The Chiang Mai Songkran Festival

The Chiang Mai Songkran Festival: love or hate?

The Chiang Mai Songkran Festival (ประเพณีสงกรานต์): there doesn’t seem to be a middle way. You either love it or you have it. Let’s make one thing clear: I love it. It is my favorite festival and I look forward to it every year. I like Loy Krathong as well but not as much as Songkran.

Unfortunately, authorities canceled the festival two years in a row because of the coronavirus pandemic. It looks like we will have some festivities this year but it will not come close to the pre-pandemic festival. Everyone will wear a face mask and it is unlikely there will be parades during the 2022-edition. Let’s look back on the Chiang Mai Songkran festival of yesteryear.  I have not been able to find photographs of Songkran festivities in Chiang Mai before 1950.

Two women in a river

TAT photo to promote Songkran in Chiang Mai in the early 60s

The Songkran festival of Boonserm Satrabhaya

Most of the photographs that are available online have been taken by the late photographer Boonserm Satrabhaya (1928-2017). Many of his pictures are on the website of the Chiang Mai University Library. The University doesn’t allow links to its website so you just have to google the name “Boonserm Satrabhaya” and you will get there. I met Boonserm twice at his small house, which was located between the railway station and the superhighway. His photos catch the atmosphere of Songkran in the olden days. In the 1950s and 60s, the festivities took place in Thapae road and along the Ping River, near the Nawarat Bridge. The below picture show Chiang Mai people walking through Thapae road and sprinkling water over each other. It was all very gentle and polite. Please note the absence of vehicles and foreigners…

Songkran festivities in the Ping River

At least until 1968 the Songkran festivities and rituals took place in and near the Ping River. In those days the Ping River almost fell dry in April. An aerial picture of Chiang Mai taken in early April 1944 by Allied reconnaissance planes shows large islands in the Ping River. The construction of dams and weirs in the 1970s and 80s affected the water level of the river. The result was the water level of the river was not low anymore in April so the Songkran festivities moved to the moat and Thapae Gate. I am not sure when that happened exactly. More research is needed.

Songkran festival

Ping River Songkran, April 1944. Williams-Hunt aerial archive.

The Chiang Mai Songkran Festival in the Ping River

Boonserm Satrabhaya was not the only photographer who took pictures of people standing in the Ping River. It must have been a lot of fun. Boonserm took the below photographs in 1964.

This is the last picture I have showing Songkran revelers in the Ping River. It was taken in 1968. We are trying to find out in which year the festivities from the Ping River to the moat area. The increase in the number of cars must have played a part in that as well as the human activities upstream in the Ping River that influenced the water level in the river.

The photos of Georges Condominas

Georges Condominas (1921-2011) was a French cultural anthropologist. You can find his pictures on the website of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. He took the below magnificent photographs in Chiang Mai in 1958. They show Songkran revelers in the Ping River.

Phil Bradbeer in Chiang Mai

Phil Bradbeer was a lecturer at Chiang Mai University from 1964 until 1970. You could find his pictures on a website but it’s not life anymore. He took the below pictures during the Songkran Festival in 1967. They already show the more rowdy side of the festival. Schoolboys target cars, buses, and motorbikes. He took the first photo in Thapae Road with the Nawarat Bridge in the background. Phil lived near the Prince’s Royal College on Nawarat Road where he took the other photos. In 2017 I corresponded with Phil who passed away in 2021.

The parades during the Chiang Mai Songkran Festival

The Chiang Mai Songkran Festival seems to have had at least one parade already in the 1950s.  A picture from Boonserm Satrabhaya shows a procession arriving at the Burmese Wat Upakhut with the Phra Sae Tang Khamani Buddha image, Phaya or King Mangrai’s guardian. The image was to be placed at the temple for people to sprinkle holy water on during the Songkran Festival. This Burmese temple was demolished in 1960 and replaced by the Buddha Sathan building, which is still on the corner of Charoenprathet and Thapae Roads.

Changes in the Chiang Mai Songkran Festival

American scholar Ronald Renard (1947-2014) wrote an article about the image of Chiang Mai in which he wrote: “Traditional ceremonies, such as Songkran were changed to encourage tourism. In about 1960, the provincial government introduced a procession on the first day of the Songkran festival whereby the revered Sihing image was taken around the town and followed by musical and other groups.” It is clear that there were already parades or processions before 1960. It is plausible that they became much more organized with the participation of many people and several floats with Buddha images. Nowadays we have two big parades, one on the 13th and one on the 15th of April. The parade of April 13 is, what I would call, the grand parade with floats with Buddha images and people representing temples and communities. Let’s hope we will see these parades again. Here are some photos of parades in the 1970s and 80s.

Frans Betgem, March 13, 2022

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