Each year from the 13th – 16th of April Myanmar hosts its traditional New Year’s festival Thingyan. The celebrations spread across the country but the place to be in Mandalay. During April the weather becomes unbearably hot. Days are often in the low to mid forties with little to no breeze. It’s the perfect time to host the country’s largest water fight. Everyone from small children to old aged pensioners arm themselves with water pistols, buckets and hoses on a mission to make sure no one walks the street dry. Thingyan is Myanmar’s biggest holiday and you definitely get the feeling they wait in anticipation all year for it to begin. For some the excitement gets too much, I was soaked a couple of times on a train journey to Mawlamyine 2 weeks before it all began!
The dates for Thingy in Myanmar were traditionally decided according to the Burmese Lunisolar calendar. However, the dates are now fixed so the Burmese water festival dates are 13th – 16th of April on the Gregorian calendar. This is also considered to be the most significant public holiday throughout the country and coincides with the school summer holidays.
History of Myanmar Thingyan.
Originating from the Buddhist Version of Hundu Myth. A wager between the King of Devas, Sakra (Thingya Min) and The King of Brahmas, Arsi which resulted in the decapitation of Arsi as agreed. However, Arsi’s head was to be replaced with an elephants resulting in the body become Ganesha. The Brahma possessed so much power that if it were thrown on to land it’d burn. If it were thrown into the sea it would instantly dry up. If it was thrown up into the air the skys would turn to flames. Sakra decided that the head was to be carried by one princess devi for a year at a time each. The water festival (Thangya) now signifies the changing of the hands of the Brahma’s head.
My experiences at the water festival.
I can’t honestly say I’ve been to many street festivals in my life. Only Notting Hill Carnival, Songkran in Phenom Penn (worst idea ever) and a few other small city ones. But this has by far been the best experience I have ever had.
What I liked so much about Thingyan?
- Everyone from children to senior citizens are getting involved.
- The overall mood is electric.
- Although it can seem very aggressive it’s all taken in great spirit
- Cultural Taboos are lifted
- The entire event is free (you just need to pay to arm yourself!)
The begging of day one.
We arrived from Bagan in the early hours of the morning. Thankfully the staff at ET hotel are extremely helpful and let us check in at around 4am for free. We’d woken up to late to catch the free breakfast at ET Hotel (rookie mistake). To our surprise we bumped into our two Dutch friends that I’d originally met in Yangon and then went on the sunrise boat tour in Bagan. They’d came from the airport with this wonderful couple who write this blog. Definitely worth a read.
We all went for breakfast around the corner from the hotel at about 11:30am, even at this time in the morning there were Myanmar people well on their way to a drunken fun day. If you’re at a restaurant during the water festival there seems to be a bit of ‘Water Fight Etiquette’. People will come up and ask to pour water down your back and then thank you for letting them do so. As everyone else was doing it we figured we would follow suit and bought a bottle of rum with breakfast. Rum and Whisky are extremely cheap in Myanmar. The price doesn’t really increase either if you buy it from a bar, restaurant or shop. For 1 litre of decent tasting rum/whisky it’ll cost you around 1500-2500 Kyats. ($1.5-$2.5USD)
After breakfast we were all feeling a lot more ready for action. At this time we didn’t really have too much of an idea as to what was happening so we just followed the madness. The streets are lines with people armed with whatever means necessary to take part in the water fight.
The main party area seems to take place along the Palace moat. Stages are set up every 20 or so meters and are all equipped with hundreds of hose pipes constantly pumping water from the moat. There is 4 lanes worth of road running the entire way around the moat. The 2 lanes closest are the ones where the overcrowded vehicles slowly crawl past the mayhem of the stages. The other two lanes are slightly less chaotic but is a good place to stand if you want to catch your breath.
Once we reached the traffic jammed moat we were offered numerous times to climb aboard different pick-up trucks. This was one of my favorite ways to get involved with the atmosphere. They were extremely happy to have us aboard and kept constantly offering us drinks, food and beetle nut.
Another fun thing to do is get up on the stages and blast water at the people below. We weren’t really sure of what the deal was with getting up on the stages was. They seemed very excited to let our group of 6 up on different stages without having to pay (not sure if anyone had to pay). It wasn’t very clear if you were meant to pay, have tickets or queue. The views from the stage are phenomenal. I really wish I had a decent waterproof camera to try and capture the views.
Its very easy to lose your group during the water festival. I’m pretty sure at some point we were all on different pickups/stages. At the end of the day I couldn’t find the rest of the group. I asked a family that where on the back of a pickup which was the best way back to ET hostel. They pulled my aboard and filled me full of more whisky. Jack, was the father on the back of the pickup truck, invited me back to their home for drinks and some local food. I couldn’t resist. They lived in an area about 45 minutes outside of Mandalay in a small town where they sold green tea for a living. I was offered an overly generous amount of food including one of my favorite Myanmar dishes pickled tea and dried beans. Before Jack offered to take me back home they had presents for me. He took me to his living room and bought out a Longyi that was in his traditional tribes colors (purple, blue and orange). It was a very funny moment trying to learn how put on a longyi especially when everyone is a bit drunk.
When the sun goes down the water fights are put on hold until the next day. During the festival hardly any shops or restaurants are open for business. Trying to find places to eat can be a bit tricky but they are there. My favorite place to eat in Mandalay is the Chapatti stall on the corner of 81st street and 27th. They are open during the festival from 5pm. The food is incredible and is extremely cheap!
The second day started off pretty slowly. Everyone seemed to be feeling the effects of the day before and I fancied having an admin day. I went for breakfast with my roommate at the place we’d ate the day before. Not really sure what we fancied we decided to play the order what you don’t know game. We ended up with some pretty amazing dishes and one not so. Unfortunately due to the water festival I couldn’t take any photos of the food ro the menu so you’ll have to take my word for it.
After a couple of hours of emailing/skyping I went for a walk around town for a good couple of hours and somehow managed to stay pretty much dry. They must have sensed my mood. I met up with two of the others about 5:00pm and we went for dinner and a couple of beers. We went to what was easily my favorite place to eat in Myanmar. We’d named him Chippatti man. A friend told us about him who we did the Boat from from Mawlamyine to Hpa-an. It’s a restaurant on the corner of 82th and 27th. Its incredible food and is unbelievably cheap.
We were all reasonably well rested and decided we’d make the most of our last day. It was business as usual once we’d reached a restaurant for late breakfast early dinner. Rice and veg all round with bottle of Rum to wash it down. This was meant to be the biggest and last day of the water festival so we had extremely high hopes. The plan for the day was to just play on the stages. The trucks are extremely fun but it gets exhausting and you spend a lot of time shouting to one another with your hands over your face. Over all the day was amazing. The stories aren’t too different from the first day. We’d met and mingled with a load of locals and fun was had by all.
If I had to give some advice for the festival it’d be;
Don’t try to fight it, you will lose – They wait all year for this and unless you stay in your hotel there’s no staying dry.
Get a waterproof camera – In our group of 6 not one of us had a waterproof camera. The only photos we managed to get were from Alex’s iPhone that he kept in a dry bag. These were only possible to take during the breaks in the stages and still a huge gamble.
Don’t rent a motorbike – Even if you’re an experienced motorcyclist the streets here are incredibly dangerous during Thingyan. The streets are mostly floored and the majority of other road users are intoxicated. Then to add to the danger people are running out into the road with buckets of water to try and soak you.