WELCOME TO THE WORLD’S MOST EPIC WATER BATTLE!
You think you’ve had epic water battles before? Not until you’ve experienced the Thingyan Water Festival in Myanmar. Forget about your puny squirt guns fights from childhood. When you rock up to the biggest celebration in Myanmar, you’ll be out-matched by happiness, smiles, and a never-ending H20 destruction delivered from double-barreled water canons wielded by grinning children. Battle may be a poor word given the origins and purpose of Thingyan, but it’s all in good fun.
WHAT IS THINGYAN?
The festival of Thingyan is the celebration of the New Year in Myanmar, and what follows is as beautiful as it is chaotic. Unlike our (Western) New Year celebrations that take place on the first of January, the Myanmar Thingyan festival begins around the 13th of March, varying a day or two each year based on the Burmese lunisolar cycles. The closest thing you can get to this water-soaked mayhem of glee is Thailand’s Songkran or the Cambodian New Year, otherwise, I’ve never seen anything this awesome.
WHAT GOES DOWN?
For the purpose of washing the previous year’s sins away and beginning the new year with a clean spirit, everyone douses each other in buckets of ice water or receives blasts to the face by water canons from every direction. People run amok covered in thanaka, the white paste you see on faces for sun block with yellow padauk flowers in their hair, and bless everyone and all possessions with scented mint water. Oh, and there is, of course, the fire trucks and people with massive high-powered hoses on the look-out for unsuspecting travelers.
To stay dry is futile.
Thingyan isn’t just water battles, music, and dancing (though that’s a huge part) but one of the biggest Buddhist celebrations based around the forming of the god Ganesha. Leading up through the first night of Thingyan, Myanmar people celebrating are supposed to follow a set of 8 rules, while during the festival many visit temples and give blessings to monks.
RULES OF THINGYAN
– Refrain from killing living creatures
– Refrain from stealing
– Refrain from sexual activity
– Refrain from lying or using incorrect speech
– Refrain from using alcohol or drugs
– Refrain from seeking entertainment
– Refrain from eating during fasting periods
– Refrain from sleeping on high places
HOW TO PREPARE FOR THINGYAN MAYHEM
When you have an entire country involved in a festival (it is a public holiday Buddhist or not after all) that means you’re going to have tens of thousands of people hitting the streets or traveling inside that country. And that means you need to be prepared more than most countries. I should know after experiencing Thingyan first hand without even knowing it was coming up.
BOOK YOUR STAY AHEAD OF ARRIVAL
When I traveled to Myanmar with a couple of friends, there was no preplanning done at all. Besides booking the first couple of nights at a hostel so we could all find each other, but after that, it was almost an impossible feat to get anywhere or find a place to sleep. Even though we booked beds in a hostel in Yangon, the hostel overbooked and people were left either switching rooms or without a place to stay.
If Yangon is your first stop, it is a must that you book your hostel ahead as most places were full. When you get out to Inle or Bagan it was still relatively filled up and will be good to still book before you arrive. Other major cities like Mandalay, an epicenter of the Thingyan celebrations and attractions like U Bein Bridge, need to be booked ahead as well.
BE DILIGENT ABOUT TRANSPORTATION
It’s almost impossible to book bus and train tickets online, and I can’t say from experience if certain sites that offer online ticket purchases are trustworthy. At the same time, when our group arrived in Yangon, every backpacker we met at the hostel sat in utter despair. Groups would return after searching for hours for bus tickets out of Yangon with their heads down complaining that everyone was stuck there and no transport was available.
We ventured out with a positive attitude and happened to meet a friendly local teacher who wanted to help us. He took us to a ticket seller only he knew to purchase tickets. We kept our guard high but he made sure to not let us book hotels and other add-ons with them because it was too expensive.
WHAT TO DO ON ARRIVAL
When you first arrive, go to the main train/bus station or talk to your hostel about where to go. After that, find the smaller ticket sellers that will undoubtedly rip you off price wise, but is a good last ditch.
SUIT UP & ARM UP!
For the 3-5 days of Thingyan (and sometimes a little after) no matter where you go there will be water spraying. Even on our train ride to Hsipaw, people chucked buckets of water through the train windows.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by everything after a day or two of the festivities given most of your time is spent soggy and cold once the sun goes down. Even a stroll to dinner is hard to do without getting soaked. Be patient, and if you REALLY don’t want to get wet most of the time a no with a hand up and a head shake will suffice. Don’t get mad, it’s all in good fun and it is their celebration you’re taking part in.
Stay hydrated. (Hah!)
I’m not joking about this one. It’s easy to get caught up in the Thingyan chaos from sunrise to sunset. Toss in the summer heat and drinking alcohol and it’s easy to get dehydrated. Every time you stop for a meal, drink a bottle of water. Every couple of hours drink water, it’ll do you loads of good.
After being hospitalized in Thailand during Songkran because I got ill from the water, it’s extremely important to protect yourself. With water coming from all sources; rivers and streams, to canals and sewers — the risk of getting sick is high. Make sure to wear sunglasses at least or goggles to protect your eyes, and always spit out any water that gets in your mouth. Pop some dissolving multivitamin power inside your water bottles for an immune boost. Wear sunscreen often as it’s still easy to get burned.
Thingyan is a unique festival based around a beautiful culture and practice. Be involved and be respectful, Myanmar people are some of the most wonderful and open people I’ve met on my travels. The way their faces lit up when they saw a foreigner coming to celebrate with them, and the way they all yelled at us, “Are you happyyyyy?” showed just how much they just want you to have fun. In a country that has been closed off to tourism until the past decade, it’s an exciting time to visit and share their culture.
If you’re lucky enough, you may just get invited onto the stage like we did to dance and jam in front of thousands of Myanmar people and ring in their new year.
Are you ready?