May Tan

I am soaked from head to toe as I squeeze water out of my hair and attempt to arrange it somewhat. The effort proves futile, as I am immediately bombarded by two kids armed with water guns. They scream in excitement as I fire back with my own, courtesy of the kind neighbour who offered an extra to me. The kids giggle and high five each other as they disappear into the street, noisy and crowded with similar wet-clothed individuals.

The watery chaos is a result of the Thingyan Water Festival in Myanmar, a celebration that takes place on a local holiday. My guide informed me that this was a popular festival that took place annually as an occasion of the new year, for people to ‘wash’ away the sins of the past year and start afresh. This is a time of joy where the people put aside their differences and grievances and engage in enjoying the festivities as much as they can.

On Thingyan Eve, the first day of the festival, people would head to pagodas and temples to pray and offer donations to the monks. They even dedicate themselves to washing the Buddha statue in the morning. Sacred water scented with flower extracts is poured from the top of the statue’s head as the people clean it gently.

The second day is where the fun really starts. I still remember how this evening went – after hearing stories of such festivities from the hotel receptionist, I had already made up my mind to go. She suggested that I wear loose-fitting clothes with my hair down, since I was going to get wet anyway. I was in Yangon, so I made my way to the People’s Park where there was a huge stage placed in the middle of the area. The air was thick with excitement and everyone was carrying multiple buckets or pots, and kids were brandishing their water guns. I felt rather childish carrying my own trinket around, but the smiles and greetings from the locals diminished further thoughts.

A man nudged me; he pointed to the centre of the park where a huge water cannon was being wheeled out. People screamed with excitement as water shot out and scrambled in different directions to collect it in their buckets. There was already a line where people with smaller containers were waiting for their turn; whereas others wasted no time in pouring the water all over the ground. I watched, awe-struck, as the people closed their eyes and muttered a quiet prayer. It was only a brief moment, but I could tell it held high importance to them.

My delay caught me off-guard, as I was immediately drenched with a bucket by a middle-aged man. He laughed and placed his hands together in an apologetic gesture, but continued splashing me with no remorse. I responded by spraying him with my own water gun. Two local women joined us and sprayed us with their hoses, their smiles spread wide with joy and laughter. They really were having the time of their lives.

Amidst the chaos I heard the words “hnit thit ku mingalar pa” uttered several times. I learned that it meant Happy New Year in the local language and took to repeating it back to them. Each time I was met with an enthusiastic grin followed by a splash of cold, refreshing water, but by this time I was already dripping from head to toe that it barely made a difference. Local women dressed in flower skirts and colourful beads around their neck offered us a drink of Mont Lat Saung, a traditional drink with palm sugar mixed with coconut milk. It was a refreshing boost, and I found myself on the streets again, this time amongst a cheering crowd as decorated floats paraded down the street. The lady performers wore padauk blossoms in their hair and moved elegantly to the music as the men hyped up the crowd, chanting and rapping songs in rhythm to the beat.

It was quite a sight to witness hundreds of people, all wet, dancing and moving to their own rhythm with such joy vibrating in the air. I bumped into a group of tourists like me who were travelling the country, and took turns dancing with each other. It didn’t matter that we didn’t understand the words or that the music was completely different from what we were used to; fun was the universal language of that moment.

As the skies slowly darkened, food and drinks were freely distributed around. Some of the older men were enjoying themselves with a special brew of Myanmar Beer. I opted for some warm coffee and joined my fellow travellers. They thanked me for a great time, and offered to meet up should I ever step foot in Myanmar again. I agreed; who wouldn’t, after having such an amazing time?

There were trucks roaming the area, tasked with dropping people off. I waved goodbye to my new friends and hopped onto the vehicle. As I headed back, I spotted remnants of the festivities in the distance. It was admirable how the locals were so welcoming to foreign tourists and their delight at our obvious enjoyment. The Thingyan Water Festival would certainly be the highlight of my travels to Myanmar, and a primary reason for coming back.

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