Songkran: Happy Thai New Year! {Multilingual Mama}

Thailand celebrates three New Years: The Gregorian, The Chinese, and Songkran (or Thai New Year). When it comes to the first two New Years, I want nothing more than to sleep through the celebrations -or I would if I wasn’t systematically woken up by the crowds lighting rockets and dime-store fireworks, playing Russian roulette with their fingers’ future. But Songkran is different and no matter where I live, I want to celebrate this Thai Buddhist holiday.

Songkran is often billed as Thailand’s water festival but that is a grossly inadequate description; it’s like calling Easter the egg holiday. Perhaps coloured eggs and baskets laden with chocolate bunnies are plastered everywhere for weeks on end but that isn’t the reason for the holiday. Same goes for water pistols and Songkran. That said, I recommend you buy waterproof pouches for phones and wallets as you will get SOAKED!

Our kids post-bucket of ice water pored over their heads while our open-truck hotel transfer was stopped at a red light:

Kids drenched with Water, Songkran in Thailand

The word Songkran is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning moving/changing and refers to the sun moving to a new constellation. So this actually happens 12 times a year. In Thailand’s case, the “Grand Songkran” is when the sun moves from Aries into Taurus and is considered the solar new year and a time for renewal. Unlike Easter whose date varies from year to year, the holiday is now pegged to April 13-15 which definitely simplifies planning to enjoy or avoid, as many do.

The origins of Songkran are about cleansing and renewal. Many of the rituals involve water. Here’s what we’ve learned so far. This list is not exhaustive:

  • Cleaning your house:  In addition to a deep thorough clean to rid your house of any bad spirits and negativity. Some will even set off rockets to chase away evil spirits. (New Years and fireworks seem to inherently go hand in hand).
  • Cleansing Buddha: One should clean any representations of Buddha with water —usually perfumed with flowers. You will see shrines set up all around town; even our local supermarket sets one up. They have will have a decorative bowl, usually with some intricate metal work, filled with water and flowers and a little cup to allow you to wash the Buddha and pay your respects.
  • Paying respect to your elders: This is done by sprinkling scented water on your elders’ hands. I have yet to witness this ritual, and I’ve read that it is falling out of practice. Perhaps it is happening in the privacy of people’s homes. Another facet is asking for elders’ blessings, which leads me to why you will see people with white faces.
  • Being marked with white paste/powder: As I’ve understood it, part of the Songkran tradition is when monks and elders mark the faces of those paying respect. It is considered a blessing and protection. Nowadays it can be a total free for all. In some places, people are respectful and will ask you before marking you —or drenching you— others, not so much. A cynical friend of mine called it an excuse to ‘grope’ you. Like so many big festivals, you have to embrace the good and avoid as much as possible the less appealing aspects.
  • Merit-making:  These take different forms but the most common merit making is bringing food, either to monks collecting alms, or directly to the temple. As with your elders, people will also wash the monks’ hands. People also bring sand to construct small Chedis, also knowns as stupas, which are ornamental pagodas used to house Buddhist relics and monks’ ashes.
Chedis shot by my friend Sarah Thompson.
Chedis, photographed by my friend Sarah Thompson.
  • Another merit-making activity I’ve read about is releasing any animals kept in captivity, usually birds. Thais do seem to love their caged birds. And all my neighbors still have their dogs so I am guessing this really does hold just for winged creatures. I also wasn’t brutally woken up by this one very loud – bordering on obnoxious – bird one family keeps behind our house. Sadly, these remain largely symbolic as I’ve already cycled past more caged birds, and we’ve barely turned the page on this year’s Songkran festivities.
  • Water: Nothing says so fresh and so clean as a good dousing of water. What likely started as a light sprinkling now can be someone with a garden hose, taking you down. It’s a good thing April is peak hot season and probably why this aspect was allowed to evolve to such extremes. I am going to go out on a limb here and state that ice-cubes are totally unnecessary. Also firing jets of waters at motorbikes is definitely going to help keep Thailand in poll position for global road fatalities.
  • Hawaiian shirts: If you’re anything like me and prone to missing the arrival of major holidays — Spot the person who just found out Easter is 2 days away — you’ll know Songkran is around the corner when in addition to water pistols, Hawaiian-styled shirts appear everywhere. And if people are wearing them, watch out, Songkran has kicked off!

One final bit of Songkran Lore: It wouldn’t be spring/Easter time without a good corpse story. There is a legend associated with this holiday. It’s about a god who made a bet with a young – some say arrogant boy – and lost. The price for losing was cutting off his head. The problem is that the head, being a god’s head and all, had some mighty powers. If it touched the ground, the earth would catch fire. On that same apocalyptic note, if left in the air — and I haven’t figured out how that happens — no rain would fall. Songkran also marks the end of the dry season and concerns around lack of water are apparent in this legend as should it drop into the sea, the oceans would dry up.

Conveniently the god had seven daughters – one for each day of the week – who take care of holding their father’s head.  Depending on which day Songkran falls, the appropriate daughter has to bring the head down and parade it through the streets. And here is our parade element coupled with beauty pageants to pick a woman to represent the daughter.

I love the traditional values of cleansing and respect found in Songkran, and we will continue to celebrate this with our children, though I plan on leaving out the god-head story for the time being. Of course, “water-wars” do happen and, as you saw from an earlier picture, many have a take no prisoner approach to who they target so it is best to be prepared.

Children with Water Pistols, Songkran, TailandHere’s one from the archive of my two banshees with their Mickey Mouse and Doraemon water pistols. Don’t let the cute cartoon characters lull you into a false sense of security. They are the Meridas of the water pistol world!

Author’s note: One of my babes was ill this year, limiting my photo-taking abilities. I’ve created a Songkran Pinterest board with some classic Songkran scenes described above.

Cordelia- Multilingual MamaBorn in New York back when subway graffiti was rife, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas mostly spends her time pondering, parenting, and writing. Franco-American, she spent her summers in the Loire indulging in heart-arresting foods. An eclectic background ranging from Japanese art and postal history to environmental social innovations and rigging dinghies has taken her to England, Turkey, Singapore and now Thailand, where she resides with her Mexican husband and their two daughters. She is attempting to raise and homeschool trilingual kids in Spanish, French and English with some Thai thrown in. She can also be found blogging at

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Cordelia is the voice behind Multilingual Mama, where she chronicles her parenting adventures in raising her two global girls abroad. She currently resides in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where she homeschools her children while battling toxic haze and wielding a can of mosquito spray as Brienne of Tarth does her sword. She is a regular contributor to Happy Go KL, Blunt Moms, Mamalode, and InCultureParent.

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2 thoughts on “Songkran: Happy Thai New Year! {Multilingual Mama}”

  1. What a fun celebration – those Chedis are gorgeous. Thank you so much for this post, I had never heard of Thai New Year, and love learning about celebrations from other cultures.

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