Thingyan, or Burmese New Years, is a giant water festival that lasts for the good part of 5 days in mid April. It is a Buddhist public holiday and is celebrated throughout the entire country. It marks the New Year as well as the end of the school year for students. Water throwing or dousing each other from any shape, form, device or vessel that delivers water is the main feature of the festival and can be done the first 4 days. There are many other festivals throughout SE Asia that are similar. The throwing of water traditionally was intended to theoretically wash away one’s sins of the previous year. Anyone and everyone is fair game to the water dousing except monks and pregnant woman. Nowhere outside is safe. It is the hottest time of the year so the water for the most part is a welcome relief from the heat. During the festival you can find classic puppeteer shows, orchestras, comedy shows, dance crews, Burmese film stars and musicians.
I had read quite a bit about the Burmese New Years celebration. I knew what it was all about. I never could have been prepared for my first one though. It was far more than I had ever imagined. I hadn’t specifically planned to be in Myanmar for the celebration, but it just so happened to land in the middle of my 28 day stay. Upon arrival in Myanmar I was asked by almost everyone, locals and fellow travelers, what my plans were for Thingyan. I hadn’t made any plans. I just figured wherever I am then that’s where I will be. Many people encouraged me to make a plan because most everything closes down for the good part of a week. I wasn’t very quick to make concrete plans until my Myanmar friend Jen scared me into thinking I might be stuck somewhere for longer than I wanted. Stuck I was, but I made the best of it.
I decided to pick a big city because let’s be real, Go big or Go home. On reflection now, it would have been much better in a smaller city. But whatever, I survived and even can say I loved it. I chose Mandalay because it was one of my destinations that I hadn’t made it to yet, I also read that it is one of the best cities to celebrate the festival and people flood in from all over the country to be in Mandalay for that week. In the weeks leading up to the event I had spoken to many other travelers trying to see what everyone else was doing as well as hoping to find someone to join for the festivities. Many people were going to Yangon, second best city to be in for this week. I had already been to Yangon for four days and didn’t want to spend another week there. I procrastinated on getting transportation tickets and had one heck of a time landing one for the train. I ended up paying double the price but was finally able to get to Mandalay.
I arrived on Thursday AM before the festival. I had specifically chosen a hostel outside of the main city in hopes of hiding if I got sick of spending all day soaked to the bone. This hostel also had a pool which to me is a big plus. If I didn’t want to go out and get wet then I can stay in and be wet in the pool, with a beer of course. I was planning on spending the festival alone because I didn’t know anyone that was planning on being in Mandalay. I was so pleasantly surprised when I got a knock on the door to my room and there stood Joseline. I had parted ways with her in Yangon where she didn’t know what to do because she couldn’t get transportation anywhere and was maybe planning to spend the New Years in a meditation center. I had invited her to Mandalay to spend the festival with me, but when I had left she hadn’t been able to get a ticket out of Yangon. This was a game changer for me. I was so excited to have company for this wild weekend and Joseline is the best company.
We spent the rest of Thursday poolside trying to make a plan for the weekend. Neither of us really knew what to expect and were slightly terrified because of the uncertainty of the unknown. We decided Friday being the first day of the festival would be the best day to head down to the main street area and see what this was all about. Later in the afternoon we walked to a nearby restaurant with a rooftop hookah bar. This place was awesome and had a fantastic sunset that night. The food and atmosphere was amazing and we actually returned three more times during our stay in Mandalay. After dinner we said goodnight and went to bed early so we could get up and head down to the party.
The next morning after breakfast we called for a cab that took us down to the start of the main street which is shut down to through traffic for the entire weekend of the celebration. The street stretches at least a mile or longer and is set up with food vendors, several water filling stations, giant main stages and smaller side stages for music and performances. As soon as we stepped on the street people came right up to us and poured water on us. Being foreigners we were a major target. Small children with squirt guns would run up, squirt us and then run off. Anyone holding a water bottle or anything with water in it came and emptied its contents onto us. It was seriously hot out so at first it was a really welcome feeling. People were constantly stopping us and asking if they could take pictures. I of course never tired of this in Myanmar. It always made me feel so loved like I was famous. Now that I am back in Thailand and writing this, I truly miss this about Myanmar.
One of our first stops at the festival was a little stand that had thanaka which is a paste made out of ground bark that is very popular amongst the Burmese people. Many woman put it on their faces and sometimes arms. I found it to be a beautiful cosmetic that’s really good for skin, complexion and is a natural sunscreen. Anyways, a few Burmese girls painted our faces and off we went, truly feeling the culture now. The paint lasted all but ten minutes because of the copious amounts of water being thrown on us. The stages as we walked along the main street all offered different genres of music. Joseline and I both share a passion for music and dance so we had a fantastic time stopping and dancing with locals at each stage. Every once in awhile Despacito would come on (Burmese are obsessed with this song) and we would welcome the familiar tune. All stages were equipped with endless amounts of water hoses so it was similar to dancing underneath a water fall. WE WERE SOAKED! In many places there was at least a foot or more of water and it was like dancing in a kiddy pool. I saw many lost shoes and other paraphernalia floating along the street.
Disclaimer: for my extreme germophobe friends, please skip to the next paragraph. Maybe you know this, but maybe you don’t, but the water in Myanmar is not clean. Much like many other countries in Asia it is advised that you not drink the water, try not to get any water in your mouth or eyes when showering and use bottled water to brush your teeth. I have been following all these precautions religiously and I can say I have been nice and healthy this trip! However, when water is being launched at you from all directions its nearly impossible that it not get in your mouth, eyes and literally every orifice of your body. I could see the water was yellowish and brown in the clear water bottles people were emptying onto me. I was trying desperately to spit out any that snuck in my mouth but I’m a hearty laugher and I was having a great time. I had also packed some eye drops to try to keep my eyes clean, but that was nearly impossible as well. Needless to say I got sick a few days after the festival. Don’t worry I didn’t let it get the best of me! It’s been two weeks and I still have a nasty cough that will most likely hold on for a few more weeks, go me!
After walking the stretch of the main street we headed back to find a restroom and some food. We found a restaurant that wasn’t open but they allowed us to use the toilets. Trying to use the bathroom when you’re soaked like that is very challenging. I’m sure you all know this, but reaffirming, not an easy task. We then sat down at a little side vendor and had some lunch. After our bellies were full and we had dried to the point where we weren’t dripping anymore, we set back out for more. My favorite part was dancing with all the locals, people in Myanmar are generally always happy, but the happiness of this weekend festival is so much more. It is tradition for them to ask each other and everyone if they are happy. Many people walking by, pouring water on us, dancing with us or taking our pictures always asked if we were happy. Of course we were happy, how could you not be when surrounded by so much happiness.
When we had enough of being soaked we found a couple motorbike taxis to drive us back to the hostel. Driving along the streets we were drenched even more by little arsenals of families outside their homes throwing water on anyone who drove by. As we walked into the hostel dripping and leaving a trail of water behind us, the front desk staff just giggled at us. We must have looked ridiculous like drowned rats. We spent the rest of the day by the pool relaxing and drinking beer. Later that night when the sun had set and we hoped to be safe from being ambushed by water we walked back to the same restaurant from the previous night and enjoyed a nice dinner as well as a passing thunder and rain storm. We made a plan to rise super early to catch a sunrise at the famous U Bein Bridge, which ended up being the only tourist attraction we could get to during this crazy weekend. Thank God I have a water proof phone case and GoPro so I could capture all of this for you. Check out my video of Thingyan here. I’m sorry that I am not sorry about the water marks.
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