Never mind the heat: If you’re one of Myanmar’s hip young things, April is by far the coolest month.
For a wet, wild week in the middle of the month, thousands of young people in Yangon and other cities around the country will do their best to wash away whatever sorrows they may have in a water fight that has to be seen to be believed.
Despite the Buddhist origins of the Thingyan water festival, which marks the start of the traditional Myanmar New Year, this is for many an occasion to indulge in a lot of loud, free-spirited fun.
Around Yangon, stages are erected and whole neighborhoods are turned into impromptu outdoor dance clubs, complete with blaring sound systems. Just add water—lots and lots of water—and your image of Myanmar as a staid, conservative country will dissolve before your eyes.
But this is not to say that everyone is happy with the way many now celebrate the nation’s most important holiday.
“This is such a loss of our culture,” says Mandalay-based writer Hsu Nget. “We used to celebrate peacefully, without spending huge amounts of money. Now if you go anywhere near Mandalay Moat, all you can see is big stages covered with ads.”
Particularly galling, he says, is the enormous waste of water, in a country where many of the poor in urban areas have little or no access to clean water. According to the outspoken writer, Thingyan revelers throw away 60 million gallons of water every year.
Fortunately for those who don’t like the modern way of bringing in the New Year, some of the older customs live on. One is the Thingyan Thangyat, satirical performances that mock the wrongdoings of people in power—something that was banned until the government started introducing political reforms in 2011.
Writers work on their Thangyat scripts for a month before Thingyan begins, both to ensure that they are funnier than those of their rivals—contests are held to choose the best performance—and to make sure that they don’t cross any of the invisible lines that still mark the limits of free expression in Myanmar.
“I have started writing my scripts and will have to submit them to the authorities [to be scrutinized] before Thingyan,” Mitta, an artist living in Yangon, told The Irrawaddy in mid-March.
Also on display will be colorful floats, which will feature more traditional music and dancing than that of the noisy stages that tend to steal the show every year.
Lest the more spiritual side of Thingyan be forgotten, many will also mark the occasion by making offerings at Buddhist temples. “The younger people will throw water, but we will also clean the monasteries and stupas, and offer food to the monks,” said Ko Ko Lay, a Mandalay resident.
And to make sure that nobody gets left out of the fun, groups of traditional musicians, such as the Myoma Association in Mandalay, will travel around from place to place in colorfully decorated trucks to perform for elderly members of the community.
Today’s Thingyan might not be the way it used to be, but for those who have a chance to witness it in full swing, it will always be an event to remember.