Along with Thailand, Laos and Cambodia (you can read my blog post on Khmer New Year here) Myanmar celebrates a multi day water festival for the new year each April, usually between the 13th – 17th, which is known as Thingyan.
Thingyan is celebrated with a week long public holiday (although this could be a much as 10 days for some) and you can expect all government offices and businesses, including most shops and restaurants, to be closed during this period.
Tourists wishing to visit at this time of year should ensure they have their travel arrangements booked well in advance, as Cities such as Yangon see a mass exodus of people heading home to spend the festive season with their families, making bus and train tickets, and to a lesser extent flight tickets, extremely hard to come by. This is also the busiest time of the year to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest place in Myanmar, with people coming to make offerings from all over the country.
There are a lot of traditions attached to celebrating Thingyan, I have read that people are expected to follow the 8 “precepts” of Buddhism (Refraining from lying, stealing, using alcohol or drugs as well as not killing any living creature, abstaining from sexual activity and entertainment, avoiding sleeping in a high place and fasting on the eve of Thingyan) although I guess parts of these are fairly loosely observed these days as it has been hard to avoid all the Thingyan parties, and everything that is to be expected with a good party 😉
More common celebrations include making monk offerings of bananas and coconuts, the streets of Yangon seem to be full of little make shift shrines filled with offerings, making merit by releasing fish or birds back into nature, and of course the use of water, whether it is the ritual washing of buddha statues with floral scented water, or roaming the streets armed with super soakers, buckets and in many cases fire hoses (!!!) ready to douse everyone in sight!
The water not only helps to cool people down, something that is most welcome in what is one of the hottest months of the year (we are expecting highs of 39 degrees today) but it also serves as a symbolic “washing away of sins” and any bad luck from the previous year so that you can start the new year afresh.
In the run up to Thingyan you will have noticed stages or pandals being erected all over town, with some of the largest to be found around Sule Square which is home to some of the biggest celebrations. Here, enthusiastic onlookers will pay a small fee in order to get a better vantage point of the celebrations, and more importantly a better location for spraying people with water!
For the uninitiated, it is worth remembering to keep your camera, mobile phone, wallet and passport safe in a waterproof wrapping as being tourist will make you a prime target for mischievous onlookers!
Leave the valuables at home, wear something you don’t mind getting soaking wet and enjoy the spirit in which these festivities are intended, it really is a whole lot of fun! It is also worth remembering that a lot, if not most of the water will have been taken from the lake or the river and will of course not be clean, so do your best not to swallow it or get it in your eyes, and keep any open wounds, cuts or sores covered so you don’t get a nasty infection.
Don’t think you are safe even if you happen to be in a taxi, or on public transport, people will think nothing of opening your car door to launch a surprise water fight, so you are best to keep the doors locked and the windows up and you might be wise to bring a towel with you if you are going on a longer journey.
Burmese people generally dress and behave very conservatively but you will definitely notice a more relaxed dresscode during Thingyan, not to mention people losing their inhibitions and really letting their hair down. Personally I would suggest it is worth giving some consideration as to what you wear, especially if you are a lady, as the alcohol flows as freely as the water, and whilst people here are extremely friendly, warm and welcoming, you may not want the added attention that may come with wearing certain types of soaking wet clothes. Yangon is extremely safe for tourists, including lone female travellers, and I have never felt anything less than 100% safe here but it is always best to keep these things in mind.
Have you been in Myanmar over Thingyan? How did you find it? How did you celebrate? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!