We were lucky enough to celebrate three New Year’s celebrations this year. We rang in January 1st in Sydney, Australia, on a hill overlooking the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. For Chinese New Year in February, we were in Indonesia on the first day and spent the rest of the festival in Singapore, enjoying several New Year’s-related events like the River Hongbao Festival and the Chingay Parade. Many countries in Southeast Asia, however, celebrate New Year’s in April… with water. Water symbolizes purification, and originally (so I have heard) it was sprinkled onto the heads of elders and onto Buddha images as part of the New Year’s ceremonies. Nowadays it’s more of a water fight. It’s called Songkran in Thailand, Pii Mai in Laos, Thingyan in Myanmar, and Water-Splashing Festival in southern China (celebrated by the Dai people,) but they’re all about the same. Three or four days of lots and lots of water.
We arrived in Myanmar on the first day of the festival, in the evening. The day’s activities had finished already, so we didn’t get splashed at all. The next morning, we were wondering if we would even get wet. Oh boy, did we ever.
We had pre-booked our hotel, which we typically do only if we are going to arrive somewhere after dark, and we wanted to find somewhere cheaper to stay. So after breakfast, we set out to walk to the center of town. I think we had walked about ten steps before the kids next door attacked us, brandishing hoses, water guns, and bowls. I had wrapped my camera in a plastic bag inside my purse, but I really shouldn’t have even brought my purse with me at all. These kids had no mercy. Our clothes were dripping and our shoes were squishing as we walked down the street. And that was only the first group.
Every few buildings or so, and on every street corner in Yangon, there was a gang of kids posted outside, waiting to drench any passersby. Besides the weapons I named above, some people were armed with weapons that looked like bicycle pumps and shot a mean squirt of high-pressure water. Others had filled their water bottles and poked holes in the caps to use it as a squirt bottle. On some streets, there were “pandal,” bleachers specifically set up for Thingyan. Speakers nearby blared music. People crowded into the bleachers, grabbed a hose, and started spraying. Pickup trucks (usually filled with at least 20 teenagers dancing in the back) would drive right by these pandal, so that the occupants could get as wet as possible. I saw some older people walk by without getting splashed, but it seemed like almost everyone was participating.
Kids joyriding during Thingyan- they were waving and screaming "Hello"
Being white foreigners, of course we were special targets. The first three days we were in Myanmar, we were totally soaked the entire time. There was a short break every day for lunch and resting, from about 12- 2:30 pm, providing some respite, but for the most part we were wet all day long. We enjoyed it at first, because it was so hot out, but on the second and third days we looked forward to nightfall so that we could go back to the hotel and put on some dry clothes.
We never did move hotels the first day, because there was just too much going on and we didn’t know about the lunch break. We reached the city center, found it blocked by a pandal, and admitted defeat. We were able to move the next day.
During the late afternoon of our second day, we were walking along the riverside and turned up a random street to get to our hotel. Near an intersection, we chanced upon a small group of people who were playing music, dancing on a table, and heartily throwing water at anything that moved. They poured water down our backs, of course, and we showed off our dancing skills. That amused them so much that they brought out some whiskey and bananas, and invited us to have some. A few of them had relatives in California, and were pleased to hear that we were American. It was nearly 6 pm, though, and the day’s activities were winding down. They asked us to come back, so we spent the whole next day with them, eating and drinking and dancing.
For the record: the Burmese LOVE the World Cup 2010 theme song by Shakira. They would play it two or three times in a row, play something else, then play Shakira again. Wocka wocka hey hey….
It turned out that most of them were related, and the rest were good friends. Most of them knew at least a little English, and a few of them were quite good. They took such good care of us, and gave us so much food and whiskey, that we started to think of them as our Burmese family. They were also kind enough to share their bowls, which are perfect for hurling water at passing trucks and buses. In return, I left my watergun with them. Here’s our family portrait (and for the record, the woman hugging me FORCED me to wear that bright red lipstick):
Someone was even throwing water on us while the photo was taken...
When we left, several of them exhorted us to “come back next year!” I don’t think the finances will allow it, but I would if I could.
Outdoor table dancing- an important part of any New Year's festival