, be kind of nice about the whole thing, no?
Also be aware that there’s kind of an unofficial cease-fire after sunset. After that is when most people head back home to dry off and change before heading back out again to continue their debauchery. Don’t be that one lone dude soaking people at midnight in the bar. You’ll deserve the dirty looks.
Make a Day After Plan
Chances are, April 14th is going to be a bit of a wash (how many water puns can I fit into one post?!) I strongly recommend a fresh coconut, a banana, and a breakfast with eggs in it — my go-to Thailand hangover cure — followed by as many massages as you can fit into the rest of the day.
Seriously though, the island will be pretty subdued, so you might not want to book any major tours or dive trips for that day. Last year my friends and I planned a hangover brunch at one of our houses, a tradition I hope will be annual.
Need one last peek at the fun cyclone headed Thailand’s way in just two weeks? Check out my silly Facebook video of behind-the-scenes footage from last year’s celebrations.
Happy Songkran soon, my friends!
Have you been lucky enough to celebrate this festival?
If so, leave your tips and tricks in the comments below!
Songkran photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing or with a GoPro HERO3+ — both are perfect choices for photography on a wet day! See a full list of my photography gear here.
Travel Blog Success was merged with Superstar Blogging by Nomadic Matt. It’s an equally impressive course that I plan to take and review eventually — click here to take it yourself!
Right now is the perfect time to kick off or up your blogging game. Why? Travel Blog Success is on sale!
I rarely stop yacking about how Travel Blog Success helped me make Alex in Wanderland what it is today — a financially successful and creatively fulfilling travel blog that just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It’s the first thing I recommend to those who write to me for blogging advice! Our secret member’s Facebook group gives me daily inspiration, feedback, and hearty laughs. Yes, the warmest community in travel blogging is on sale now! And now’s definitely the time to buy, as this is the biggest discount of the year by far.
Bonus: Recently, Travel Blog Success launched an exciting new Brand Partnership Course, one of several new specialty courses also on sale. Another? Videography for Travel Bloggers, which I’ve also taken and reviewed. So if you’re already a member, now is the time to invest in continuing education. Purchase two or more products and get an additional 10% off your purchase!
Have fun this upcoming Songkran! It looks like such a wild and fun party. You give some very good tips I wouldn’t have thought off! The lid on the bottle of water or alcoholic beverage is very clever – I never considered you could get a tummy bug from all that water! It think these are very helpful tips for people planning to go!
Thanks Dominique! Yes, unfortunately Koh Tao doesn’t have the cleaning water in the tap or the ocean and so lots of people do get a bit sick post-Songkran! I think it can mostly be prevented though, given the proper precautions…
Super cool festival! Definitely going to make it a priority to attend one day. Good tips, love the doughnut floats. Do some parts of Thailand still look at it as a religious festival instead of a water party?
Perhaps in some rural parts of the country it is still quite somber? While I know there are religious elements to the festival in Bangkok and Chiang Mai based on the reports of friends and fellow bloggers, it definitely devolves to an equally debaucherous party 🙂
‘Sounds like a crazy amount of fun, but love the tips.
Have a great time! 😀
Thanks Victoria! Can’t wait!
Ooh it looks like you had so much fun, this post made me feel happy because all the photos of people smiling and having fun made me happy
Those smiling photos make me happy too 🙂 A good time was had by all!
I think I’m a sucker for anything that allows me to whip out an inflatable doughnut,unicorn or swan.
Tell me about it! If only we had easier access to buy them here — those doughnuts were imported from Koh Samui 😉
I was in Chiang Mai in 2015 for Songkran. I had no idea what it was but it was an amazing experience! One of the best ones ever!
Spend two days in CM, then went to Pai, where they were celebrating it too.
I’ve heard awesome things about celebrating in Chiang Mai! However I can never seem to tear myself away from my friends…
My heart actually just ached over your usual Songkran itinerary. Post sunset villa party & next day brunch, waaa! It sounds SO. FUN.
And now I am SO excited for this year! Let the good times roll!
BUCKET LIST! Absolutely loved this colourful post. Didn’t quite realise how much the festival took over the town, LOLing at the waterproofing.
Ha ha right?! 711 doesn’t close for anyone… but they will saran wrap their entire store.
I had no idea how elaborate Songkran actually was! Looks like a blast, hope you enjoy it again this year!
I can’t wait! Writing this post got me excited!
Great tips Alex! I’m getting ready to spend my second Songkran here in Chiang Mai and I’m so excited 🙂 Have fun!
Oh, have fun! Not sure I could handle the full three days, ha ha. You’re tough!
Have you been to Vietnam? Vietnam is also very beautiful.
I have indeed! Check out my destinations page for the full archives 🙂
your blog is my escape-to whenever i need a break (from work) 🙂 still have to save up now because my current work does not pay good. just did a dorm stay and i promise i will treat myself better on my next trip, a nice boutique hotel. waiting for low season in thailand.
You can definitely get some great low season hotel deals! Best of luck with the savings 🙂
I missed Songkran by just a few days when I visited Thailand last year – looks like a blast and a great way to beat the heat. I think my next Thai visit will be in the cooler season, though, not April, haha!
Normally April is a pretty brutal month to visit if you’re not accustomed to the heat! This year has been a very wet one though and we are currently enjoying super cool temperatures. I am crossing my fingers for a hot day on Songkran though — it is not a day you want to be overcast and chilly!
Lots of people actually will be jerks, they just can’t help it, iced water, chalk etc. The most important rule in this case is to keep your cool and just get on with it or walk away. Great tips Alex, enjoy your Songkran.
I think some people just don’t think through the consequences ahead of time — hopefully this post will invite them to do so, and they will make better and more fun-for-everyone choices on the big day 🙂 Enjoy yours too!
I must be the only person who didn’t enjoy Songkran. It was fun at first but after a while I just wanted to be left alone.
Aw, I’m sorry to hear that! I get it — you have GOT to be in the right mood or it’s going to be miserable. I definitely got irritated last year at people spraying me in the eyes since I have had eye surgery and am so prone to infections. I still think it’s a jerk move but I had to just remind myself that the people doing it obviously didn’t know my medical history!
Great post! Songkran is definitely on my bucket list for one day. I can see why you’d have to be absolutely in the mood for it, though.
Yup! Luckily now that I know how amazing it is I wait for it excitedly all year 😉
Absolutely love this post! Of all the time we’ve spent in Thailand we’ve always missed Songkran by a few days! On our last trip we flew out of Bangkok the day before but at least we got to see Loy Krathong. Thanks for sharing Alex 🙂
I feel ya! I have missed big events by a day or two when I just couldn’t alter my plans (or wanted to be in two places at once) and it sucks. Something to look forward to, though!
Hi Alex, as a fellow lover of the Land of Smiles (but sadly never went to a single Songkran), this post was so much fun to read! I have to ask you where you purchased your surfing suit cause it’s simply adorable. I’ve always loved your water sports wardrobe 😀 (aka your scuba diving suit)
Aw, thanks Susie! This one is from Ripcurl, and was perfect for surviving Songkran in 😉
It’s fun for tourists, but not when you live here!
Hey Brian, I do live in Koh Tao, at least part-time! And my friends who live there year round are Songkran’s biggest fans. It’s very popular among locals, expats and tourists alike here.
Koh Tao, well that says it all!
One other point:
Why ask for website details when you don’t post links? Tad redundant is it not?
Hi Brian, I actually deleted your links because I don’t allow promotion of prostitution on my blog. Everyone else is allowed to post them! Happy travels from beautiful Koh Tao.
Looks like Koh Tao is going to be on my bucket list! Songkran looks like a fun-fun festival! Thanks for the tips. Great post 🙂
Thanks for reading Josh! Hope you have a blast on Koh Tao!
Thanks to this post I just changed my plans to skip Phuket in a month’s time and head straight from the airport to Koh Tao for Songkran. I was only going to stick around in Phuket (of which I’m not a fan) to experience the Songkran celebrations, but after reading this and looking at YouTube videos I realise the more-chilled Koh Tao celebrations are probably much more my scene anyway! Now I can’t wait to base myself at my favourite guesthouse in Sairee for four nights and join the mayhem – and not have to deal with the traffic or crowds!
Love hearing this Laura! Thanks for telling me 🙂 You’re going to have the BEST time!
Koh Tao looks beautiful and from the pictures, it must be a crazy place to visit. I might hop in by the end of the year.
If you do, be sure to pick up my ebook for all the inside insights!