The end of our trip through Myanmar happened to coincide with their lunar new year which meant we would be around to see the beginning of Thingyan, or the Water Festival. By far, this has been my favorite local celebration that we’ve come across, and it might be one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip!
What’s a water festival? As best I can tell, it’s a giant water fight that the whole country participates in. This is the hottest part of the year, and the 4-day festival is a way for everyone to celebrate the new year and cool down before the monsoon season starts in May. Traditionally, splashing water is seen as a blessing for the new year or a washing away of sins from the previous year, but it didn’t exactly seem like people had that in mind as they rowdily soaked each other!
As we were traveling through the country, other travelers and locals would excitedly ask if we would be around for Thingyan, and we saw many preparations being made. In Mandalay, there is a massive moat around the Grand Palace, and while we were there, a huge scaffolding was being built along the moat’s edge — “Easier to get water!” my moto driver told me. I wondered to myself just how much water would be needed for this event if they’re planning to use the moat as a source.
Our best preview came on the train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw a few weeks before the festival. We were in the upper class carriage with all the other tourists, sitting on the left side for the best view of the Goktiek Viaduct (“a modern marvel!”). Matt and I had settled into our seats next to the open windows (no AC on the train, so all the windows were open), and we were chatting with our seatmate, Zoe, as the train began to leave the station. Suddenly, there were shouts and a commotion behind me. I felt something hit the back of my head and neck, and before I had a chance to react, a whole bucketful of water hit me square across my side and back! Some kids had been lying in wait with buckets full of water for our train to depart and hit us perfectly. Even people on the opposite side of the windows had gotten thoroughly soaked! Since it’s so blazingly hot, it was no time before we were all dry again. Some people weren’t amused by the idea of four days of this, but I got very excited. Matt and I plotted to get or hands on super soakers to join in the fun.
We ended up down in Chaungtha beach for the start of the festival because we didn’t want to spend all five of our last days in Myanmar in Yangon. On the 12th, we noticed a wooden stage had sprung up across the road from our guest house. Then, at 7am on the 13th, I awoke to the ridiculously loud thump of bass and Burmese covers of horribly remixed American pop songs. It must be the water festival! I ran out to the road, and this is what I saw:
The picture isn’t great, so I’ll describe it: lots of drunk people with hoses up on stage spraying down any traffic or pedestrians that passed by. Particularly targeted were the pickup trucks common as transport in Myanmar — open tops and open-sided beds which meant the passengers are easy targets. Some of the drunk guys would get down into the street and direct these vehicles to pull over and stop right in front of the stage so that the passengers were drenched!
After watching and photographing for a bit, some of the guys on the stage waved me over. Get on stage and soak people? With pleasure! I put away the camera and walked over to the stage. One of the guys hands me two hoses, and I start spraying people down. Before long, though, I was the one getting soaked! Apparently you don’t get to be on stage without getting drenched yourself, so I got in a water fight with everyone else up there and was immediately sopping wet and had ice water being thrown at me. Awesome — if this is just a small town, I can’t wait for the celebration in the largest city!
As our bus arrived in Yangon for the last leg of our Myanmar travels, I noticed that literally everyone outside was sopping wet. All along the streets, people had set up areas where friends could congregate and throw water at anyone who ventured near. Pedestrians, people on bicycles, and anyone who is not a monk was fair game (I read that obviously pregnant women are also off limits). There are even many, many pickup trucks full of people just roaming around the city looking to get soaked! Some of the pickups also had massive barrels on board with which to retaliate with.
Apparently, the 13th was just the first day of the festival, and we were told that things don’t really get interesting until day two! Excitedly, Matt and I ventured out to Kandawgyi Lake. Matt prepared by cutting the top of a water bottle off so that he would have some sort of water-flinging vessel. This turned out to be a critically important decision.
On the way to the lake, we had a few people splash a little water on us, but it wasn’t anything out of control. It seemed that some people were tentative to splash the tourists. One girl even said to Matt “Please!” and “Thank you!” for letting her pour water on him. I began to worry that maybe this festival wasn’t going to be as awesome as I’d envisioned.
Thank goodness I’m pretty much always wrong. We arrived at the lake, and it was madness. Sopping, soak-you-to-your-bones-in-seconds, I-will-never-be-dry-again, oh-shit-is-that-a-fire-hose madness. All along one side of the lake, huge stages had been built up and were packed with hundreds of revelers armed with hoses spraying water being piped up from the lake (we tried to ignore the fact that the water was a disturbing shade of yellow and avoided looking at the stages to not get water in our eyes or mouths). On the road below, open-air vehicles were parked with their passengers dancing to the remixes pounding through massive speaker stands. Crowded in between the cars were more people dancing and getting blasted with water.
We walked down the whole street in front of each stand getting soaked and dancing with all the locals. Oddly, it was mostly guys dancing in the street and only a few girls and women. It seemed like most of the girls were up in the stands, which you had to pay to get up on (we saw one stand selling tickets for $20-$50 USD, depending on how long you wanted to be up there), on the trucks which slowly progressed through the stages, or watching from a safe, dry distance.
Matt got the vast majority of attention with countless guys grabbing hold of him, shaking his hand, and wishing him a happy new year. We couldn’t go more than ten feet without someone stopping to greet him or dance with him. He also got the attention of the people on stage, and it was hilarious to watch the sprays of water very obviously target him. I tended to walk a little behind him to avoid getting the worst of it (another example where being a generic Asian has worked in my favor), but as they say, “You only get wet once,” and I got my fair share of water, too. Matt helped his case by constantly filling his water-flinging vessel with water streaming down from the stage or the barrels on the trucks, and so he was making himself even more of a target, just in case simply being a tall white guy wasn’t enough.
On our second day at the lake, a group grabbed Matt and pulled him up into the truck, and I hopped in after him. We thought dancing in the street got us wet enough, but being in the trucks was even worse! The passengers take the brunt of all the water coming down from the stage. I made matters worse by using the ice water on board the truck to splash those on stage, and I got a lot of retaliatory attention from the water cannons!
In addition to the boulevard of stages, there were free concerts going on around the park. At these venues, massive hoses were spraying water over the crowds, and there were additional sprinklers just pouring water over the already-soaked partiers.
As we walked back from the lake, more people were milling about the streets, and we had people chase us down to soak us even more. Matt retaliated and snuck up on little kids who didn’t expect the tourist to be prepared! Everyone was extremely jovial, and I was being offered beers in between getting sprayed by hoses, doused with ice water, and being asked, “Are you happy?” The water festival sums up what I love most about Myanmar: the people are so genuinely happy, friendly, welcoming, and fun! It was the perfect way to end our visit to Myanmar.
There’s definitely a video coming out of this experience. For now, here’s a selfie!