a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Thingyan: Water Festival

Stephen and I moved to Myanmar just two weeks before the biggest holiday of the year: Thingyan or Water Festival. We were warned ahead of time that everything shuts down. Grocery stores close, restaurants close, businesses close. Everyone is on holiday. No working for the entire country. We went shopping to stock up on groceries and the stores were madness! We stood in line to pay almost twice as long as we spent shopping for the items we wanted to buy! 

The Water Festival days were Monday April 13 through Thursday April 16 and the main entertainment/activity for everyone is get yourself and everyone else as soaked as possible. I kind of thought the Burmese people might be less inclined to spray expats. Boy was I wrong. They gleefully included us in the festivities. 

Stephen and I ended up going out on the first and last days of the festival and we got really wet both times! On Monday we started walking one way along our road and before long someone was aiming a water cannon in our direction. Stephen was happy to join in the fun right away and ran right through the spray. There were water stations everywhere. Some just drums of water that people scooped out pans of water to throw. Some large platforms had multiple hoses set up. 

We headed the other direction toward the lake just to see what was happening and after about two blocks, some guys ran over to us and dumped pails of water all over us. 

Then they shouted “Happy new year!” And ran back across the street. We were soaked through. April is the hottest time of the year in Myanmar so maybe everyone loves Thingyan so much because getting sprayed with water cools you off. Everyone seemed really happy, that’s for sure!

Formal businesses were closed but there was plenty of street food. Stephen suggested we find an Indian woman because likely she would be selling vegetables. (Since we don't speak Burmese we couldn't ask what was in the food.)

Stephen is allergic to shellfish and so much of the food in Myanmar and the rest of Asia has some kind of shellfish in it. But there is also plenty of vegetarian food, partly from Buddhism. 

Eating street food is a risk but we chose to take that risk and enjoy the festive atmosphere. Not only did we buy some fried food we also bought a bowl of noodles where the cooks were mixings the ingredients together with their fingers. 

The woman whom we bought the noodles from was really sweet. All of her tables were full so she gave us little stools to sit on in the park behind all the street vendors. 

For 500 Kyats (50 cents) we got a lovely bowl of noodles and a small bowl of broth. Street food is delicious and inexpensive. And neither of us got sick! ha!

Thingyan originated as the Buddhist version of a Hindu myth. The dates of the holiday used to be determined by the traditional Burmese lunisolar calendar with the end of the holiday being the beginning of the new year. Today the holiday is attached to the Gregorian calendar dates of April 13-16. It is the most important public holiday in Myanmar. The sprinkling of water is a symbolic washing away of the previous year’s sins. I read on wikipedia that young men do a kind of rapping (than gyat) about the ills of the country on such topics ranging from fashion and consumerism to crime, corruption and inept politicians. We heard this rapping many times over the course of the week but of course we couldn’t understand what they were saying. 

On the 4th and last day of Thingyan Water Festival we decided to venture out from our apartment again to see if just maybe a restaurant or two might actually be open for business. The enthusiasm had not diminished in the least. In fact it seemed that people were more bold and eager to spray you or dump a bucket of water on you. Within minutes of leaving our apartment, we were soaked from head to toe multiple times. I tried to shield myself with my umbrella but this seemed to just make people try harder to get me. One girl, when I tried to block her, pushed my umbrella aside and threw a bucket of water on my head. On the first day, it seemed that the guys across the street were careful not to get our heads wet, but by the fourth day as a truck passed us, a girl threw a bowl of water that splashed me squarely in the face. Not only that but a couple of guys sprayed us with water guns filled with ice water. I couldn’t help but let out a yelp when it hit my back! People were selling plastic covers on a string for cell phones and wallets. Fortunately my purse is almost waterproof.

We did find a restaurant that was open and from our outdoor table we watched the street and all the people passing by. Truckloads of people driving continuously from one water station to the next. Down the street just a block from our restaurant, was a main street lined with water cannon stations on platforms built just for the festival. Also on the platforms were huge speakers blaring dance music with live performers.

Tons of people walked or drove down this street. 

I’m glad we got to be here for the big holiday. it was nice to see people enjoying themselves playing in water. We enjoyed ourselves too.

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