Thingyan or Spring Festival is the largest and most important holiday in Myanmar. It occurs in April and last for about 4 days depending on what a seer/monk tells the government. It is the only holiday the entire government really recognizes and closes for during the entire week. It is a religious festival designed to precede the New Year.
Traditionally it was held during the driest time of the year when the king of nats or spirits, Thingyan judged the people's deeds. His departure marked the beginning of the New Year. Needless to say if you hadn't been very good, the new year wouldn't be very fruitful.
Although scheduled to begin on a Tuesday, I received my first taste of the festival the preceding Friday. At the end of the school day, students and staff went to the playing field where a couple of 5-gallon drums filled with water awaited. Hesitant at first, my students eventually had me soaked from head to toe. I made a mental to wear a skirt that wasn't color fast wasn't a good idea, nor was wearing good shoes. Little did I realize this would be a mild day.
Monday, just a few days later and in Bagan, I had cups of water tossed at me. It seemed to be a real treat for the locals while I was walking down a dirt road off any semblance of a tourist area. I knew they wouldn’t see many people, local or foreign, down this area, so I stood and let them make the most of while saying, "Happy New Year."
Tuesday, I arrived in Mandalay. As the van from the airport got closer to the city, people began appearing with water guns and small buckets of water flinging wildly at us. Those that were near windows, quickly rolled them up. I however, thought the drizzles were pleasant enough.
I ventured out in a trishaw, recommended transport by the hotel clerk, to see the sites. Traffic along all of the palace perimeter crept along in calf-deep water when moving at all. I not only had buckets of water thrown at me, but pick-up trucks cruised along with hoses made sure there was a dry spot to be found. Furthermore, temporary stages had been erected along the sidewalks surrounding the palace where people paid for the privilege of hosing passersby while music blasted from behind them.
Taxis, motorcycles, trishaws, and pedestrians were all targets with the objective of soaking them. Groups on motorcycles wearing masks or face make-up and painted black lips performed stunts like wheelies and standing on their bikes to impress the crowds. Whisky poured out onto the streets almost as much as water. Both adults and a few young kids offered to fill my water bottle with whisky. For some this was a huge rowdy party.
Only the monks escaped the water and they did venture out. At one point, while a couple of teen aged boys were pouring water over my head, a monk walked over and seeing my good nature about it all, shook my hand and said, "thank you." being a foreigner and a female one at that, I was shocked that he had spoken to me much less touched me.
Knowing people didn’t toss water at the monks, it came as a mild surprise that when walking up a lengthy stretch of steps to pagoda on a hill, that a couple of young ones had squirt guns that they used on me. Being kids, I smiled to myself, and shouted, "Thank you. Happy New Year." What came as a bigger surprise was that on the last day of the water festival, an adult monk walked over, smiled and poured a small cup of water over my shoulders after making a gesture to ask if it was alright.
I awoke the next morning very early to the shutters on my windows banging violently and another very weird sound. It was rain! The beginning of the new year, after the dry season and after being judged by King of the Nats, it rained. How eerie was that?