Surviving Songkran: Celebrating Thailand’s Wet and Wild New Year on Koh Tao

Surviving Songkran: Celebrating Thailand’s Wet and Wild New Year on Koh Tao post image

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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!)

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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 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!

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

If you plan to drink throughout the day, bring along a sealed bottle or 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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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!

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Pace Yourself

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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.

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Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

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Celebrating Yi Peng and Loy Kratong on Koh Tao

This week, Koh Tao celebrated Loy Kratong. And while I may currently be on the other side of the world, I touch back down in Thailand in just two weeks — which makes this the perfect time to share this memory from last year!

It’s likely that, whether or not you knew what it was or where it was from, you’ve seen a photo of Thailand’s infamous annual lantern releases. (You’d only have to casually browse the travel section of a book store, where images from Yi Peng have graced the cover of not one but two editions of Lonely Planet Thailand!)

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Perhaps you’ve even heard the terms Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. Technically, Loy Kratong and Yi Peng are two separate holidays, though they typically are celebrated over similar dates and are thus are often used interchangeably by Western visitors. While the dates change annually based on the lunar calendar, they often fall in November. Yi Peng is primarily celebrated in the former Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, while Loy Kratong is celebrated throughout the country.

I’ve been lucky to spend two Loy Kratongs on Koh Tao, and one Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, and they are among my favorite days of the year in Thailand. Yet to be honest I was always a little confused about the differences between the two holidays — here’s hoping this post can clear that up for one of my fellow clueless farang!

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Both festivals trace their roots back to Brahmanic festivals in India, but were later adopted by Buddhists to honor both Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and in the case of Loy Kratong, Phra Mae Khongkha, the Hindu water goddess. Yi Peng is closely related to the Indian festival of Diwali, originally celebrated as a ceremony of gratitude to the River Ganges.

Chiang Mai (home of the famous Mae Joe release, which to my understanding is no longer happening), Sukhothai (where the festival allegedly originated) and Bangkok (always a party!) are all popular places for celebrating Loy Kratong. Koh Tao? Not so much. Consider this a guide if you happen to find yourself there.

On Koh Tao, the day kicks off with a parade that starts at the government buildings in Mae Haad and works North towards Sairee. I must admit I have only caught this casual parade in passing, but will make it a point to get a closer look next time I’m celebrating on the island.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

That evening, things really kick off. At the Seatran pier area in Mae Haad, a large stage holds traditional dances, a beauty contest, and other festivities, and last year I went down to enjoy them with a big group of friends. One highlight of our night was when Ian spotted his elderly landlord killing it in a dance routine onstage. Another was when I spotted the oversize float I’d spotted being proudly constructed at my favorite roadside food stand earlier in the week. Koh Tao is a beautiful little community when it comes together.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong is certainly a more casual and community-based affair on Koh Tao than the religiously rooted Yi peng I witnessed in Chiang Mai. While we dressed extremely conservatively for the Chiang Mai version, in Koh Tao there was a wide-range of acceptability — I did choose to wear long pants though. And while alcohol was forbidden at the event I attended in Chiang Mai, the vibe in Koh Tao was much more merry-making and drinking was welcomed and encouraged by locals.

And come hungry! There’s an abundance of yummy Thai street food on offer, far beyond what you’d find on a typical night on the island.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

At the beach steps away from the pier to the north, Koh Tao’s own little lantern release takes place.

The symbolism behind the release of either type of lantern is beautiful. In addition to paying respect to Buddha, these acts allow time to reflect and symbolically release personal demons, hardships, and negativity.

The term loi means “to float” while “kratong” means a lotus shaped vessel. Alongside the flowers, candles, coins and incense sticks, many Thais will cut their fingernails and hair to put in their kratongs as a symbol of letting go, and will also consider it extremely bad luck for the lantern to float back to them. Sky lanterns, or khom loi, are considered especially lucky if they disappear from view before the fire goes out.

Both are acts of spiritual cleansing and new beginnings. They are also, on a superficial level, stunningly beautiful.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

The dates of Yi Peng and Loy Kratong can be tricky to nail down (in Koh Tao, they are always celebrated concurrently on the official date of Loy Kratong, where in larger cities they may be held separately but within a week or so of each other, and large official lantern releases may be held on the weekend closest to the official date.)

I’ve always found the specific date by keeping an eye on local expat groups in Koh Tao and Chiang Mai, but often these groups are closed to tourists. Ask at your local guesthouse or dive shop, or check the website Thaizer, which is a great resource on Thai holidays and events.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

I’m anticipate I will receive some questions on the sustainability event. What goes up must come down and that means that the sky lanterns eventually return to earth and the kratongs eventually sink into to the ocean. My advice is to look for khom loi made of biodegradable rice paper and bamboo and kratongs that are made of natural materials like bread and plants as opposed to plastic or styrofoam. Better yet, make a kratong yourself so you can be confident that every component is eco-friendly! Also consider sharing one kratong and one khom loi among multiple people.

There are some people that won’t be satisfied with even those efforts, and they are entitled to that opinion. But I draw on the response I give to cries of waste at Burning Man: sustainability has to be sustainable, and I don’t believe its feasible to ask a country to give up their natural human instinct to gather, to honor tradition and to their celebrate culture. If you are bothered by the waste produced at Yi Peng or Loy Kratong, I invite you to join one of the island’s regular underwater clean up dives or beach walks for trash, or to volunteer at one of the island’s eco-focused charities.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

No, Koh Tao will never be on a list of the most popular destination to celebrate Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. But if you want to get away from the crowds and see a small and joyful celebration alongside locals, expatriates and tourists from around Thailand and the world, Koh Tao would be happy to have you.

While I’ve done extensive research and spend significant time in Thailand, I will always be but a guest in the country, and thus an imperfect messenger of its traditions and religion. Any mistakes in interpretation are my own and I’d welcome corrections of any inaccuracies!