When Southeast Asia’s dog days of spring have melted your face off one too many times and you feel like you just can’t sweat any more, the Myanmarese have the perfect respite. They cancel work and call for some divine intervention in the form of a four-day nation-wide water fight.
You probably know Thailand’s Songkran, but know now that they do it with more love and gusto in Myanmar with the madness known as Thingyan.
Similar to Songkran, the Thingyan water festival is held during the days leading up to New Years, currently on 17 April. As a religious holiday, there are a number of Buddhist traditions that are supposedly upheld, such as fasting, donation of alms, songs and the like. In reality, the only big tradition that a visitor to Myanmar will catch is the tradition of “sprinkling scented water from silver bowls” on passerbys to wash away sins.
This tradition is still reflected in the way some people will tenderly pour water on the back of your neck and say “Thank you!” But nowadays most people have ditched the silver bowls for plastic buckets, squirt guns and fire hoses in a wild and manic free-for-all, lasting through four stamina-testing days of drunken debauchery and outstanding friendliness that makes for the best street festival you will ever attend.
There are only three rules of Thingyan:
- It’s rude to refuse getting splashed with water
- No water after 6pm(ish)
- The only people safe from attack are monks, the elderly, and pregnant women.
Everyone else is fair game any time they’re outdoors. People on buses and trains are ok, as are police officers (but be gentle).
The locals are ruthless when it comes to “purification techniques”. We got sabotaged with squirt guns and bowlfuls of ice water everywhere, even while eating street food. But I also got drenched by some people from a fifth-storey rooftop while oh-so-vulnerably trying to take a quick wee behind a car on a side street below. And on a train heading from Yangon to Mawlamyine, the locals showed no mercy for us passengers and our luggage while they unceremoniously sprayed inside every window with a fire hose as we passed by their village. Mawlamyine was even crazier, and people didn’t even hesitate before whipping bowls of water straight in our faces with an enthusiasm that bordered on malice. There is pretty much water everywhere.
Oddly enough, the 6pm rule is pretty firmly adhered to. While the big stages in major cities will keep the music pumping up until midnight, between 6 and 6:30pm the water antics gradually cease. The streets and everything else quickly dry out in the now gloriously welcome March heat.
While it’s fun to walk around and get attacked, the real action is at the stages. In certain areas of town gigantic stages have been set up, pumping out thousands and thousands of litres of water to the tune of anything from traditional Myanmarese song-and-dance to drum n bass. This is the place to get drenched to the bone, dancing like a maniac until your fingertips begin to shrivel.
The best way to get around town is on the back of a truck with a bunch of locals. People hire out (or recruit their friends to drive) trucks, pack the back with barrels of water and coolers of booze, and cruise around the city all day visiting different stages. As a guest in Myanmar, you can use your foreigner card to hop on the backs of these excellent party vehicles and cruise with ease from place to place.
Throughout it all, everyone kept asking us: “Are you happy?!” Their English ability may leave them unable to ask anything more complicated, but this wonderfully simple and direct question really cuts right through to the core spirit of the festival. The crowds are all smiles and good vibes, and even big ol’ Yangon bubbles with a friendliness level that is off the scale.
For the visitor, Myanmar can be a great place. But at the end of the day, this is a country that has and, to a certain extent, still does suffer under a ruthless and controlling government. It’s the poorest country in Southeast Asia, and people work hard to live even simple lifestyles. Thingyan is the one time of the year when the people of Myanmar really let loose, forget reality, and just enjoy being happy. There is nothing quite like being surrounded by that chaotic joy, soaked to the bone in pond water and dancing in the sun with smiling faces.
How to have an enjoyable Thingyan: Dos and Don’ts
1. Don’t bring your camera unless it’s waterproof
Unless you have a GoPro or are a pussy who doesn’t want to have fun, leave your camera at home. You can buy fancy cases or try your best to wrap up your point-and-shoot or DSLR, but at the end of the day you’re going to be drunk, soaking wet, and getting rowdy with the crowd, and you’re going to wish you didn’t bring along your camera.
2. Do get one of those plastic mobile bags
Familiar to anyone who has gone tubing in Laos, you can buy plastic wallets on lanyards that have a sturdy little zip at the top and will do an excellent job of protecting your phone and money. Buy them ahead of time for as cheap as 400 kyat, though they are sold throughout the festival as well.
3. Do buy an awesome squirt gun
They may seem futile in the face of huge hoses at the stages, but during walks through the neighbourhood the locals love it when you return fire. Our crew tried out a host of different types of squirt guns, and the ones with little backpacks to hold water and pumping-action guns worked the best and lasted the longest. If you’re feeling charitable, buy a bunch of little ones and share them with the lovely, polite homeless kids that hang around the stages.
4. Do skip the first day
Unlike Songkran in Thailand, which winds down by New Years, Myanmar’s Thingyan lasts for four days and picks up momentum as it goes along. If you have a tight schedule, skip the first day. It’s calm and relatively quiet, as many people are still a bit shy about dumping loads of water on strangers (at least, that’s how it was explained to us). If you go all-out on the first day, you’ll be tired by the third and fourth days, when things really pick up.
5. Don’t travel if you don’t have to
Almost everything stops during Thingyan, including public transportation. The trains and buses that do run get booked up fast—so get in there early if you need to travel. But things are going to be slow and they’re going to be very expensive, so choose your location well, sit tight, and enjoy the madness.
6. Don’t dress like you’re in Thailand
Myanmar has yet to transform into a Westernised backpacker party haven like the rest of Southeast Asia. Respect the local culture by covering up; shorts and tank tops are cool, but don’t head out in a bikini and hot pants.
7. Don’t swallow!!!!
The seemingly endless flow of water for Thingyan comes straight out of the lakes and canals. Definitely don’t swallow it, and definitely do take a shower afterwards. We didn’t (don’t judge) and all of our cuts and scrapes got red and irritated from the dirty water.
We hear whisky and Coke is great for killing bacteria…