This post is massive. Sorry.
This is an account of my experiences during the holiday week for Thingyan, Myanmar’s Water Festival. It runs for three days or some years, like this year, four days and is the Myanmar New Year. It is the largest public holiday observed here; kind of like Christmas in the western world. During the lead up to it many people dressed in all manner of costumes and parade around town collecting money to finance the festival.
Day One of the festival and apparently things are always pretty quiet; people are ramping up for the true festivities to start the next day. I stayed at home, slept, read and listened to music playing from the live stage on the other side of the river. I noticed a few people throwing containers/buckets of water over passers-by on the road below, but nothing crazy.
Po Po had organised for us, along with her (English-speaking) cousin, Ko Phyo and school friend, Mi Mi to go for a road trip to Chaung Thar beach, a holiday destination for locals, and then to Pathein, the closest city to Pantanaw. Po Po’s mother owns a car so they hired a driver and we travelled in luxury to the beach, leaving at 4:30am in an attempt to miss most of the holiday traffic. The roads were relatively smooth and nicely sealed for most of the way, but as we traversed hills on the approach to the beach things got a bit rougher and dirtier. Along the way there were a few families out throwing buckets of water at passing motorcyclists or hosing them down as they sped past. I was glad to avoid this in our luxury chauffeured car.
[I think my three companions are from wealthy families and used to the ways of “luxury” … Po Po’s mum owns a guesthouse, Ko Phyo’s family a tea shop, and Mi Mi’s family a restaurant. I use quotation marks because it’s still far below our idea of normality, and without this “luxury” I’m not sure how long I could manage staying here (see my account of trip number two for the week below).]
On arrival at the beach resort wev first encountered some guest house buildings made of brick and stone like usual, followed by some temporary guest houses consisting of rows of bamboo huts. It was crowded with people walking, riding or driving around the narrow, muddy roads, browsing t-shirts, shorts and other souvenirs in bamboo shops or eating/drinking in tea houses. We weaved our way through the maze of shops and tea houses on muddy paths with temporary wooden bridges over particularly wet parts, passed through a screen and finally made it onto the beach. Wow. (This is a very different “wow” to a NZ beach “wow”.) I’m sure you can predict my description, but there were people EVERYWHERE. It was hard to see the beach for the coloured umbrellas, bicycles, animals, sellers and bathers. Craziness, but so much to look at!
First stop we bought some special woven hats for the occasion. These last only about 3 days as they are made out of a fresh flax-like plant, the ends of the leaves are left hanging off the hat so they have a spiky edge on them. The sellers are easy to spot as they’re generally walking around with a stack of about twenty hats on their head.
Next stop was the bicycle hire stand where we all picked up rusted out, dilapidated bikes to transport us up the beach to some rocks, one of which was painted gold (in true Myanmar style). This, I gathered was the location for the first of many photo shoots. Great. At least everyone around us was doing the same.
We then biked back down the beach and sat under an umbrella at one of the tables where I could take some time to absorb everything. Coconut in hand, I watched the horses painted with zebra stripes and the cart-pulling cows give rides to children up and down the beach, a candyfloss seller waiting for customers, a man with glass cases full of dead sea creatures for sale (too expensive here; apparently you can get them cheaper in Yangon), women with silver trays on their heads mostly full of barbecued fish or prawns on sticks for sale, and the hundreds of people who took a second glance when they saw white skin on their beach. And so the Hellos to and from random people begins. It was also here that I got my first hands on experience of Thingyan though, in retrospect, a very tame experience. People would approach with a bottle of water, tentatively pour it down my back and then thank me for the privilege before leaving. Strange.
After sampling some of the barbecued food and fish crackers we decided to go for a swim. Myanmar styles. This meant swimming fully clothed. Pretty hard to get used to but oh well. Mi Mi and Ko Phyo hired some tyre tubes to float around in and we headed into the water. The crowded water. It was warm, but so nice to finally go swimming. People continually approached me to practise their English. “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “Just one?” (I’ve learned that this third question, always asked with a shocked expression, means “Are you all alone? Did you come to Myanmar alone?” I don’t like this one so much).
Health and safety rules on Myanmar beaches are a bit more lax than New Zealand it seems, with boats towing rockets (inflatable boating accessories that are towed behind the boat and seat about six or eight people), jet skis and hordes of people all using the same water. I held my breath on more than one occasion as a jet ski sped through the crowds. Eek.
We headed back to find a changing room (wooden platform with a drum of water on it and tarpaulins hung around it) to get dry and thannaka-ed up. This was my first experience of using the local, natural sun cream and I quite liked it.
Next we drove back to Pathein and had some food, and it was here that I got my first taste of what the Water Festival entails. Everything and everyone was saturated! There were hoses and water guns everywhere and loud, bassy music playing from stages or peoples’ homes on most corners. A giant, watery street party. I was super pleased about my luxury mode of transport here too as I didn’t fancy getting wet while fully-clothed again. Something I needed to get accustomed to for the next couple of days though …
I was dropped off that evening and told that someone would be around to collect me at 8am the next morning. Like with most things, I didn’t really know exactly what for but just said “okay”.
It turned out that there was a stage set up directly opposite Po Po’s house, my destination for 8am this morning. A luxury plastic chair was set out for me (they usually sit on the floor) where I could sit back and watch the action, action that was already underway at 8am in the morning!
There were actually two stages visible from my perch … one that was set up by the local parliamentary office and seemed to be family-friendly, and one that seemed to be manned by some local teenagers. A massive loudspeaker in between the two stages was continually producing very loud gangsta style, hip-hop and dance tunes (when the power was on … there were a few power outages during the day that brought things to a stand still for a time). A lot of the songs were in English and full of obscenities that I doubt the parents would’ve approved of had they known. Each stage had about eight or ten people standing at the front manning the hoses, spraying anyone walking past and the crowds of dancers on the road in front of the stages. There was also a bit of a dance party happening on the stage behind the hoses. The dancers on the streets, for some reason, were all males ranging in age from 3yr to about 70yr. Oh, and three cross-dressers. Some of them were really, really good. They were dressed a bit like gangsters or hip hop artists too … lots of black, bandannas around their mouths, backwards caps and low-rider jeans. Either that or a longyi tucked up at the back so it looked like nappies. It was such great entertainment as I sat eating my prepared breakfast of rice, prawns and green tea. Alone.
If a giant street party like this was happening in New Zealand I would predict that cordons would be in place, streets would be closed to traffic, police would be present monitoring activities. Not in Myanmar. As streets filled with dancers and pedestrians walking between stages (there were several set up all around the town), motorbikes, trucks, farm vehicles, minibuses continued to use the streets and underage kids (I’m sure they were younger than 12yr) drank alcohol in full view of surrounding adults.
About an hour in one of the guys from the teenage-manned stage came over and asked if I’d like to join them on the stage with hoses, so I did. And it was quite fun. I’ve never been so capable of drawing a crowd before, even if it was only to look at the oddity participating in Thingyan. I had a few guys come up to me and spray me with their cologne, which is apparently a fairly recent tradition to avoid having to carry around loads of water. I stayed on this stage for an hour or two, then was escorted back across the road to watch from the sidelines, though people kept coming over to throw water down my back. Around 11:30am things started to turn, as, (it sounded like) they typically did. With the large amounts of alcohol consumed, the men coming together from different surrounding villages, the gangster music and crazy dancing, it seemed that about 3 ½ hours is how long it took for testosterone to take over and fights to break out. This is about when the party got packed up for the morning and everyone went home to rest during the hottest part of the day. I got fed and taken back to the guest house for dry clothes and a rest.
Around 3pm I was escorted by motorbike back to my vantage point to repeat the morning’s activities. Po Po’s mum made up a massive pot of raspberry cordial with ice, which the dads handed out to everyone passing by. Everything else went down similarly but this time I had a continual stream of men approaching me to shake my hand. I’m quite attractive to the men over here it seems. Woot. I also got invited into the local parliamentary office for some homebrew and snacks – their first ever foreign visitor. Did I mention I’m a mere teacher from New Zealand? Oh, and some of the teenagers snuck away to get some wine for us to share. I had a few gulps. Reliving the rebellious teenage years, I never had.
Someone related to Po Po brought over some traditional food they make for Thingyan – a glutinous rice ball with coconut on the outside and a crunchy bit of palm sugar on the inside. Quite tasty.
Then I was escorted home to relax. I’d been thinking everyone was paranoid for not letting me walk anywhere alone but, after seeing the fights today, I was actually glad for my motorbike escort.
Events on Thursday seemed to proceed much the same as Wednesday, though it all seemed to start a little slower today, being the fourth day of partying and all.
Towards the end of the morning session I was offered a ride around town to look at the goings on. There were similar stages set up at various points around the town and in between small families throwing buckets of water on everyone. Some had put ice in their water – a bit of a shock to the body.
I didn’t attend the afternoon session as I was getting ready to join a lady who I’d met at an NLD function on her family trip…
So, all I knew about this trip was that I would be getting picked up at 6pm, travelling by “light truck” for around ten hours to a pagoda with 14 others. I had asked someone if it was the pagoda up a hill by the large, golden rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda) to which they’d said “yes” and smiled. I was pretty keen to see this pagoda so thought I would jump at the opportunity despite the ten hours of travel. It soon became apparent that a smile and a “yes” does not mean “yes”. I think it may mean that they recognised a word out of the sentence I said… or just want me to shut up and stop trying to communicate with them.
Anyway, someone came to collect me on foot around 7:15pm and we walked back to their house where I waited until we left around 8pm. Our mode of transport was a small truck. We all (14 of us) sat on the flat wooden deck on a woven mat, with Gramps up in front. This was comfortable for about … fifteen minutes. It soon became apparent that I could not fold myself in quite the same way that they can, thus the variety of positions I could assume in my allocated space was somewhat less. Plus I have a greater need for some degree of personal space, particularly with strangers. So, as my physics students could hopefully tell you, a larger mass distributed over a smaller surface area makes for a larger amount of pressure on said surface area, namely, my butt. Ouch. The journey, including a 1–2 hour breakdown on the motorway during which time everyone stayed on the truck, took fifteen hours. Yup, that’s right.
We arrived at our destination at 11am, the same hour I learned what our destination was. We had travelled to some kind of way over-populated “river resort” beside a pagoda on a hill (not a hill with a golden rock), called Mann Shwe Set Thaw. There were hundreds or maybe thousands of temporary bamboo “guest houses” on either side of the river for several hundred metres. We were staying in two very cosy, very basic rooms – one for the males, one for the females (even though there were two married couples among us). The very slow-moving river had been segmented into what looked like ponds by bamboo bridges. On arrival I was a little horrified to see everyone hurry to get changed and jump into the river because (too many) people were doing all manner of things in the water; cleaning their teeth, washing their hair, washing their clothes, jumping around and playing with tubes. They were very persistent in getting me to “play” in the water but I just couldn’t face it, even though I soon realised that this was the main purpose of the trip. I tried to tell them that in New Zealand we have different water for washing and for playing and they pretended to understand but kept insisting I join them. In the end I went for the old “it’s too hot at the moment, sunburn risk for my white skin”. Later in the day they told me I needed to wash, so I sucked it up and spent a few minutes in the water with the soap. We posed for a photo near the end and something looking very akin to faecal matter floated past. Its appearance was confirmed when one of the ladies gently hurried it downstream, but didn’t bother with all of the other debris in the water. Needless to say, I evacuated the river swiftly after this photo but not before I saw one of our party shovelling water into her mouth for a drink. Dry retching.
The rest of the time was spent walking around the shops, visiting the pagoda and eating the food they’d brought with them, all of the time with me in silence and them babbling away in the Myanmar language. Nobody could speak English on this trip. As you may be able to imagine, this started to get to me … after several days “on display” in the water festival I had pretty much reached my limit of being stared at, smiling and saying hello to strangers, sitting politely in conversations I didn’t understand, being made to do things I didn’t want to do, being forced to eat, too much noise, too many people, no privacy, no independence. Oh, and I forgot to mention that earlier in the day we had been saturated several times over driving through villages. It turns out that the water festival does not end when it officially ends. Nobody had warned me and I had my Kindle, my camera and several books with me in the truck that got soaked. This made me very irritable, especially because they weren’t too bothered by it, and I was so sick of being drenched while fully clothed. Grrrr. And I had my first experience of being spat on with betelnut spit. Ick. Luckily, because I was living my life inside my head (joined by the characters of The Goldfinch, which was my company most of the journey), the reaching of my limits also seemed to be contained within my head. The rest of the party did not notice except for, perhaps, a less freely-given smile. What made it so hard was that they were being so nice and generous. I couldn’t pay for a thing myself. They bought me presents and were trying so hard to make my time fun. And I was trying really hard not to disappoint them or make them worry that I wasn’t happy. Little did they know that their attentiveness was the very cause of my discomfort…
Sorry, I haven’t finished my rant yet … so our accommodation was a very small bamboo hut with gappy horizontal bamboo making up the (very uncomfortable) floor and gaps between the walls and the roof. For some unknown reason the ladies in my room left the light on ALL night, they had intermittent conversations throughout the entire night, and the noise of partyers and motorbikes outside continued all night. I slept very little after having slept very little on the back of the truck the night before. And to top it all off, I woke up with trails of bite marks down both of my arms.
At 6am the next morning we left to go home in the same manner as we arrived. With very little patience and tolerance and enthusiasm for the trip left in my stores I decided it would be best to spend the entire journey in the company of the Game of Thrones characters (on to the next book already). So my Kindle and I strengthened our already strong, understanding bond. Luckily it was only a twelve hour journey home (including an hour and a half stop to change a tyre!) so I made it home by 6pm. The relief! I thanked my hostess for the privilege – “interesting” and “different” were my choice of descriptive words I think – and hurried upstairs to my mattress!
Why anyone would want to spend 27 hours traveling to an overcrowded, dirty river where they spend 19 hours swimming in filthy water, applying and reapplying makeup (!), sleeping in discomfort and wandering shops full of junk, I don’t know. It definitely made me appreciate New Zealand a lot!! Driving my own car to visit much nicer destinations in much less time. Ahhh. Oh, and the funny thing is, in Pantanaw we live beside a much nicer, cleaner river where none of the women want to swim because they’re worried about their skin getting dark in the sun. I just don’t get it.
It took me so long to write this post I have sweat patches on my legs where the computer’s been.