By: Susan Bailey Photo : Hong Sar
It’s that time of year again.
Water guns are on display at every store, Thingyan-themed songs are playing on the radio and the cool winter temperatures are quickly giving way to hot, hazy days. The Myanmar New Year is the country’s biggest celebration with the official holiday being 13-21 April. During this time, businesses will close and locals will travel to their hometowns to pass the last few days of 1378, the current Myanmar year, and ring in 1379 with their families. To help you make the most of Thingyan, here is our day-by-day guide to the festival.
DAY 1: A Kyo Nei
The first day of Thingyan is an important one so take it easy the night before. Devout Buddhists will be observing all eight precepts today, rather than the usual five. If you are seeking an auspicious start to the festival, this is a good place to begin. The first precept forbids eating after noon, so be sure to have a good breakfast. With many restaurants closed for the holiday, your best bet is an international hotel such as Novotel in Yangon, Mandalay Hill Resort, Bagan Lodge or Viewpoint in Nyaung Shwe for the best breakfast in their respective towns. Buddhists will also refrain from all forms of entertainment and beautification so to keep yourself busy, don a longyi and pour scented water over Buddha images at the temple alongside the locals. The third precept states that should not sleep in luxury. Cancel your posh hotel reservation and book into one of Myanmar’s smaller, family-run properties. Our favourites are Samadhana Inn (Yangon), Thante Nyaung U (Bagan), MaMa Guesthouse (Mandalay) and A Little Eco-Lodge (Nyaung Shwe).
DAY 2 – A Kya Nei: time to splish and splash
Let the festivities begin! Go ahead and get right into it. The first day may not be the most boisterous but after the previous day’s tranquility you will be ready to let your hair down. As is widely known, Thingyan is celebrated by throwing water. Symbolically this gesture represents washing away sin from the previous year but this has evolved into a massive carnival-like atmosphere with water guns and fire hoses being used to soak every inch of the country. The action kicks off around 9 AM and goes until noon for a midday break. This doesn’t mean you won’t get wet at lunch, but the activity certainly quiets down before resuming around 2 PM and carrying on until sunset.
Walking is the easiest way to join the festivities. You will inevitably be greeted by friendly, sometimes intoxicated, revelers asking “Are you happy?” and probably be asked to pose for a few selfies. If the idea of sloshing through foot-deep, murky water is not appealing, hiring a truck or jeep is a popular option. Just be sure to have a large container of water onboard to refill your water guns. In larger cities, it is also possible to join a pandal, the large stages where DJs play loud, thumping music for revelers to dance to.
The main areas for water throwing are along Pyay Road and near City Hall in Yangon, on the southern and eastern sides of Mandalay’s royal moat, near Ananda temple in Bagan and near the Nyaung Shwe market. But wherever you go, you will get wet so be prepared. Leave your camera and phone at home, throw a few kyats into a plastic bag, grab your water gun and go! An insider tip: take an antibiotic at the start of the day to fend off any germ lurking in the water. (Note: a message not approved by medical professionals but many locals and expats swear it has kept them from getting ill from the not-so-clean water being thrown about.)
DAYS 3 & 4: A Kyat Nei and A Tet Nei – Retreat from the water
If all that water was simply too much, escape from the big cities for the next two days of the festival. Although the festival is celebrated throughout the country, there are quieter towns where the celebrations are a bit more toned down. Getting there, however, can be a challenge. Most bus companies suspend service during Thingyan, therefore only limited seats are available. Trains, as well, are a popular way to travel and are often full so booking tickets in advance is essential. Car rental and taxis are also scant and usually come with a 50% surcharge, but with a bit of effort it is possible. And while the beach may sound appealing, they are often the scenes of some of the country’s most lively parties. Here are some good options for an alternative, less-crazy Thingyan break:
Accessible by train and car from Yangon, Hpa An’s celebrations are muted compared to those of the big city. There are plenty of nice hikes and bike rides in the countryside where nary a water gun will be seen. It will be hot, however, so come prepared. Hpa An Lodge has a lovely swimming pool, perfect for cooling off after a day cycling through the rice paddies. The more budget-friendly Hotel Gabana has strong air-conditioning and an on-site restaurant for those seeking a break from the celebrations.
Bagan throws a decent Thingyan party that is worth experiencing for a day. Then hire a car and head up to Popa Mt Resort, an hour drive from town, where a spring-fed infinity pool beckons. The leafy resort compound is perfectly tranquil and the deluxe rooms each feature balconies for gazing out onto the surrounding hills and plains. Hiking trails link the resort to the extinct volcanic crater and jungle-covered hills.
Kyauk Me and Hsipaw
Fly in to Lashio and drive down to Kyauk Me or Hsipaw for a few days of mountain bliss. You will get wet when walking in the streets but once in the hills there is little chance of seeing a water gun. The rooms at Riverside Resort in Hsipaw have balconies overlooking the Dokhtawady River, perfect for a few quiet Myanmar Beers in the afternoons. The friendly staff at One Love in Kyauk Me can arrange overnight treks to hill tribe villages, if you truly want to get away from it all.
Although a bit more difficult to get to, Thingyan in Mrauk U is a unique experience. The ancient temples, at this time of year, are all but empty since the tourist high season is over. In addition to exploring the temples, it is worth checking out the local celebrations as they are distinctly Rakhine in style. There is a thanaka-grinding competition to kick off the festival and then, in addition to the usual water guns, canoes filled with water are found throughout the town with locals filling up small buckets from the canoes to pour over friends.
Rather than dealing with the hassle of booking things yourself during this busy time of year, working with a travel agent is the best way to go. Khiri Travel comes highly recommended ([email protected])
DAY 5: New Year’s Day
Happy 1379! After the build-up of the last four days, the new year is finally here. Traditionally Myanmar people ring in the new year by making merit in a variety of ways. Releasing fish into rivers or waterways is a popular activity so head to the Yangon River, Mandalay moat or Irrawaddy River and buy a fish from one of the vendors and set it free. The new year is also a time to pay respect to elders, with youngsters washing the hair of the elderly. Visit one of Myanmar’s ‘Home for the Aged’ to participate or to make an offering of shampoo, washing powder or other items. These centres provide health care and accommodation for the elderly and are an integral part of Myanmar’s cultural fabric, yet are always in need of donations and volunteer help.
However you choose to celebrate, remember that this is an important holiday for the Myanmar people. Respect the culture and traditions and embrace the craziness of the festivities as we say goodbye to 1378!