Our excitement was palatable as we headed to Myanmar. The country had been cut off for so long, that it was like an isolated Island in South East Asia. The government, run by the military, and oppressive generals, had cut all ties to the outside world. Internet, ATMs, and so many things were unheard of here for so long. But about three years ago that changed, with the government loosening its control, with a lot of thanks to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who had fought for years to open it up.
Stepping off the plane into a modern airport we heard the sounds of drums and pipe flutes reverberating off the walls. It was pretty empty over all, and I knew from what I had read that the entire country shuts down for the water festival. We had booked ahead of time, but that does not really mean things were going to go smoothly. I even hired an airport pick up, out of fear that nothing would be open. We were greeted by a man holding a sign with our name on it, wearing a long sarong, button up shirt, and sun hat. He came over and told us how lucky we were that he was there. He told the hotel that this was his time, and that he had no intention of working during it. It was all about being with family. There was a faint smell of some strong booze, but he had us laughing in minutes. How could we not, he was awesome. We were just introduced to Mr. Souso, our driver to the hotel. But he turned out to be so much more than just a ride from the airport. Mr. Souso was one of the best tour guides around, and knew everything from the history to best places to see.
Mr. Souso grabbed some of our luggage and kept saying how lucky we were, and we really were. “I told them I was not going to work, but they are my best customers, so I got my nephew, Joshua, to drive for us.” Joshua was in his early thirties, dressed very sharply in a button up shirt, and also a long sarong, which we learned was called a Longyi. In Andrew Marshall’s book, The Trouser People, he explains that when the British came here, the locals called them the trouser people, because they always wore pants. So when some of the Burmese joined the British, they often would only wear the trousers for special occasions. Most Burmese found trousers to be horribly uncomfortable with the humidity, thus the need for open sarongs to allow some air in those places that in our culture never get it.
We got to Joshua’s car, an older Sedan, and threw our bags in the trunk. There was plastic all over the seats, and even in the trunk. I got that weird feeling in the back of my neck that said we were about to get more than a ride. Usually when you see the trunk of a car wrapped in plastic, a bullet usually follows it to the back of the head in just about every mob/gangster movie out there. I still was sporting a fever from being sick in China, so I was not sure if I was all set for a crazy adventure.
We headed out and Mr. Souso was telling us all about the festival, how crazy it was, how he was with his family today. It was awesome. Joshua was bit quiet, and chewing on something red and spitting it out occasionally. As we came into town there were vehicles loaded up with people all soaked to the bone. Everyone was just having a great time, but we were not sure till we got stopped at a light what exactly was happening. A man ran up to our car, windows down of course because it’s really hot, and dumped a large bucket of water in to the front seat on Mr. Souso. Who just laughed? Next it was Yvonne and then my turn, and we were not disappointed when a high stream of water burst through our window, soaking everything. Mr. Souso turned to us and said, “Welcome to the water festival” and we all burst out laughing.
It was getting on in the evening, and things were about end for the night. Mr. Souso said the festival only goes from 9 to 1, and then everyone breaks and starts up again at 3 to five. He invited us to come over to Joshua’s family’s house tomorrow, and celebrate the water festival with them. We were thrilled to get such an amazing opportunity.
We arrived to Hotel East, a nice spot near the center of Yangon. The place was a ghost town for sure, as was the whole city at this point. All the revelers were home with family, or recovering from a day of drinking Burmese Moonshine or Palm Wine, getting ready for the next day. There was only one Chinese food restaurant near by that was open, so we quickly headed over there to eat. This is probably not the best time to visit Myanmar if you are hoping to see museums, eat, and do tourist things. But, if you are interested in seeing the real Burma, then by all means, come on over. You just have to be patient, relax, and enjoy all the craziness. We loved it. We were in bed early that night, to recover from the flu, and prepare for the morning. Mr. Souso called and was going to pick us up at 8 AM to go to Joshua’s family.
Next morning right on time we hopped in Joshua’s car and headed over to his family’s house. We arrived to a walled house with the gate open. In the gate was probably a 500-gallon tub of water, with a crazy array of hoses sticking out of it, attached to an air compressor. Joshua’s entire family was there, plus relatives from Japan who were visiting. Everyone was on the street, with the hoses ready. We warmed up with some whiskey, and various snacks. Everyone was so nice, we loved it. We felt so welcomed there right away.
It was not long before long trains of cars, jeeps, trucks, and even mini-buses loaded up with people started cruising down the streets. Loud music was blasting everywhere, and everyone was dancing in the cars like there was no tomorrow. As soon as they approached the house, they would slow down, waving at us, and we would nail them with water. They would continue dancing as we blasted them from every hose we had, but most would turn and hide. A few would brave the blast face first, but many had towels covering them to protect their face and eyes. Then when they were completely saturated and they started to move on, they would turn back to us, wave, and say thanks. It was crazy, and so much fun. Then it was on to the next group.
Now don’t sit there and think we were taking advantage of everyone in the vehicles. They had some sneaky tricks up their sleeve too, as Yvonne learned to her dismay. A few of the trucks would have a tub in the back of them also, filled to the brim, with their own firing mechanism. And they would retaliate back. But this is not what had Yvonne’s panties in a bunch, noooo. It was the devilish Ice Bucket. Some of the cars had a tub with a massive block of ice in it, which they would then pour on to us. Yvonne got an entire bucket of ice water dumped on her head, which immediately sent her to the bottle of whiskey to warm up. She would scream at them “Oh no, don’t do it, no not the ice” every time, and all had a good laugh about it. Apparently it was in Myanmar where the Ice Bucket challenge originally came from.
Joshua took us home at lunchtime, which was when the government forbade any more water attacks, and we slept for a few hours and recovered from being soaked for hours. Then he came back, picked us up, and we went at it again. During the entire time we had the most amazing food, a soup called Mohinga that his aunt made, which was delicious. Mohinga is a fish broth, with chunks of fish, vermicillian noodles, and various vegetables. It’s considered one of Myanmar’s traditional foods, and was exactly what we needed to warm up.
We woke up early the next day and wandered the city, which was all closed up. We needed to pick up drinks for our new friends, and just wanted to explore a bit. Joshua was going to pick us up that afternoon for more water fun, and we wanted to be ready. The city had that quiet before the storm feel.
We went out to try to pick up some beer before heading out to the house, and see if we could pick up some food. We could see at the end of the block two little girls probably 3 or 4 years of age. They were carrying a big bucket of water between them. They could barely pick it up, but were heading our way, quietly giggling. We pretended not to notice as they crept up behind us. Just when they were a foot behind us, we turned and were like “Oh no, not the water, not the water.” They giggled and slowly poured the bucket on us, then broke in uncontrollable giggles. They ran away shyly, so proud of getting their first kills. They were so adorable with their yellow sunscreen, Thanaka, on their faces.
We really felt like we needed to celebrate the water festival on the receiving side. Near the center of the city, there was a large stage with water guns, fire trucks, and bleachers with water guns. It was like the city became a huge water park. Trucks and cars were lined up around the block, cruising past the stage and getting nailed by water. There was a rock band going at it on the stage, and a massive crowd thronged around. This was the epicenter of Yangon’s water festival.
Many families and neighborhoods set up their own bleachers and stages in front of their houses, usually filled with young woman in traditional dress. Music was blasting from the speakers at all these places; it was hard not to shake to it. Everyone in Myanmar is so friendly, if they know any English, they will be using it to talk to you. Young or old, anyone. I have never been to a country where the people are so nice.
It was not long after chatting with numerous people that we were invited up on the back of a pick up truck filled with teenagers and their parents. The truck had roll bars on top, and some makeshift handrails. With some helping hands we were soon dancing to the latest hip-hop on the back of the truck, and rolling through the neighborhoods. It was not long before we pulled up to commercial bleachers filled with a DJ and 20 to 30 hoses. After watching a few trucks in front of us get blasted it was our turn. With no place to hide, you really gained an appreciation to how painful some of these hoses can be. We all ducked down as much as you can on a crowded truck bed as numerous streams nailing us up and down, but there was no hiding. Best to just take it. We rode around with our new friends for an hour before we decided it might be nice to dry off at home.
Joshua was right on time and we began our celebration again. Now we felt like we were home again, and thrilled to be there again. Never before have I been to an all out water fight in where the entire city is celebrating. From the homeowners setting up their hi-tec pump systems to the little street girls with their buckets, everyone gets involved in the age old tradition. This is a must do for anyone who loves to travel and adventure.
The water festival runs for 5 days, during mid April. The first day is a-kyo nei, and is more low key then the later days. It is all part of the Buddhist New Year, and they start off with blessings. There are some ceremonial washing of ones hair, offerings to the monks, and some low key fasting. The second day is when things get really crazy, with all the water spraying and partying. Of course that’s right when we showed up. The water is symbolizing the washing away of bad luck from the previous year, and blessings for the new one.
New Years day rolled in and the city was as quiet as a ghost town. This was a time for families, and going to temples. There would be a symbolic releasing of fish and birds, with a prayer saying “I release you once, you release me ten times.” We wandered the empty streets, admiring all the old English architecture, in various states of ruin. The buildings were impressive, with domes, pillars, arches, and large porches. Everywhere we turned would be some cool buildings. Intermixed in all this are Pagodas, Buddhist Temples, and shrines.
There are very few modern buildings in Rangoon, not in this section anyway. The Generals had moved the capital of the country out of Rangoon about eight years ago, to a new location, Naypyidaw, which they created from scratch. No one visits there, well, because there is really nothing to see there from what I hear. They felt it was not safe to run the country from its main capital, too many people who might fight back.
In the end, after already being here 3 days, we came to the realization it was hot, damn hot. Like being in an oven. We had not noticed because for the last 48 hours we were under a constant barrage of water and soaked to the bone. I was actually chilled in the 100-degree heat. No wonder this festival is so popular. As often happens in countries during holiday season, we headed to the only place open, the 5 star hotel Traders. A beer cost what we would spend in a day on food here, but the air conditioning was wonderful. Not a bad way to celebrate our third New Years this year.