Just returned from a Burma tour which took place right after the NLD’s, (National League for Democracy’s), landslide by-election win, as well as running through the Burmese new year festivities so we certainly came across plenty of very happy locals on the trip. Burmese New Year follows the Theravada Buddhist calender as in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and, in common with those countries, an essential part of the celebrations is turning the whole country into a giant week-long water fight.
For those not familiar with Lao or Thai New Year celebrations, locals, (mostly kids and teenagers), line the streets armed with buckets, water pistols, hosepipes or anything else that comes to hand and attempt to drench anyone walking, driving or riding past. Anyone’s fair game though whilst for the Thais or Laos a ‘farang’ would be considered a prime target the Burmese, not so used to tourists, are a bit shier and more reluctant to throw water over foreigners. (Note we say ‘a bit’ and in the more touristy towns such as Nyaungshwe it proved almost impossible not to get drenched.)
Note throwing water over travelling motorbikes is highly dangerous but no-one seems to care at all and anyway, note – the rider is armed with a water-pistol!
The local ‘trucks’ without cabs or windows are obviously particularly vulnerable though our minibus driver did make the mistake of winding down his window at a toll road ‘booth’ at one stage whereupon he received 2 buckets of water through the open window!
Popular spots are more organized where actual wooden stages surrounded by bamboo palisades for protection are set up with hosepipes connected to the mains supply available for rent! Stages are often corporate sponsored and indeed we heard in Mandalay you could get a New Year package for 10,000 Kyats, (around $3.50) which includes a pick up from your house, transfer to ‘stage’ area, free lunch and snack and use of water-pipe! That’s organization! Stages will also have sound systems blasting out Burmese techno-pop though
mixing water-fights and stereo equipment can on occasions create problems such as in Kalaw where the speakers received a full bucket of water and blew out the entire town’s electricity for a couple of hours! Tactics seemed to vary throughout the day beginning gently in the morning with locals flagging down passers by and offering them orange juices or a soda then escalated later when the prettiest girls were designated to dance in the street blocking traffic and pedestrians whereupon the lads would rush out with water buckets. (Crafty and effective!) Later on – maybe as a result of a few glasses of palm wine – things would get more anarchical with everyone dancing in the street and water flying any which way.
By late afternoon stereo systems would have blown up, some of the lads passedout and the girls gone home to change their wet t-shirts and things would stop until the following morning. This went on for some 5 days! What added extra fun, enthusiasm and general craziness this year was having the festivities coming right after the election results. After some 50 years or so of military dictatorship the outpouring of joy and excitement at perceived signs that real changes are on their way can not be underestimated Basically the entire population was deliriously happy with apparently even the generals chuffed at losing since they now have a chance that sanctions will be lifted. NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi stickers, posters, t-shirts, flags were absolutely everywhere. Plenty of police and soldiers were joining in the festivities and after years or brutal oppression the population now clearly isn’t afraid anymore.
Great time to be in Burma! Cheers!