“Are you happy?” the inebriated Burmese man would ask, right before he drenched my back with a bucket of ice water. I would shiver, shoot him a huge smile with two thumbs up and yell over the music, “Happy happy!” With that we would both embrace, start dancing and share a bottle of whiskey. Walk one metre, be greeted by another intoxicated man screaming, “Are you happy?” and the process would repeat itself.
This is Thingyan. A celebration of the Buddhist New Year in Myanmar. Its Thai counterpart, Songkran, is already famous as one of the largest water festivals in the world. However Myanmar is quickly gaining momentum as the new “it” place to bring in the new year.
The concept behind Thingyan is that through the liberal use of water, you can wash away your sins from the previous year. They Burmese people celebrate this practice during the four days leading up to the new year by throwing huge parties in various cities around the country; predominantly in Mandalay and Yangon. The festivities include huge stages blasting techno music, water pumps tapped directly into huge water sources (such as the moat around the palace in Mandalay), fire hoses drenching everyone in sight and drinking. Lots and lots of drinking.
A word of warning. This is not for the faint-hearted. It sounds like one huge party. And it is. But the intensity level is something that will truly startle you if you are not prepared for it. Off the main streets, it is all harmless fun with little children pouring buckets of water down your bucket. It is smiles and well-wishing.
But in the heart of the festival, where the thousands and thousands of locals are gathered, it is pure madness. Chances are you will be the only foreigner you come across. This is quite special, because it feels like you are a part of something that no other tourist has experienced. On the other hand, you become a spectacle. The extremely drunken Burmese people will latch onto you, make you dance with them and not let go. When you smile and try to move on, they will hold onto your arm and start shaking it in attempts to make you hang around and dance some more. This is all good-natured but can grow tiresome very quickly.
There is never any malice in the people’s actions. They just truly want you to be happy and have a good time. You just need to be ready for the onslaught. The best way to prepare yourself is to drink copious amounts of alcohol. You can buy beer, whiskey and rum everywhere on the streets. A large beer will cost 2000 kyat ($2.20) and a large bottle of rum is a bargain at 1500 kyat ($1.60)! Get in the spirit of things and drink up!
After four days of debauchery and washing your sins away, you will feel exhausted. Non-stop partying and dancing really takes its toll on your body. Constantly being wet leaves your skin looking like you’ve been sitting in the bath for way too long. But it’s fun. Oh damn is it fun! It is something we are glad we experienced. It really felt authentic, especially with the lack of tourists around. If you are ever considering a trip to Myanmar, try and time it around this hectic, insane festival. You will not be disappointed!
Tips For Thingyan
- Waterproof your gear!
You can buy waterproof folders for your phone and other belongings just about everywhere. Make sure you test them before you trust them though.
- Book Accommodation
Things can book out a fair way in advance, especially because many Burmese people return to the big cities for the celebration. Book ahead!
- Pre-Organise Transport
One thing we discovered is that transport rarely runs a few days before, during the festival and a couple of days after. Because of this transport is either ridiculously expensive or booked out. Reserve your tickets early!
N.B. Trains rarely book out as you can only buy tickets up to one day beforehand. This could be a good option if buses are full.
- Embrace The Madness
You will not be able to escape from it. Anywhere. In most cases as soon as you leave your guesthouse you will be soaked by ecstatic kids waiting to pounce with buckets of water. The main areas of the festival will be an absolute riot. Just drink up and embrace what is going to happen!