Deirdre Mullins gets a soaking at Myanmar's Water Festival, Thingyan.
Everyone loves a good party. But what if I told you that the party would last four days, would be outdoors in the sunshine and involve a lot of water? Well that's Thingyan, Myanmar's (Burma) New Year festival, otherwise known as The Water Festival.
Thingyan is largely a nationwide water fight that goes on for four days to welcome the Burmese New Year, which happens in April. The festival is a free pass to throw copious amounts of water at friends, family and strangers. The water signifies the washing away of evil deeds and sins from the previous year before moving into the New Year.
It takes place at the end of the dry season and with temperatures averaging the high 30s and early 40s (degrees Celsius), getting wet is often a welcome break from the heat. Similar water festivals take place in neighbouring Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
Travelling in Myanmar at this time can be difficult as public transport is on a reduced service and often booked out by domestic travellers. So it's best to base yourself in the one place for the duration of the festival, 'soak up' the atmosphere and throw yourself right in.
I spent Thingyan in Myanmar's second city, Mandalay. As a former royal capital it's an attractive city, surrounded by temple-topped landscapes, which conjure up images of a traditional and timeless Asia.
People of all ages take part in the water festival, grandparents and toddlers included. Many of the city's businesses shut up shop, leaving its inhabitants to concentrate fully on the festival.
In Mandalay the streets were lined with 'water stations' and people waiting for passersby to wet. Buckets, pots, bowls, water pistols and hoses were used to soak pedestrians and the hundreds of trucks that roamed the streets. These trucks were open-air and packed with people who were also waging friendly warfare with anyone in the line of fire.
The only people exempt from a drenching are government officials such as the police, monks and nuns and pregnant women. Tourists appear to be a prime target and their drenching generates a lot of laughter. I learnt this the hard way when I went out unprepared and came home with the contents of my bag soaked. From then on my camera was left at home and everything else was put into waterproof bags.
After a few days of feeling more like a victim than a participant, some fellow travellers and I decided it was our turn to even the score. We hired an open-top truck and took to the streets armed with two barrels of water, each holding about 100 litres.
Mandalay is a flat city that is built on a grid system, and we spent hours exploring its main streets and back roads, all of which had soggy people out enjoying the festival. Armed and standing tall on the back of the truck, we surveyed the landscape for targets. I felt like an outlaw, and just like the locals we didn't hold back and doused whoever we could. All of this was greeted with warm cheers and waves.
The Burmese are extremely friendly and are genuinely happy to see foreigners visit. They appeared to especially appreciate tourists taking part in their national festival. Many locals came up to our truck to shake our hand and ask us where we were from.
Official stages are set up in cities and towns all over the country; usually near rivers and lakes to ensure a steady stream of water. Mandalay had four stages set along the moat which surrounds Mandalay Fort. Each stage had around a hundred hoses for paying guests to aim at the partiers dancing below and the steady stream of trucks that slowly drove by. Bands and DJs blared out music and if you were to replace the water with foam it looked like a daytime club scene reminiscent of Ibiza foam parties.
While most people partied peacefully there was an ugly side too, with some teenagers having too much to drink - I saw a fight break out. This behaviour was, however, minimal and nothing compared to the scenes of antisocial behaviour during our own St Patrick's Day celebrations.
Our journey through the four stages took well over an hour. It was a chaotic scene with vans bumper to bumper and right up alongside gangs of teenagers dancing. Being pounded with water from these hoses was more uncomfortable than expected. At times it was so strong that the only thing I could do was put my back to the stage and keep my head down.
The intensity eased when we went back to cruising the streets. We made our way to Mandalay Hill, which was a dry zone due to the Buddhist temple at the top. We dried off there watching the sun set. One of the more unusual ways I've spent a New Year.
Classic Burma Adventure - Explore intriguing Yangon, visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, stroll Mandalay's temples, float down the Irrawaddy River, experience the ancient ruins of Bagan and relax at Inle Lake. Priced from €1,999pp for a 14-day trip from Yangon to Yangon. Trips depart year-round. Prices do not include flights. For more information or to book, call (01) 697 1360 or visit: www.gadventures.com.
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