Thingyan is Myanmar’s New Year Water Festival (also known as Songkran in Thailand) and usually falls around mid-April. It is a Buddhist festival celebrated over a period of four to five days, culminating in the New Year. The splashing and throwing of water signifies a washing away of sins and bad luck from the past year, a cleansing in preparation for the new year.
We flew into Mandalay a few days before Thingyan was scheduled to begin so we could get in some sightseeing before the city shut down. We went to the palace, the snake temple, the bamboo bridge and to see the largest book in the world before the water festival began and these were all good places to visit. As we suspected, once the festival started, most of the city was closed.
On the first day of the festival, Tim and I walked down to the Palace. We knew to put everything in watertight bags (Ziplocs) and numerous vendors were selling waterproof phone cases along the way. We had a cheap, waterproof GoPro knock-off that we’d picked up at a 7-11 in Thailand just for occasions like this. I left the ‘good’ camera back at the hotel.
It’s Thingyan – You’re Going to Get Wet
Did we mention that April is the hottest part of the year in Myanmar? Perfect time for a water festival, not so much for walking in the heat, but we stayed hydrated and made it to the palace. All along the street there were water stations where dozens of people sprayed the crowd with hoses. Most of the stations had rave music pumping and people dancing.
We caught the opening ceremony by happenstance, but the dancing water stations were by far the most fun. In addition to the water stations, anyone at any time might come up and douse you with water from a cup, or bucket.
There is no staying ‘out of things’ during the water festival in Mandalay.
Safety and Atmosphere at Thingyan
The thing is, we found that people were thrilled to have us there. They were excited to share their party with foreigners (of which there were very few). We got hugs and people wanting to talk to us. They loved taking pictures and showing off for the camera. Over the four days of the festival, I received three spontaneous kisses on the cheek.
Another thing that felt really good is that we felt utterly safe, even in a crowded, partying mob. (Note: Drinking is nearly non-existent in Myanmar so we never had to deal with a bunch of drunks.)
To be honest, this isn’t the kind of party that Tim and I would usually go to, but the atmosphere was so positive, we loved it.
Okay, I loved it a little more than Tim, but mostly he didn’t love getting soaking wet. One day was enough for him. I went back a couple more times, and when our hotel had its spray booth downstairs, I helped douse passersby on the street. It became really wickedly fun when trucks filled with people threw water back at us, sometimes spiked with ice (not cubes, but big chunks to make it cold).
Water, Water Everywhere
Nowhere is safe during Thingyan in Mandalay. Even during a quiet part of the afternoon, Tim and I walked down the street from the hotel to get lunch and there were a couple of kids with hoses ready to spray us, and anyone else who passed, on the way back. It wasn’t a choice. These mini-water stations popped up anywhere kids had a hose or a bucket of water, and everyone in the city went along with the assumption that you could be sprayed at any time. Some deference was given to the elderly, but even the police accepted getting sprayed as part of the fun.
Go to Thingyan, Join In and Have Fun!
This is one of the best festivals we’ve attended. It’s pure fun and everyone has good attitudes. There is a wonderful sense of community and I can’t imagine a better place to celebrate Thingyan than in front of the Palace in Mandalay with thousands of other revelers. Go if you can. You won’t regret it.
Dates for Thingyan
Despite being based on a lunar calendar, Myanmar’s government seems to have standardized the dates for Thingyan to April 13 – 16 every year. Make your hotel reservation ahead and plan to arrive a few days early. Ensure you have everything you need before celebrations begin because much of the city shuts down during the festival. Some places will still be open, but you won’t have many to choose from (even KFC was closed).
Quick Tip: When choosing a hotel, contact them ahead of time and ask if they set up their own water station for the festival. It’s a lot of fun being behind the hose and on a main drag. Also ask if they have a puppet show planned, or if they know of one nearby, as these are common during Thingyan and well worth seeing.
For more on the historical and cultural roots of this festival, check out this article.