Thingyan is the Burmese New Year Water Festival and usually falls around mid-April. It is observed as the most important public holiday throughout Burma and is part of the summer holidays at the end of the school year. It is celebrated over a period of four to five days culminating in the New Year. Thingyan is comparable to Songkran in Thailand..
Water-throwing or dousing one another from anything that delivers water is the distinguishing feature of this festival and may be done on the first four days of the festival. Traditionally, Thingyan involved the sprinkling of scented water in a silver bowl using sprigs of tha byay, a practice that continues to be prevalent in rural areas. The sprinkling of water was intended to metaphorically “wash away” one’s sins of the previous year.
Dog fell back in the speedboat, knocked flat by a jet of water.
My guide laughed, just before he was drenched too.
‘Thingyan!’ he shouted joyfully.
I was over it already.
Do you know what its like to be hit in the chest by a jet of water delivered from a distant fire hose? Hysterical laughter from the fire hose. Hee hee hee. Wet follenerrr, hee hee hee!’ What happened to the sprig and the silver bowl? Bastards. Remember when you water the garden how you like to hold the hose up and watch the water arch in little perfect droplets before it dashes to destruction in the earth. Such was the picture Dog saw that sunny day in Inle Lake; droplets of shining death arcing lazily across the sky. On the floating restaurant on stilts in the middle of nowhere a man stood, a thick brown fire-hose in his hand and a grin on his face.
‘No-o-o-o-oo!’ my guide shouted but it was too late. You know the rest. Blat! Hee hee hee.
‘I thought the water festival didn’t start till tomorrow,’ I gasped.
The eve of Thingyan, the first day of the festival called a-kyo nei, is the start of a variety of religious activities. Buddhists are expected to observe the Eight Precepts, more than the basic Five Precepts, including having only one meal before noon. Thingyan is a time when observance days, similar to the Christian sabbath, are held. Alms and offerings are laid before monks in their monasteries and offerings of a green coconut with its stalk intact encircled by bunches of green bananas (nga pyaw pwè oun pwè) and sprigs of Tha byay or jambul (Syzygium cumini) before the Buddha images over which scented water is poured in a ceremonial washing from the head down. By nightfall, the real fun begins with music, song and dance, merrymaking and general gaiety in anticipation of the water festival.
Which is why Dogster ended up having lunch with these ladies with towels on their heads on the floor of this splendidly deserted monastery.
It was like an Australian barbeque; women on one side, men on the other.
Why bath towels are the millinery of choice is still a mystery.
hnit hsan ta yet nei
The next day called a-kya nei is when Thingyan truly arrives as Thagya Min makes his descent from his celestial abode to earth. At a given signal, a cannon (Thingyan a-hmyauk) is fired and people come out with pots of water and sprigs of tha byay, then pour the water onto the ground with a prayer. A prophesy for the new year (Thingyan sa) will have been announced by the brahmins (ponna) and this is based on what animal Thagya Min will be riding on his way down and what he might carry in his hand. In every neighbourhood pavilions or stages, with festive names and made from bamboo, wood and beautifully decorated papier mache, have sprung up overnight. Local belles have been rehearsing for weeks and even years, in the run-up to the great event in song and dance in chorus lines, each band of girls uniformly dressed in colourful tops and skirts and garlanded in flowers and tinsel. They wear fragrant thanaka on their faces, and sweet-scented yellow padauk blossoms in their hair.
‘Wind up your window! Quick! Quick!’ hissed the guide.
Packs of over-excited children lined the road hurling water over everything that moved. It was good natured and very dangerous. The white man waved gaily as the car’s sins were washed away. Our excursion to Kakku had begun on an auspicious day. As the road to Taunggi wound up into the hills Bongo and I had time to talk. My Burmese Bongo’s real name was Moe; a young, enthusiastic man with not a bad bone in his body. We’d bonded over the fire hose. Dog was struck by the number of military bases lining the road.
‘It’s time to stop taking pictures,’ my guide said aimiably.
Part of the Burma drill is ‘no photographs of policemen, police stations, military bases, signs or hardware’.
Don’t tangle with a Burmese soldier. Things get very serious very fast – if you see a man in a uniform, be nice. If you see a man with a uniform and a gun, it’s time to put on your biggest, brightest, tourist smile. You know the one, that innocent, dumb wow-it’s-great-to-be-here-show-me-a-temple-please-take-my-money smile.
So, when a large Military Gentleman stepped in front of the car and waved us to a stop Dogster’s dumbest tourist smile leapt to the fore.
He peered in and blinked in surprise. He wasn’t expecting a white man. Dogster did as he always does when confronted by any man in a uniform and saluted. To my surprise, the man snapped to attention and saluted right back.
Dogster’s saluting has been going on for years. Saluting seems to work in foreign climes. Dogster imagines he is Dirk Bogarte in some ancient B&W British war movie and salutes in a rather profession manner, as if in disguise as a German colonel passing through the last checkpoint. Luckily, Dog had no idea who this man was and knew that it was someone else’s job to sort it out. I looked around at Bongo. He was white.
Well, it was more a kind of greenish-grey. It’s always very difficult to read someone with different coloured skin. Have you ever seen a black man blush? The Asian skin tone – in this case a very smooth caffe latte with a touch of butter – doesn’t give up secrets easily. The blood had drained from his face, leaving two black eyes and confusion staring back at me. His mouth opened and closed. The driver simply stared straight ahead. I knew that Dog would have to take control. The smile came out and I wound down the window.
‘Good morning, my friend!’ I said in my best Dirk Bogarde manner, ‘an auspicious day, eh?’
His eyes widened. He held up one hand to say ‘wait here’ and scurried off.
‘What’s going on, Bongo?’
The road was full of soldiers. We seemed to have driven into a men-with-guns convention. Milling around with the soldiers were groups of young women in traditional costume attended to by older women in traditional costume. Obviously, something was soon to occur.
Dog noted the presence of a very large number of Military Gentlemen milling around a newly erected podium set with three rows of plastic chairs, each with their own plastic table. Each table was covered by a crisp white tablecloth with a vase of plastic flowers and an ashtray. Some of the military gentlemen were grouped around someone even more military. Everybody was in a very jolly mood. Enforced, but jollity just the same. Opposite them, across the road that I now blocked, a large stage had been erected, full of decoration and color.
There was a discussion on the podium. My policeman rushed back.
‘Get out, please, sir.’
My guide was silent. I didn’t look at him.
We were across the road from the podium, filling up rapidly with off-duty colonels. The main military base for the district was just behind us. Bongo and I were escorted across the road and up onto the podium to be met be a smiling face and welcoming hands.
‘Sit, sit,’ said my latest friend, ‘sit here beside me!’
I had no idea who he was. I looked at my guide for some assistance. Bongo was alabaster and mould, the blood drained from his face. His mouth opened and closed like a goldfish. I could tell he was cactus. It was up to me. O.K., whoever you are…
We made polite chit-chat for a wh ile as denizens of young girls danced in the distance. All eyes were upon us. Breakfast was brought. I was in for the long haul – tea and bowl of sweet vermicelli that I reather liked. More tea. Cigarettes. Chit-chat. How am I going to get out of this without offending. Dogster remembered the word that strikes fear into every Asian – though maybe not this Asian – schedule.
‘I have a schedule, sir…’
I didn’t offend and my timing was perfect. He stood and a lass was summoned with a bowl of water. He looked me in the eye.
‘Now you must throw water on me.’
‘Oh, sir, you are a very important man, I couldn’t..’
Which was apparently the right thing to say. There was great laughter. Someone leant over and whispered;’
‘Just a bit…’
I breathed a sigh of relief. I thought I’d have to upend the bowl of water over his head. I sprinkled my host with water and made my exit, shaking hands and gushing all the way. My guide hadn;t uttered a word. When we got back to the car the driver was missing. He was hiding. He emerged and we drove off down the road.
When we were far enough away both my driver and guide let out an enourmous gasp of relief.
I still had no idea what was going on.
‘Do you know who that was?’
‘No,’ Dogster said blithely.
‘That the national head of the Army! He’s one of the generals!’
Everything was a bit of an anti-climax after that.
By late afternoon we were back in Taunggi. The Water Festival was in full swing. My guide’s home town. Splat! Hee hee hee. It was obviously very auspicious indeed to drench the old foreign guy. That’s why there are no photographs. My trust digital was jammed in my pocket, a plastic bag tucked tight around it. Hee hee hee. The old foreign guy was surrounded by a thousand delerious Burmese young people; he couldn’t really complain.
Ninety minutes home in a freezing A/C car nearly brought out a complaint or two but when Bongo noticed, held my tiny, frozen hand and whispered, ‘I will look after you… ‘