Postcards from Burma
Week-long Water fight
THIS week is the biggest in the Myanmar calendar - it’s the Myanmar
new year and is celebrated with Thingyan, the water festival, which is
probably the most unusual celebration you’ve ever heard of. Its
roots lie in the ancient practice of sprinkling water on the heads of
grateful recipients as a symbol of cleansing and renewal, but the practice
in Yangon today is far removed from its gentle beginnings.
THE city closes down for a week, and that means completely closed down.
Everyone is on holiday. No newspapers are printed, no shops are open,
no markets happen, no buses or taxis, the only sign of commercial activity
is in the half-dozen international hotels if you could get to them.
MANY people return to their home towns in the countryside for the holiday,
a few go into retreat in monasteries, but the vast majority is out on
the streets of Yangon and they’re ready to party.
PANDALS are built along the sides of the road in the main thoroughfares.
They are wooden platforms, about head high. People buy tickets to stand
on them and are provided with hoses and buckets to drench the passers-by.
The flash ones have a second platform, higher up and to the rear, where
rock bands play, hopefully out of reach of the water. The people who don’t
take a place on a pandal, walk or ride in trucks or home-made jeeps (known
here as Myanmar Mercedes) around the streets armed with buckets and water
pistols and drench those on the pandals.
AT the same time, everyone is drinking as if there’s no tomorrow.
One very demure Myanmar girl, in traditional dress and looking as if butter
wouldn’t melt in her mouth, told me yesterday with great glee, «It’s
the only time of the year when women are allowed to drink.»
ONE reporter, writing advice to newcomers to Thingyan, said, «If
you are driving around the streets, make sure your driver is not drunk,
or at least not over drunk», which was no doubt good advice but
I’m not exactly sure how you tell the difference.
HE also advises that you wear thick jeans and jackets, because the firehoses
power the water out at great pressure and can hurt. You should, apparently,
plug up your ears with cotton rags as the water comes from the lake and
will give you ear infections, not to mention the damage a direct hit from
a firehose might do to your eardrum. But last year, only 17 people were
killed and 102 injured over Thingyan so the odds are pretty good.
IT is important to keep your sense of humour, because Thingyan is a time
of joy and merriment — a person who gets angry at Thingyan will
spoil their whole year. This means, apparently, that not only do you have
to enjoy getting wet, but it is the habit of people to say rude and offensive
things but they are only teasing so you must respond joyfully.
DURING daylight hours for the whole four days, you must expect that if
you emerge from your front door you will be soaked, either by a passing
vehicle or a passing person with a bucket. The only way to stay dry is
to stay indoors.
AND here’s another wrinkle. As I write this the office is preparing
to shut down for the festival and suddenly people with water bottles are
surreptitiously tipping water down people’s backs with much shrieking
. . . and the festival doesn’t start until Wednesday! Later today
there will be a party in the office, in the same way as we have Christmas
drinks, and all the staff will get a present.
THE giving of presents at Thingyan is a meritorious act, and even the
poorest families try to hand out snacks they have made to passers by in
the street. In the supermarkets there are «merit baskets»
containing a set of monk’s robes, a fan and a pair of slippers (thongs)
which you can buy and donate to a monastery to gain merit at this time.
IT promises to be a fascinating experience. I’ll be out of touch
next week because there’ll be nowhere to send email from - but hopefully
I’ll be back, somewhat damper, when it’s all over.
From the Townsville bulletin, 09 April 2005