Water festivals – Exploring the cultural beauty in four Indochina countries

Most of the western countries celebrate the New Year on 1st January. Some Asian countries like Vietnam, Korea, China take the holiday at the beginning of Lunar Year’s first month. But Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have their own date for this occasion which is 13th April every year and it extends to 14th and 15th April. Those are some of the countries in South and Southeast Asia that lie within the Indian cultural sphere or Indosphere – which is why their traditional calendars have been influenced by sort of Hinduism calendar. On such occasion, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos are so lively and fun with Water Festivals. Meanwhile, Cambodian has rather peaceful new year days and they have another time for the same water festival. Let’s take a small tour exploring these exciting festivals!


water festivals in Indochina countries
Let’s explore these exciting water festivals in Indochina countries

Water Festivals in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos

It is called Songkran in Thailand and Laos, and Thingyan in Myanmar. Songkran means “movement” or “change place”. It indicated the change position of the Sun in the zodiac, according to Thailand history, announced the beginning of the new rainy season which brings fruitful crops to the farmers.


Thingyan in Myanmar
Thingyan in Myanmar

In Buddism, water symbolizes renewal. Generally, it is to wash away the old year’s bad lucks and sins. So on the very first day of this festival which is also the last day of the old year, people usually clean their houses; wash Buddha images and statues; clean and repaint temples. There are fresh flowers at home too. The youths would drain water mixed with traditional fragrances into the palms of elders to confer their modesty and request the veteran’s blessings. Giving them new clothes is also a way of expressing wishes.

In Thailand, the festival also showcases the bathing ritual where the people pour water on the senior Buddhist monks. Specifically in this country, Buddha images are placed on the streets and people are allowed to shower them by water with honor and respect.


Songkran in Bangkok
Having fun with Songkran in Bangkok

Next thing, a water fight is the most exclusively crazy thing to do in this event. Originally, people would drain aromatic water on themselves, all members of the family, neighbors and close friends only. As time goes by, it has become a “wild” fight among everyone, pots are replaced with buckets, water guns, etc. Hurrays is in the air as the dense crowds splashing water at one another. Calling it “flight” or “war” but never have people ever been happy and joyful.

It is believed that getting splashed would come with good luck, health, happiness, and prosperity.


Songkran in Laos
A water fight in Laos

Other common activities are sending special offerings to monks, releasing birds and fishes, listening to sermons, etc.

The water festival embraces everyone, so as a traveler. You will need to prepare yourself to join in this if you are in one of those countries in mid-April. It is not possible to leave your hotel without encountering the exciting crowd of people who are all soaked.

Water Festivals in Cambodia

Instead of the new year occasion, the Cambodia water festival – Bon Om Touk – is held on the full moon day in November. It will mark the end of the rainy season. When the temperature is cool down and the water level is higher, it is the perfect condition for the new fishing season. During this time, the highlight is the boat racing competition. It is to thank God for granting plentiful harvest and health. The evidence of Bon Om Touk is on many sculptures in Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple, so it was originally celebrated during the Angkorian time – King Jayavarman VII. It is also a way that the King demonstrated the navy strong force.


The sculptures of boat race
The sculptures of boat race

The festival is every province but most expected in Phnom Penh. During the period of Bon Om Touk, people from all over the country travel to the capital to watch the colorful boat races onto Tonle Sap Lake right in front of the Royal Palace.

The competitors spend the whole year preparing for this event. Several longboats that can accommodate 30-40 people each will be taken to the place a few days before the competition to practice. The winners then get rewards of money, clothes, drinks, rice, cigarettes, etc.

People gather around the lake banks and the loud cheers echoing with the rhythm of the drums. All of those would make this one of the most exciting festivals in Cambodia. Cambodians literally love it!


Boat racing on Tonle Sap Lake
Boat racing on Tonle Sap Lake

In the evening, beautiful fireworks are set up for 15-20 minutes; hundreds of small handmade boats are decorated by many candles. These fancy illuminated boats which represent different institutions, ministries and services float slowly and gracefully on the lake. The festive atmosphere continues with carnival rides, traditional music performances, and dances.

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Important notes

If you wish to travel to those countries during the water festivals, it is best to book all the accommodations and domestic flights in advance, especially in cities like Bangkok, Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai, etc. It is because this occasion is the peak traveling season for both foreign travelers and locals. Besides, your mobile phone and other electronic stuff should be inside the waterproof containers as you can be “attacked” and soaked all the time on the streets. Or on a higher alert level, leave them elsewhere safe as there are maybe thefts to take advantage of the crowd. And finally, remember that you are not allowed to splash water to monks, elder people, or some well-dressed women who are on the way to occasional new year events.

Happy travel!


Daniel Nguyen – Travel Specialist

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