Yesterday was the last day of Thingyan (the water festival, held for a week over Buddhist New Year), and I cannot explain the joy I felt from being able to walk around Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake, today without jumping every time I heard a person talk, or the sound of running water anywhere! We all became such twitchy weirdo’s over the past few days, doing swift direction changes whenever we saw people in the road ahead of us with buckets and hoses. We were fully aware of what snobby, spoilt travellers we sounded like whenever we moaned about not wanting to get wet anymore… but trust me, it’s really difficult to not get tired of it and to, after a few days of not being able to take even a few steps without having a bucket of water upended over you, just want to be dry for a few minutes! One of the lovely ladies travelling with me fears she may have muddied her karma a little yesterday when she hid behind a monk to avoid getting water-blasted, since monks, babies/toddlers, pregnant woman and the elderly are the only ones spared from the drenchings!”
MANDALAY – THE BIGGEST THINGYAN CELEBRATION
The night before we left Mandalay for Inle, we splashed out and bought a $5 day pass to the pool at Ayerwaddy River View Hotel to hide out from the madness in the streets for a while. Yes, I see the irony in hiding out from getting water thrown at you, for free, by paying to soak in a pool all day! But donning a bikini and taking leisurely swims in the pool in-between cocktails is very different from having whole troops of people running after you in the streets in order to upend buckets of water over a fully-clothed-from-head-to-toe you (since “respectable” dress here is a lot more conservative than back home, and includes covering the shoulders and upper arms). No matter if you’re cycling, on foot, in a car or on a scooter, the hoses and buckets of water get turned on you all the same. It’s hard for me to fathom how anyone can stay on their scooter or bicycle when a hose (and often not a normal hose, but a fire hose!) gets blasted at you, or a 20L bucket full of water gets thrown in your face!
WATER PARTY AT THE MANDALAY PALACE
We had ventured to the moat around the palace the day before (where the festival is at its craziest), armed with water guns… which we soon discovered was like taking pellet guns to war! The streets were completely flooded, with stages full of people drenching those below with hoses, and fill-up stations for those with buckets everywhere. We were 100% soaked within 60 seconds, but were fully prepared for it then so didn’t mind in the slightest. Music was booming, people were dancing excitedly under the constant stream of water, it was pretty cool to see (if you managed to ignore the captain-planet voice in your head that was crying in alarm at the excessive water wastage!). The Burmese people are also still so excited by the sight of foreigners, especially outside of Yangon – and the Mandalay Thingyan celebration is supposedly the biggest in the country, so youngsters from the surrounding areas flock there in droves, many of whom are very unused to seeing foreigners. We were stopped for photo shoots many times throughout the afternoon! The Burmese are such wonderfully kind and friendly people that it didn’t bother us in the slightest, not even after the 100th photo!:) We were quite alarmed by the extremely drunk people driving their scooters through the flooded and crowded streets though… the taxi driver who took us to our hostel when we first arrived in Mandalay had told us that there had been 50 motorbike accidents on the 1st day of the festival alone! For the first time since arriving in Myanmar, we periodically heard ambulance sirens. Despite the crazy driving style, we hadn’t seen a single accident in Yangon in the past month of living there… thanks mainly to the ban on motorbikes within the city I reckon.
Anyway, we behaved like the rich that day at the pool, and then headed up to the Sky bar promptly at 17:25 for the 17:30 – 18:30 free cocktails: which were delivered to us the second we arrived – they clearly remembered us from 2 days before! Felt a little rough when we woke up at 05:30 the next morning to get ready for our 6am taxi pick-up to Inle Lake.
GETTING TO INLE LAKE DURING THINGYAN
The air-conditioned car that we had been promised (since no busses run between Mandalay and Inle over Thingyan) turned out to be a falling-apart hunk of metal that most certainly did not have aircon, which made for an extremely awkward and uncomfortable 7 hour journey since it was way too hot and stifling to leave the windows up (around 40 °C / 104 °F) , but we never went more than 20 minutes without coming across a group of people throwing buckets of water/spraying hoses at passing cars and bikes… so we had to be constantly vigilant and wind up the windows every time we saw the water ‘gangs’ up ahead of us, and then wind them down to try get a breath of air as soon as we thought we were safe again! I sometimes wound the window up and down 20 times within the space of 10 minutes! We were too slow once or twice and got water-blasted through the windows of the car. I nodded off occasionally, only to jerk awake whenever the friend sitting to the right of me tapped me on my leg to warn me of an upcoming gang, at which point I would wind up the windows with frantic speed, often just in the nick of time (and sometimes not).
The taxi ride while crossing over the mountains windy roads was also slightly terrifying (extremely terrifying according to the others, but I was too tired to adequately feel the fear). The car clearly wasn’t up to the long journey, and the kid (he was probably around 20, but seemed even younger) driving us drove ridiculously fast at times… so the back tires swung out around corners and caused us to skid more than once – not fun when the view to your left is a sheer drop down a cliff! We had to stop on the side of the road for about an hour at one point while he hosed down the engine since the car was seriously overheating. During the wait, the driver refused the food we offered to buy him, and instead proceeded to chew on betel-nut for an hour… which, we’ve been told, has the effect of 10 cups of coffee! So he was a twitchy, speed-freak disaster when we got back in the car, even started swerving nervously a few times when kids threw water at the car. We somehow made it to Inle alive and in one piece, and got to spend a magical day touring around the lake on a little wooden boat the next day:)”
WHY I LOVED MYANMAR
If Myanmar is on your list of places to visit (and if it’s not, it seriously should be…. like, right at the top of it!), don’t let any of this make you re-think that! It was one of my absolute favorite places! The people are unbelievably nice, and it is just totally different from anywhere else.
I had just spent a year in Thailand when I moved there for a two month teaching gig. Thailand, although wonderful, was more-or-less what I had expected it to be. Myanmar was like no place I had ever been, or imagined. Yangon is a noisy, bustling, dirty city… the kind of place I usually avoid at all costs… and yet, I absolutely loved everything about it. From the ridiculous traffic packed streets, to the taxi drivers opening their car doors at traffic lights to spit out betel-nut juice mid-way through a trip, to the common sight of lines of barefoot Burmese monks dressed in burgundy robes and ranging in age from about 7 to 70 walking silently down the road, to the stares that followed us almost everywhere we went. Sometimes, when travelling, one can feel a little like a zoo exhibit, with the country’s locals staring at you like you were a very strange, oddly-colored alien that had crash-landed in their town and was now wandering around like a confused idiot. It felt different in Myanmar though. Maybe it was because whenever you caught the eye of someone that had been staring at you, they didn’t quickly look away as though interacting with you would be the most unpleasant thing they could imagine… they broke into huge, beautiful smiles, sometimes waved, and then carried on with their day.
SHOULD YOU TRAVEL MYANMAR DURING THINGYAN?
A friend of mine from Singapore told me that Mandalay is one of her absolute favorite cities. Unfortunately, travelling during Thingyan meant that we didn’t really get to experience it, since 99% of shops, restaurants, and, well, everything, is closed during the water festival and Buddhist New year. While we were sweating out about 50L of water a day in Bagan, another friend of mine (who had been living in Thailand for the past 3 years) was visiting Yangon for the first time… she told me later that it had been weird walking around such quiet, empty streets!!!!! Yangon’s streets are normally anything but empty and quiet… but everything changes during Thingyan. Most residents escape the cities, those that remain can be found standing along the streets armed with hoses and buckets. Busses stop running during this time and taxi’s, one of which can usually be hailed down within 15 seconds of trying due to the sheer volume of them, are very hard to come by, so getting from place to place becomes quite problematic. We had been told that we could take a boat from Bagan to Mandalay, but later discovered that this isn’t possible during April since the river is too low. Luckily, we managed to get tickets on the last bus from Bagan to Mandalay, where we hid for a few days before we got a taxi down to Inle.
As fascinating as the water festival is, I have yet to meet a traveller who didn’t want to escape it after a few days. One can feel a little trapped, what with everything being closed and transport into and out of places being practically non-existent over this time. The few taxi’s that still run charge three times the normal price, just because they can. Hikes and tours stop running as well, so essentially, all one can do is partake in the water fights. If you plan on travelling Myanmar for a long time, then by all means, travel over the water festival and experience this week of craziness. A week long holiday where almost everyone takes time off work to relax is a very novel thing to see… I have never been anywhere where an entire country just stops like Myanmar seems to over Thingyan. But if you only have a short time to travel, I wouldn’t recommend travelling during this time, since you will be very limited in the places you can visit and things you can see, and will more than likely just end up holed up in one place for a week or so!
All in all, Myanmar is magical and I can’t wait to go back and explore it further… but next time, I will make sure to go during a time when the only water being thrown on me is water that I have personally decanted on myself to relieve some of the heat!