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Thai Songkran Festival: How It Began & How to Celebrate

Thai Songkran Festival: How It Began & How to Celebrate

songkran

Most festivals in this world have their legends and origins. And Thailand’s Songkran is no different. There is a mythological story explaining the significance of this refreshing festival too. However, the tales of Songkran and its root might be wilder than you imagined.

So, what is the legend of Songkran?

Thai Songkran comes from India. It twists and combines the Sankranti, celebrating the sun’s transition to Capricorn, and the color-throwing Holi together. However, Songkran has an original myth involving a duel of wits between a man and a deity that ends in bloodshed and the goddess’s intervention.

Now, this intro might have stirred your craving for storytime. So, read on to dive deeper into the legend of Thailand’s Songkran festival and its significance.

The Legend of Songkran and Its Meaning in Thailand

Songkran is one of the most significant festivals in Thailand. It was the Thai National New Year Day for a long time until 1940 when the locals started using the international January 1st instead. (Source)

However, the spirit of the festival didn’t die down at all. Despite its popularity, Songkran is surprisingly a festival that only a few locals know of the origin.

Songkran is originally a Sanskrit term meaning “transition.” (Source)

This actually connects it to a festival in India called Makar Sankranti (notice the similarity between Songkran and Sankranti). This Indian festival celebrates the sun’s transition into Makara (Capricorn). (Source)

Hence the name “Makar Sankranti.”

This means Thai Songkran actually marks the transition of something into something else. And that something is the year. Thus, Songkran became Thai New Year’s Day.

Another Indian festival that Thai Songkran draws inspiration from is the Holi festival. The local Indians would throw color powder at each other, signifying unbreakable friendship and forgiveness. (Source)

For Thai people, throwing color powder might get too heated. That’s why they opt for more cooling and refreshing water.

With such a heavy influence from India, you might have thought that Songkran has nothing of its own. However, Songkran still has an original myth. Even though some of the characters are Hindu gods, it is still a self-contained tale with no connection to other festivals.

The Myth of Songkran

(Source)

Once upon a time, there was a man called Thamabal. (Source)

He was blessed with brilliant intellect and was able to give advice on how to find fortune in life — a rare ability among humans and even gods. Before him, only Maha Brahma and Kabel Brahma, who were deities, could perform such a feat.

Having heard of Thamabal’s intellect, Kabel Brahma came to him and offered a challenge. He gave Thamabal 3 riddles. If Thamabal couldn’t answer all of them, he must give his head to Kabel Brahma. But if Thamabal could answer them all, Kabel Brahma would cut his own head.

The riddles were:

  1. Where is happiness in the morning?
  2. Where is happiness at noon?
  3. Where is happiness in the evening?

The time limit was 7 days. And it took Thamabal 6 days to find the answers. He happened to overhear a crow couple discussing the questions and discovering the answers that way.

On the final day, Thamabal gave Kabel Brahma the answer.

  1. In the morning, happiness is on the face. People wash their faces first thing in the morning.
  2. At noon, happiness is on the chest. People wash their bodies and perfume after hard labor in the morning
  3. In the evening, happiness is at the feet. People wash their feet in the evening before going back into their houses.

The answers were all correct. As a result, Kabel Brahma has to cut his own head. However, there is a problem. 

If the severed head of Kabel Brahma touched the ground, there would be a world scorching flame. If his head touched the sky, there would be no rain in the future. And if his head fell into the sea, the ocean would dry.

To mitigate these problems, the 7 daughters of Kabel Brahma volunteered to take turns and put their father’s head on a special tray and parade it around the sacred mountain called Sumeru.

These 7 goddesses were later called the 7 Songkran goddesses. (Because Songkran means transition, signifying the change from one goddess to another)

As you can see, the story has nothing to do with the famous water-throwing. So what about Songkran day that makes it deserve such a name? Read on to find out in the next section.

When Is Songkran and Why Is It in April?

In Thailand, Songkran starts on April 13th and ends on April 15th. The reason why the dates are set this way is still unclear. However, you can interpret it in 2 ways.

1. Horoscopes and Astrology

In Horoscopes and Astrology, the first zodiac or star sign is “Aries.” (Source)

For those well-versed with the astrology world, you would know that Aries is around the end of March and the end of April (depending on the school counting method). Thus, Songkran is celebrated in April to mark the transition into Aries, the 1st of the twelve zodiacs.

So, if you look at Songkran this way, it makes sense that Thai people used to celebrate it as the National new year.

2. Season

There are only 3 seasons in Thailand: hot, rainy, and cold. Coincidentally, the heat in the country peaks in the middle of April. (Source)

So, the locals would love to have a festival that helps them cool off. And on a hot day, what could be more refreshing than a bucket of water?

So, it also makes sense to celebrate Songkran on such dates. Even though the transition to Aries didn’t happen, it still lessens the searing heat of April.

What Do Thai People Do During Songkran?

Believe it or not, Songkran isn’t all about water fights and parties. At its core, it’s a festival that reconnects families together and gets them ready for the upcoming year.

So, here is what Thai people actually do to celebrate Songkran.

1. Rod Nam Dum Hua (รดน้ำดำหัว)

This activity is more of a ceremony than a celebration. (Source)

The younger generation bows on their knees and pours flowered water over their elder’s hands, washing them. During this process, the elders also bless their children and grandchildren for a happy new year. 

These blessings could be to find success or fortune. They could also try to dispel misfortune and bad omens from these children. It’s a ceremony that strengthens the familial bond.

2. Go to Temples

During Songkran, Temples are basically activity lawns. You can participate in the special preaching sessions or a sand Chedi building competition in many temples.

There is a belief that whenever you visit and leave the temple during the year, grains of sand stick to your shoes and leave the temple with you. In other words, you unintentionally take something away from a sacred place. As a result, some people donate sand to the temple to give back what they have taken. And the sand Chedi building competition is an extension of this belief. (Source)

3. Play with Powder

As discussed, Thai Songkran is heavily influenced by the Holi festival. And you can see its trace in the “wet powder.”

The wet powder is basically a special powder mixed with water. It is usually white, but there are other colors too. You can paint it on anyone’s body without them getting angry. You can even throw them at someone.

However, you should still ask the person if they are okay with the powder. Some people hate it. And some even have an allergy.

4. Throw Water

Needless to say, throwing water is the highlight of Songkran. Locals and foreigners love this activity. And it will remain the highlight of this festival for a long time.

You can splash water on others any way you want. Whether it’s by hands, water guns, buckets, or a vessel called Khan (ขัน). Nobody will get angry at you.

If you want to spice things up, you can add ice to your water source. Cold water is not always appreciated, but the shock factor undeniably escalates the fun.

If you don’t want to get wet, you should stay home. Going outside is a surefire way to get wet. It’s rare for the locals to stop and ask, “can we splash you” on Songkran.

What Do Thai People Do During Songkran?

You’re guaranteed to get wet on the streets of Bangkok, but this is only a small part of Songkran.

Even though Songkran is a country-size festival, COVID-19 has impacted its scale and mood for the last couple of years. It is sad to see all regulations in place.

However, some locations will still stand for the best Songkran experience. You can visit these places in 2023 and immerse in the Songkran atmosphere to your heart’s content.

Khoa San Road:

Of course, if you talk about Songkran, you cannot omit Khao San Road. Located in Bangkok, this place will transform from a mundane community into one of the biggest Songkran party sites in the country.

You can splash water until your body is exhausted. People will keep the fun going from day till late at night and restart the fun the next morning. There will be light and music from both sides of the street. If you’re looking for a fun time, you shouldn’t miss Khao San Road.

Pattaya:

Pattaya is known for many things. From hospitality to entertainment and attractions — it has all a tourist could ask for. Of course, this tourist city could not rest on a festive day like Songkran.

It might have nothing special to distinguish it from other water fight sites. However, Pattaya promises a mass of people to enjoy the splash together. On some occasions, the local government might join by dispatching fire trucks to the scene and splashing people away with water.

Ta Pae Gate (ประตูท่าแพ):

If you were more of an old-vibe fanatic than a water warrior, you should visit Ta Pae Gate on Songkran. Of course, they still have water fights here. However, what’s interesting about this place is the backdrop of the ancient brick wall and iron gate.

The wall and gate are a recreated version of the old structure surrounding the ancient Chiang Mai Kingdom. It was rebuilt in 1960. (Source)

So, while you splash away, you can feel the vibe and history of ancient Chiang Mai.

6 Songkran Fun Facts

songkran water

1. Songkran Is Not a Buddhist Festival

As mentioned, Songkran is heavily influenced by Makar Sankranti and Holi festivals in India. Both of them are of Hinduism origin. And if you look at the Songkran myth, you will find Hinduism deities in the story too.

Of course, it’s understandable that you mistake Songkran for a Buddhist festival. After all, there are many temple activities to participate in. However, these activities actually have nothing to do with Songkran. Thai ancestors just love spending time in the temples, so they just find another reason to make a visit.

Songkran is a good day. So, for ancient Thai people, it makes sense to go to temples. And that has evolved into a culture in the present.

2. Throwing Water Is Not the Focus of Songkran

For traditional locals, the principal activity in Songkran is the Rod Nam Dum Hua ceremony.

As mentioned, Songkran means transition. This transition could be from bad to good and good to bad. So, the elders would bless their children and grandchildren to ensure a positive change.

In a country with a strong seniority culture like Thailand, the elders are well-respected and considered sacred to a certain degree. So, receiving a blessing from them is a great way to start a new year.

3. Songkran Isn’t a Thailand-Exclusive Festival

Several countries celebrate Songkran the same way as Thailand. These countries are Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. In addition, some parts of Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, and India also celebrate similar festivals. (Source)

So, if you can’t visit Thailand during Songkran, you still have other options.

4. Do People Exchange Gifts on Songkran Days?

In general, Thai people don’t exchange gifts on Songkran days. Present exchange is not an essential part of this special day at all.

However, don’t let this stop you from bringing a gift or two. After all, Songkran is a New Year’s Day. Everyone appreciates New Year’s Presents.

There isn’t any rule or custom on what you should and shouldn’t give on Songkran day. It could be daily necessities, food, and even decorations. Just remember to keep it appropriate, and you will be fine.

5. How to Say “Happy Songkran Day?”

There are 2 main ways for you to wish someone a happy Songkran day.

First, you can say “Suk San Wan Songkran” (สุขสันต์วันสงกราต์). This is the most straightforward way to say it because it literally means “happy Songkran day.”

Another way you can say it is “Sawasdee Pee Mai” (สวัสดีปีใหม่). The elders commonly use this phrase. It means “happy new year.” So, if you want to wish a happy Songkran to a grandpa or grandma, this phrase is recommended.

Nevertheless, you can use this phrase with anyone else. The locals will understand. And they might even compliment you on how well you have researched.

6. There Used to Be Miss Songkran Pageants

Like on any celebratory day, people want to witness breathtaking beauty. So, many communities in Thailand decided to hold Miss Songkran Pageants.

Despite their grand-sounding name, these shows have nothing to distinguish them from other beauty contests except their date. It was irrelevant to the Songkran Goddesses. It lacked grand stages. And to make things worse, it rewarded only subpar prize money.

In other words, Miss Songkran is just another pageant in Thailand. It has no character or massive prizes like Miss Thailand and Miss Thailand World.

For that reason, Miss Songkran gradually faded from the surface of Thailand. Recently, it has been almost impossible to find a consistent Miss Songkran contest. You can say that this title has already disappeared.

Thai Songkran, at Its Core

Songkran is many things in Thailand.

It is a family time, a superstitious time, a religious time, and a refreshing time. But most importantly, it is a time when everyone can have fun and smile.

And by “everyone,” it means all men, women, and LGBTQs of any nationality, race, and belief. This festival really has something for anyone. Even its origin is a beautiful amalgamation of one thing and many others.

So, if you happen to be in Thailand during Songkran, just have fun. It was meant to be a time of celebration, after all.

Like always, if you want to learn more about Thailand, stay with ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.

Jordan Sully

I'm a Thailand fanatic who has been traveling to the Kingdom since 2017. The country has given me so much, this is my small way of giving back. I hope the articles on this site help you to learn more about Thailand and inspire your next adventure to The Land of Smiles. Thanks for checking out ThaiGuider!

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