April 2016 – I’m in wonderful, amazing Mandalay again for Thingyan. My fifth. Here’s something I wrote about it in 2010 since when it’s only become bigger, madder and even more fun. Amongst other things it’s become a multi-stage techno-pop street party that I’ll write more about here. The original 2010 post was published here.
You’ll probably have heard about the Palio horse racing in Siena, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, that messy tomato throwing weekend somewhere else in Spain. You might know of Glastonbury, Burning Man, and Exit. But any idea about what’s involved in Mandalay’s Thingyan? I put it up there with that other lot. You’ve not got the set until you’ve been to this one.
Thingyan is the Myanmar version of the water festival celebrated all over SE Asia. In Myanmar it takes hold all over the country and all over every part of every the country. Once upon a time it was probably a pretty sedate affair involving gentle pouring of water – careful not to get the hair wet – over each other. People gather on the roadside outside their homes to soak any passers by in a ritual which – allegedly – washes away the sins. People are keen to be soaked. They stop walking or their car in order to be soaked. You spend the whole day soaked. There is no saying no and no not getting soaked. Riding your motorcycle will just mean getting soaked with water thrown at you that hits at 40kph plus with a stinging slap across the face and neck if the aim was good or water that is hose-piped at you. It goes on for four days. Non-stop until nightfall. If you do not submit to it you will just be annoyed by it. You have to submit to it. You can’t beat them; you have to join them.
Away from residential districts there are major destination sites – Kandawgii Park and Inwa Road in Yangon, Mandalay palace in Mandalay. The done thing has been to hire a car or pick-up to drive around the palace moat and get wet in. Water pouring into the car wet. No caring how wet wet. (So wet it’s not really for taking pictures wet.) The palace moat is two kilometres by two kilometres square and full of water. The arrival of the petrol-powered pump has raised the game in terms of the amount of water one person can shift onto others and the pandel (stages) from which water was traditionally thrown onto a passing crowd have become bigger and bigger as the numbers willing to pay-to-spray go up. Over the four days most of the (not very clean)water from the moat is transferred form the moat to the street – where it can be calf deep – into cars and onto people.
Traditional dancing (including inter-city dance-offs) was always an element, and remains so, but now the pop-star-movie-stars are in on the act bashing out the latest chart-toppers nightly (you can only be both in Mayanmar – a trick even Simon Cowell is missing thus far). There’s also a major commercialisation as big local brands like Alpine (leading bottled water) sponsor stages and put on major acts (Debby and I saw Iron Cross in Yangon in ’08).
Now the newly arrived motorcycle has added another dimension. The orderly procession of four-wheel vehicles has been swamped by bikes driven mainly by the new younger generation that’s so very apparent in Mandalay. It’s gridlock at times. Gangs of (good-natured) kids sweep around town, many dressed in the new uniform of non-conformity, the punk-lite / emo kid fashion choice du jour. Others stake it more seriously. Punk’s not dead apparently. [Malcolm McClaren had died the week I wrote this]. There’s a lot of alcohol about (and who knows what else?) and road-rules are suspended for four days (only two allowed on a bike normally – four or more a common sight during Thingyan). Imagine if a muddy Glastonbury were to ‘benefit’ from the addition of a motorcycle for every tent.
Millions of people take part in Thingyan in Mandalay every day. I joined in to the full. I took my bike around the palace several times. I stood in the sweltering (rave-like heat, outdoors) evening crowds to watch the bands and dancing. I risked riding around after dark among so many light-less vehicles, riden by drunk kids. And on day three and four I joined my friend Htun Htike, his girlfriend Su and their friends form the PES monastery English class (and Evanna and Patrick) at our very own pandel from where we belted out the latest tunes and, constantly supplied by pump, threw water in the faces, through the car windows, into the buses over children and old ladies, at whatever, whoever passed by on 62nd street. We behaved like nine year olds. For about four hours. I can’t remember having so much fun.
In 2016 the new (actually quite conservative) NLD government has restricted the festival somewhat in Yangon alarmed at the increasing number of young women, up for as good a time as the young men (and why shouldn’t they be), who are not wearing much and are drinking alcohol (both some sort of a threat to Buddhist values whatever they are) and in an attempt (good luck) to clamp down on drug use. More than ever Mandalay is the place to be.