The New Year is often seen as a time for new beginnings, gathering of friends, merriment and good tidings. In England, of course, it’s a night to shiver in sparkly dresses and watch the sky come to life with fireworks. Life grounds to a standstill as revellers take to the streets, pubs and parties. Families come together and celebrate. Resolutions are made, and sometimes, maybe, kept. In England, we’re mid-way through 2012. In Myanmar/Burma, however, the New Year has only just begun. It’s the year 2556 and for Myanmar/Burma, it’s hopefully a year of growth and change. With the world looking anxiously on, the government appears to be making steps towards a much brighter future. It’s far too little, and far too late, but it’s a start. Thingyan, the Burmese New Year, means ‘transit’ and experiencing it seems the perfect reflection of the country’s political changes.
Thingyan dates back millennia to a Buddhist version of a Hindi myth. After losing a wager to the King of Devas, the King of Brahmas was decapitated. His body, with the addition of an elephant’s head, became Ganesha. His own head was too powerful to be allowed to fall or rise. Six or seven devi princesses were charged with protecting the head, with the head changing guardian annually, at Thingyan. The first day, now set to April 13, is a religious day of prayer and offering. The first drops of water come down gently; sprinkled on idols in a purifying ritual. Monks and nuns offer blessings and young monks begin their tutelage.
For the next four days, however, the peace is abruptly shattered. Water is suddenly everywhere. For the previous week, racks of waterproof casings for phones and cameras have sprung up like the traditional padauk flowers. Many years ago, water was gently sprinkled on the heads of elders on the final day, cleansing and blessing them for the coming year. Now, it’s soaking wet carnage. The entire country, it seems, arms themselves with buckets, hoses, saucepans, cups, water guns…. It’s impossible to walk down the street without getting ‘cleansed’ repeatedly. In Mandalay, the main stages line the palace walls, and fire-hoses suck water from the moats to spray the crowds. In the blazing heat, tipping ice water on someone seems almost kind, but more mischievous sorts keep it on late into the night. Surprisingly, it all stays in good spirits. Thingyan is known for its practical jokes. From hiding chillies in the traditional mont lone yeibaw to rubbing soot on the faces of pranksters, everyone is fair game. And, for once, so is the government! Keep an eye out for elaborately decorated floats hosting politically and socially inspired rappers. Taking on everything from HIV/AIDS to corruption, it’s the public’s chance to take to the microphone and poetically vent.
Staying dry is a nearly impossible (and quite frankly, pointless!) challenge. All it takes is one soaking and you may as well throw up your soggy hands and accept you’re in for another wet day. Dress appropriately in fast drying clothes and avoid anything white or clinging. While Thailand’s Songkram may have a reputation for tourists in bikinis and boardies, Myanmar is far far more conservative. Cover up! Women in particular will only be more if a target if they don’t. Carry only what you need with you and keep it in a waterproof container, particularly your camera. That water in the buckets? If it’s icy, you’re in luck! Otherwise, it’s probably not purified and filled to the brim with the grimy reasons you’re told not to drink the water. Make sure you check regularly for any open cuts and keep them disinfected. If you do want to stay dry…. Forget it! While most people are prepared to accept ‘no’, the streets are flooded, hoses are spraying at random, and there’s always the one special person who just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Join in, have fun and, remember, you’ll soon dry!
All of the country, concerts are held. Whether watching traditional dancing or partying to the ubiquitous Myanmar cover bands (everything from ACDC to Justin Bieber), the entire population comes out to celebrate! The crush of humanity can become dangerous as people block thoroughfares with motorbikes and cars. Given what’s known of their human rights record, it’s a pleasant surprise to see the Myanmar army make a conscious effort to protect women and children. Pulling them out of the crush, they are greeted by a kindly army medic, water, and a steady supply of home-made smelling salts. If you are braving some of the more crowded areas, be prepared for it to get dangerously crowded. Stick together and have a designated meeting space. Ironically, given the amount of water, it’s easy to get dehydrated. An elderly man wishing to discuss ABBA and David Cameron advised me to ‘drink beer. The carbohydrates will keep you hydrated.’ But rehydration salts, readily available in Myanmar’s pharmacies, are the more standard means.
By mid-morning, some have reached a level of nearly unbelievable drunkenness. Every year, drunkenness causes death and injury, earning water festivals around South East Asia the sobering epithet ‘week of death’. Drunk and dangerous driving is the cause of most of the deaths. Most buses, trains and boats won’t run during Thingyan (something to bear in mind if you are planning to travel). But if you are on the roads, be careful. Young people race around the city on bikes and standing in truck beds, getting soaked by their eager roadside companions. Unless you are a competent driver, now is not the time to learn to negotiate a foot of water with another barrage from above! Just going for a walk is perhaps one of the best ways to watch the festivities; from the ancient and sacred to rock music and madness!
Children are in a state of near delirious happiness for a week. Free sugary sweets and normally sensible parents encouraging them to spray complete strangers with hoses must be a dream come true! Families come together to hand out traditional food and, like in England, make New Year’s resolutions. The country is filled with laughter and goodwill. It’s remarkable how involved everyone is. In this day and age, how often do we all stop, take time to wish well to complete strangers, dance in the street, and make steps towards a brighter future? Not often enough, I say. So roll on, Thingyan. We all need more buckets of water and joy in our lives.
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