Thai New Year: Songkran & it's Indian Connection

Last year at this time, we were drenched to the skin and loving it as we walked down the Beach Road at Pattaya. No it was not raining, it was bright and sunny. Hot to be precise. It was Songkran day and ice-cold water was being poured on us by everyone on the street.

Songkran is Thai New Year. A festival, celebrated for 3 days starting from 13th April, where getting wet and having fun is all part of the celebration.

At about eight in the morning we left our hotel and walked down the street in search for some breakfast. We noticed locals with bottles of water and big drums of ice water placed outside the shops, assuming that on a hot day like this, hydration must be high on the agenda, we walked on. But as we turned to the Beach road we were bombarded with a garden hose. Stunned, Speechless and completely Soaked, we felt a little Stupid not remembering that today was Songkran. The posters and information was available all over since we had arrived in Thailand.

From then on there was no looking back, you can’t avoid it (unless you stay in your hotel room for 3 days). The lively celebrations on the streets were infectious and we even spotted foreigners joining in with water battles. And they say – if you can’t beat them join them! So we did.

It’s like our very own Holi, just no colors and the other skin harming stuff. Only some chalk (white mud paste) and water is sprayed. From garden hoses to the well-aimed bucket or water-cannon delivered in a festive spirit. The best way to beat the heat, wouldn’t you say!

Bands of youngsters roamed the streets or whizzed past in open trucks with water guns and buckets of water with which they doused one another and others on the street. You’ll find toy stores in big malls selling water-guns and accessories. 7-Eleven sells handy little plastic purses that are the right size for a camera, some money and keys.

Although Songkran seems like amusement for the kids. It has a more significant role – the underlying significance of Songkran is the process of cleansing and purification – the purging of all ills, misfortune and evil and starting the New Year afresh with all that is good and pure. Water is symbolic of the cleaning process and signifies purity.

Traditional Songkran celebrations focus on the renewal of the earth and the home. Wats, homes and Buddhist statues are cleaned. Often, the statues are removed from their wats and paraded around their communities, allowing everyone the chance to make merit by washing them with water, which Buddhists believe will help them achieve a higher ranking in the celestial order when they are reborn.

Songkran Day has been celebrated as New Year’s Day in the Thai solar calendar since ancient times. It is also popular in the neighboring countries of Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. The date coincides with the day the sun leaves Pisces and enters Aries, usually falling on April 13 of each year.

Doesn’t Songkran kind of sounds like of the Hindu festival of Sakranti? Well, because it is related to it. Sankranti is the sanskrit word in Indian Astrology which refers to the transmigration of the Sun from one Rāshi (sign of the zodiac) to another.

Sankranti is celebrated all over South Asia with some regional variations. It is known by different names and celebrated with different customs in different parts of the country. In India it is known by different regional names Makar Sankranti, Uttarayan, Maghi, Pongal, Magh Bihu and so on. In Thailand it is Songkran, Laos – Pi Ma Lao, Myanmar – Thingyan, Cambodia – Moha Sangkran.

Here are some things that coincide with the Thai Ney Year, and are significant in India.

  • The festival of Baisakhi falls on April 13 every year and April 14 once in every 36 years. Change in date is because of the fact that date of Baisakhi is reckoned according to the solar calendar.The other celebrations are ‘Rongali Bihu‘  in Assam, ‘Naba Barsha’ in Bengal, ‘Puthandu’ in Tamil Nadu, ‘Pooram Vishu’ in Kerala and ‘Vaishakha’ in the state of Bihar.
  • On 13th April 1699, The Tenth Guru of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh founded Khalsa Panth or the Order of Pure Ones and gave a unique identity to Sikhs. On the same day the guru administered amrit (nectar) to his first batch of five disciples making them Singhs, a martial community.
  • On 13th April 1875, Swami Dayanand Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj – a reformed sect of Hindus who are devoted to the Vedas for spiritual guidance and have discarded idol worship.

 

Back to our trip. Last year Thailand was under political unrest and yet the Red shirt anti-government protesters celebrated the Songkran New Year festival with full enthusiasm and let others enjoy as well. The Siam area where they were protesting was ironically a peaceful sight.

Like any other form of good entertainment, there is an unfortunate side to the holiday. There is a lot of drinking and roads/pavements get slippery and wet by the end of the day. It’s best to be careful mostly about – road accidents, rowdy hooligans and getting sun burnt. Basic common sense helps!

It would be silly in my opinion to avoid Songkran, I mean, welcoming the New Year with a gigantic water fight seems like the best idea ever. But here are some tips from Travelfish on avoiding the water festival.

Although Songkran Festival is celebrated throughout Thailand, I have read that Chiang Mai City is the best venue for the event. Here tourists can take part in the Grand Songkran Festival ceremony and pour scented water on the image of Buddha. The important ritual of bathing Buddha with the water is witnessed by thousands of foreign tourists.

We had a great time in Pattaya and Bangkok and wish I was there today!

Wish you all a happy new year!! sa-wat-di pi mai!!

 

Photos courtesy – Ratchaprasong, Kara van Malssen, Karol Gajda , Eternal Vagabond and Ritika Sabharwal

Things to do in Bangkok

Bangkok is a big and bustling metropolis and, for a first time traveller, it can actually get a bit overwhelming to take in all that the city has to offer.

 

Bangkok is a big and bustling metropolis and, for a first time traveller, it can actually get a bit overwhelming to take in all that the city has to offer.

The monuments, the Wats, the markets and the sheer grandiose of the (appropriately named) grand palace can leave even the most hardened travellers spellbound.

Of course, the humid weather, the traffic and the pollution does take some sheen away out of the whole experience, but that shouldn’t really stop anyone from experiencing this beautiful city in all its glory.

Bangkok has something for everyone to offer. If you’re interested in historical monuments, head straight to the Grand Palace. If you’re the religious type, start with the Wat Po and follow your instincts from there on. There is a shrine at practically every corner in Bangkok. If you’re in Bangkok for shopping, head straight to either the Jatujak/Chatuchak/JJ weekend market, Pratunam market or the various malls surrounding the Siam square. If you’re in Bangkok for pleasures of the more sinister kind, Bangkok will still not disappoint you, although you won’t get much help from me 🙂 Hint: Ask around for the Silom area of Bangkok 😉

Don’t let the traffic and the pollution stop you from enjoying this beautiful city. Bangkok is a very easy city to move around in, if you know how. I’ve written a post earlier on using the BTS in Bangkok and that should be of some help, I hope. In this post I’d like to lay out a short and sweet 5 day itenerary for anyone new to Bangkok. I hope that by the end of the 5 days you’d be able to see and love Bangkok the way I did.

Day 1: Arrive at Suvarnbhumi International Airport. Reach your hotel. Spend the rest of the day at leisure, exploring the areas close to your hotel.

Day 2: I hope you’re staying close to the BTS (Skytrain), as that is by far the most convenient way to travel in Bangkok. Take the BTS to the Siam square station. Enter one of the malls and spend some time lazing around. Eat some nice thai food and the MBK mall’s food court. Chat with some local shopkeepers about things to do in Bangkok and for directions to the Grand Palace as you’ll be visiting that the next day.

Day 3: Take a taxi/river ferry/Tuk tuk to the grand palace. Don’t listen (or even look at) any tout/agent standing outside the grand palace. The agents will most probably tell you that the palace is closed for the day and offer to take you around some other attractions for a small fee. The grand palace and the Wat Po next door is never closed. NEVER. Walk in, take your ticket and spend the next couple of hours admiring the palace. Come out and walk to the Wat Po (If you’re lost, ask for directions from a tourist, since you will never be able to make tell if an official looking guard standing at the entrance is actually a guard or an tout dressed  like one.

The “Grand Palace is closed” scam is probably the biggest in Bangkok and all tourists invariably get hit by it. Just don’t listen to the touts and keep walking towards your destination, even if they sound and look angry.

A tip: Start your day early since afternoons are hot in Bangkok.

If you followed the earlier tip, you would be done seeing the attractions around this part by afternoon. Take your lunch at the small open air market next to the Grand Palace river pier. After lunch, you can visit the Wat Arun across the river or spend some time in an air conditioned mall 🙂

Day 4: Take a tuk-tuk or a taxi to the Pratunam market and spend a couple of hours shopping for your near and dear ones. Bargain hard. If you’re a computer geek, get your fix at the Pantip Plaza, opposite the Pratunam market. For lunch, try the street food available all around the area. Pantib Plaza has a KFC too, by the way, in case you’re really missing home 🙂 Spend the evening at the Suan Lum night market. Shop some more, drink some beer at the open air beer garden, listening to some thai rock music (!). Eat authentic thai food for dinner or spend your dough at one of the many Italian, Indian or English food restaurants.

Day 5: Make sure that your last day in Bangkok is a weekend, so that you can experience the chaos of the wonderful JJ weekend market. It’s not everyday that one hears of chaos and wonderful in the same sentence, let alone being used to describe the same place. But that is the JJ weekend market for you. One can easily spend the whole day here or even more than a day, if one wishes to. The weekend market is an institution and a landmark in Bangkok and no trip to Bangkok can be complete without experiencing it.

If you’re done with your shopping spend your last evening in Bangkok spending the last of your money at one of the fancy fine dining restaurants at Siam Paragon 🙂

Day 6: Take a cab back to the Airport. Have a nice flight.

Hopefully, you’d enjoy your stay in Bangkok as much as I did. A lot of the itineraries that I see floating around the net also include a trip to the Pattaya beach town as a part of a 5 day trip. I’d advise against that. Go to Pattaya if you have more time, but spend time in Bangkok and really get to know the city.

Shopping in Bangkok – 2

Sharninder: This is the second part of the writeup written by my wife on our Bangkok trip. The first part is here. Look around for more Bangkok articles here.

SHOPPING

Now let me come to the first reason of my love for BKK. The shoes. They do have the best variety, the styles, the colours & the PRICES. I could have bought more but I was forced to stop at about a dozen. Other than the shoes there is lots’n’lots of stuff one can buy. Here is my selection of shopping areas –

SIAM Centre/ Paragon/ Discovery/ Central World – these malls are conveniently located next to each other as soon as you get off at from the BTS at SIAM Square (obviously :)). Well, they have ever thing a normal mall has but at a much larger scale. All the designer labels, all the cool gadget stores, the big-big food courts, specialty store (The loft was excellent), multiplex and Ocean World.

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Shopping in Bangkok – 1

Bangkok is a shopper’s paradise. I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. But, the truth is … It really is. Everywhere you go in Bangkok, you’ll see people shopping, haggling and generally having a good time at it. Shopping, apart from eating, might well be described as the national activity of the Thais and, trust me, they’re good at it.

There are generally two schools of thought to the whole shopping in Bangkok thing. One type of people like to shop in swanky malls in air conditioned comfort and the other group wants to see the ground reality and love to shop in stinky bylanes and crowded markets. I belong to the first school of thought and I’ll tell you why, in a while.

Bangkok offers umpteen shopping avenues for both kinds of people. There are huge airconditioned malls as well as open air markets offering bargain buys at dirt cheap prices.

This post is an attempt to guide the first timer to Bangkok in his/her quest for the eternal shopping experience.

We’ll start with the obvious, the Siam central area. Siam central is the BTS interchange station for the Sukhumwit and Silom lines. The BTS is connected by a skywalk to the Siam Center mall and this is where most visitors start their trip in Bangkok, like we did, mostly because of the fact that its connected to the Skytrain station.

 

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Suan Lum Night Bazaar

Suan Lum night bazaar is a market in Bangkok’s Pathum Wan district, at the intersection of Rama IV and Wireless/Sathorn Roads, opposite Lumpini Park at the Bangkok Metro’s Lumpini Station.

To reach here you can take the BTS to the Sukhumvit interchange and then take the MRT to the lumpini park station. The market is just outside the Lumpini park station of the MRT.

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Travelling in Bangkok using the BTS (Skytrain)

Bangkok as a city is known for two things, the exquisite architecture of the Grand Palace and the various Wats (temples) and the traffic. Every tourist that comes to Bangkok has the historical monuments on his/her TODO list and getting stuck in traffic used to be an unavoidable part of the journey.

The BTS (complimented by the underground MRT system) has dramatically changed this. The Bangkok LRT systems cover a lot of the tourist attractions and it is now entirely possible to stay in Bangkok and not use the taxis and tuk-tuks for transportation at all, if you’re fine with walking around a bit.

Coming to the city from the Airport still requires one to use a taxi or a bus, that also will change in the next couple of years once the BTS airport link becomes functional, work on which is going on at a rather frantic pace.

Now, coming to the topic this post is all about. Hordes of repeat tourists come to Bangkok every year and this post is not meant as a guidebook for them. This post is meant to direct first timers to Bangkok and help them make some sense out of this chaotic, yet, charming Asian metropolis.

The BTS system is divided into two lines, the main Mo chit to On Nut, Sukumvit line, and the smaller National Stadium to Saphan Thaksin, Silom Road line, with an interchange station at Siam.

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Abloom Exclusive Serviced Apartments, Bangkok – Thailand

We stayed at the Abloom serviced apartments during out recent visit to Bangkok. The hotel is a short 5 minute walk away from the Sanam Pao BTS station and a very convenient place to stay, if you’re not interested in being close to the touristy areas of Sukhumvit, Silom or Siam center, this is an excellent option at a reasonable price.

The area is predominantly a residential area but the proximity to the BTS station makes it an ideal base for all your sightseeing visits to the other parts of Bangkok. The Jatujak or JJ weekend market is just two BTS stops away while the Siam center interchange station is 3 stops away in the other direction. The Sanam Pao station is close (walking distance, infact) to the Ari and Victory monument stations (both in the opposite directions). There are a couple of malls and posh eating joints close to the Ari BTS station but if you’re in the mood to sample some local street food, go to the Victory monument station and eat your heart away.

The 7-11 next to the Sanam Pao station is going to be your lifeline while you’re staying at the Abloom apartments, since being a serviced apartment, they do not have a 24 hour cafe and you’ll have to thank the 7-11 for all your midnight cravings 🙂

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Suvarnbhumi International Airport, Bangkok



Suvarnbhumi international Airport opened late in 2006 and has been catering to the huge air traffic that Bangkok gets each year. Suvarnbhumi is by all standards one of the biggest airports in the world and coming from an Indian airport it was actually intimidating as I stepped out of the Aircraft into the huge terminal. Ok, Maybe that’s exaggerating a bit, but you get the drift. The aiport is huge, modern, clean and easy to navigate, unless you get tired walking the kilometer or so of duty free shops. Thankfully, the airport has moving walkways.

Thailand has a visa on arrival facility for Nationals of certain listed countries, including India, China, Bhutan and 17 other countries. The complete list of countries is available here. The airport is well marked and all signs are in Thai as well as English and it wasn’t difficult to navigate around the airport for us. This was in contrast to the Kuala lumpur international airport where we were lost for the first 30 minutes as all signboards were only in Malay. I found the arrival experience at Suvarnbhumi much better than KLIA.

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