Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Greatest Water Fight in the World

In the middle of April, the hottest month in this part of the world, the people of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos celebrate the local New Year with a massive countrywide water festival, called Thingyan here, and Songkran in Thailand. I spent the holiday in Mandalay, Myanmar, where it's celebrated with an added vigor. Some locals liken it to "four days of democracy", a very special thing in a country normally kept under tight wraps by a military junta. Four days of anarchy might be a better description, but who's splitting hairs?

Participating countries celebrate the festival with local twists, but simply put, it's a celebration of water and a chance to make a fresh start in the new year, and wash away all of the worries, anxieties, and problems of the preceding one. Though it has it's roots in Hindu tradition, it has devolved in modern times to the simple pleasure of being wet in the insane heat that is the Southeast Asian summer.

Anyone venturing beyond their front door during the four days of the festival will be surely and completely soaked from head to toe, no question about it. In the baking month of April this comes as a relief to most, as long as the necessary defence of plastic has been carefully wrapped around any money, mobile phones, and anything else of value. Children form street posses of water warriors with a singular mission: to drench any living thing that passes by their post. Adults get in on the fun too, by packing into pick-up trucks modified to accommodate dozens of standing, screaming revelers, and driving around the streets whooping and throwing ice cold water on those they pass.

On the sides of roads are great raised stages armed with dozens of hoses, known as pandals, from which those lucky enough to have a spot can spray anyone passing beneath. Teenagers dance beneath furiously in the monsoon atmosphere to Thingyan songs, fueled by local whiskey, rum, beer and worst (and cheapest) of all, gut wrenching rice liquor.

By midday, the streets of Mandalay are hopelessly flooded, with motorbikes and rust bucket trucks, engines flooded, grind to a halt in the newly formed lakes. Add booze, vehicles loaded to the brim, and blinding amounts of water and what do you get? An emergency services nightmare in a country without any emergency services to speak of. But for the lucky, the party goes on until nightfall, when the water throwing (mostly) stops.

Foreigners, far from being exempt, are prized targets in the melee, and many locals are keen to practice their English as they attack: "This Myanmar water festival!" (oh really?) or "Are you happy?" (I was until you nearly knocked my eye out of it's socket with that fire hose). But alas, as so often in Asia, my witty replies are wasted.

It's no wonder that many, having grown up with this most racous of festivals, choose to enter one of the many meditation centers in the country. After all, insight meditation could well rival water fights for those seeking cleansing of the soul.

I can't help but think of Children's Day, celebrated with candies or some such thing in some other countries. If those children knew the what wonders wait in store for the children of Myanmar every April, they would surely renounce their citizenships and be on the first plane to this impoverished country, children being children.

Did I enjoy it? My favorite water festival is still the first I experienced in Laos 5 years ago, where the festival felt a little more tame and traditional - and a little less warlike. Four days is maybe excessive (in Thailand it's three), but I'll always have fond memories of this utterly insane festival that makes my own country's biggest holidays look like a staid evening at the opera.

For more photos from the festival, click the flickr bar on the right.


PJ said...

I like it - the funny descriptions, the pictures and your editorial comments at the end.

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