A festival is brewing. Like a much-needed storm to break the hot and humid weather, Thingyan is needed to clear the spirit and renew the soul in preparation for the Myanmar New Year. Four to five days of washing away one’s sins of the previous year makes one ready to pay obeisance to your elders, make New Year’s resolutions and gain merit or possibly even become a novice and join the monks to be immersed in the teachings of Buddha.
It is also the opportunity to gather together (the Government having relaxed the rules on mass gatherings for this period), throw water at each other, play pranks, dance, and eat. It is a boisterous time that allows the normally calm population to let off steam (literally, when drenched with cold, dirty water, in 40 degree heat!).
The Burmese enjoy a good celebration and will find any excuse to have one. Aside from the public holidays (often dictated by Government, not calendar) there are often festive parades occurring. Drummers, pipers and singers crowd onto the back of a truck, broadcasting tinnily to the world through speakers tied onto the roof with rope, for any number of unfathomable religious reasons. But they are growing in size, volume and frequency as the countdown to Thingyan continues.
Anticipation has risen with the temperature in Yangon. Stages, called pandals, which double as water spraying stations and dance floors, have gone up around lakes and on key roads, often sponsored by rich and powerful families in the area; yellow Thingyan flowers (padauk) have been decorating businesses and taxis for weeks; hoses, water pistols and plastic wallets to keep your phone dry have been on sale on stalls and in supermarkets or sold on the road by strolling hawkers; the population has got slower and lazier and the taxi drivers crazier as the excitement has grown.
The day before festivities really kick off everything seems quiet. The city shuts down for the week and many businesses have started their holiday early. A sense of calm holds back the tide of celebrations. But for how long?
The religious broadcasts so beloved by our neighbourhood start early in the morning. Actually, the festivities began last night with what sounded like a Bollywood party happening somewhere nearby. By 5am the megaphone sermons are underway at one of the monasteries close by. Yet, from my building, everything seems normal. There are less people on the streets but life continues to pass close by and everyone seems dry and happy.
Later, I spot one or two boys on bikes, dripping wet and looking for the next soaking. I start to wonder if going out is a good idea but having made myself stay to see the event I know I will have to go eventually, or kick myself for a missed opportunity.
I venture out around 5pm. The day is cooler, a little over cast, and safer than venturing out, pale skinned, to get soaked and burnt in the hottest month of the year. At first, nothing happens. I start to wander around the neighbourhood but the streets are very quiet. Then I see a small boy, looking nervously at me with a plastic bucket in his hand. His father is with him and I smile at him, and nod. The father encourages his son to approach me and douse me with water. It is very gently done and I only yelp because the water is quite cold! The boy beams, and so does his father, as I mumble Happy Thingyan and walk on. Suddenly, the streets seem full of small groups of children and men with hoses, buckets, water guns and loud music. I deliberately take paths that lead me past them, smiling and nodding to let them know it’s ok, that I want to join in, although the fact that I’m already wet helps take away their caution. I’m often escorted through the melee by a parent, and asked if I’m OK? Passers by smile and laugh with me (and at me!) It is a sweet experience.
I head down towards Insein Road where loud music suggests a more boisterous atmosphere. There are no stages on Insein or Inya Lake Road nearby. If there were, the already unbearable traffic would grind to a halt. I can see the road glistening in the sunlight before I even get there and as I turn on to it I see a small water station dousing passing cars. Many people are crowded onto the back of trucks rolling slowly past the stations cheering and yelling and throwing water back out onto passers by. The bucket aimed at me missed but I was caught instead by a little old lady in a food stall, who got me square in the back with a cup of water. I spun around and laughed when I realised where the water had come from, and she laughed with me.
After a while, I head home, water logged, with squeaking shoes. I can imagine that over the week, the water-fights become less reverential and I know from my students that it isn’t always the charming experience I had. Water from the lakes (or worse) is used, as residential water is limited until the monsoon season starts in a month or so. And the water here is not safe to ingest at any time! Pranksters are known to put ice, or worse still, stones, into the buckets of water that are thrown and drinking (and drink driving) results in plenty of accidents.
But my brief experience of Thingyan was positive. I return home feeling baptized and ready to begin my own new year. I start my travels again tomorrow and I hope I can now go with an open heart and soul, ready to embrace another new phase of my life.