It’s almost time to celebrate another new year in Asia! Coinciding with the hottest time of year in the Southeast Asian region, April brings New Year celebrations for Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Commonly known collectively in the West as ‘Water Festivals’, each of the aforementioned countries celebrates their New Year over (at least!) a three day period from the 13-16 April in the Gregorian calendar.
Perhaps the biggest and best-known is Thailand’s Songkran, which comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘astrological passage’. In neighboring Laos the country calls the celebrations Pi Mai. In Myanmar the holiday is called Thingyan, while Cambodians refer to their festival as Chaul Chnam Thmey.
The origins of all these New Year celebrations are thought to have begun from similar roots in related Buddhist-Hindu beliefs. Today’s celebrations, especially in raucous Thailand though, differ greatly from their sedate beginnings.
The traditional ways to celebrate all these festivals involves three days of prayer, giving alms to temples and gently pouring fragranced water over effigies of Buddha images to cleanse them and pay respects. It is also customary for the young to rinse the hands of elder family members, friends, neighbors and monks, blessing them and washing any impurity away. Buddha statues from local temples are paraded through the streets, allowing all the locals to make a blessing as the effigy passes by.
Somehow, the modern celebrations (in Thailand especially) have mutated from these sedate, respectful acts to mark new beginnings into the world’s biggest water fight! Perhaps the celebrations became more zealous because of the hot weather and the welcome relief the cold water brings (temps can rise to over 100F in Southeast Asia during April), or maybe because the people are naturally fun-loving – but whatever the reason, the annual celebrations are something of a unique experience.
Chiang Mai and Bangkok see the most vigorous festivities in Thailand, and the water fights usually go on for more than the three scheduled days, with thousands taking to the streets armed with water guns, hosepipes and buckets to soak passers-by with. No-one is spared the fun and festivity – even shops that stay open throughout the festival waterproof their wares as the playful ‘fights’ may break out in almost any place, at any time!
Travelers to Thailand may be confused by the festival. To the naked eye, nothing religious takes place at all, but although it may appear the holiday is simply about fun, many Thai’s use the time to visit temples, or return to their hometowns to visit friends and family to pay their respects.
While mass water fights also take place in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, the celebrations are certainly not as boisterous as noisy-neighbors Thailand, and concentrate more closely on traditional religious aspects with water ‘play’ mainly limited to just one of the three days.
The festivals in these neighboring countries all have many things in common, but the overriding uniform trait is that they are all festivals packed full of fun! If you’re in Southeast Asia in April and would like to experience one of these New Year festivals, don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our Travel Specialists who can advise you and help you plan your trip to stay dry…or get wet!