Moments of Pure Wet Joy

The Myanmar New Year was welcomed with some spirited dancing -- all fueled by water, alcohol and holiday spirit.

The Myanmar New Year was welcomed with dancing, fueled by water, alcohol and holiday spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MANDALAY, Myanmar — Last week marked the beginning of this country’s New Year. And these people know how to throw a party. For four days, they danced, drank a bit and hurled water all over each other during the Thingyan Water Festival.

It’s been great soggy fun.

Here in Mandalay, there were four colorful stages erected, one of each on the four sides of the large moat surrounding the old palace. The big platforms, funded by corporate sponsors, have several levels, including a stage for performers and a couple of rows of seating equipped with powerful water hoses to drench celebrants who pass by the stage by foot, motorbike, open Jeeps and pick-up trucks. (A special thanks goes to a company called ASK, whose friendly owners allowed me access atop their stage to shoot photos of the revelers below.)

When a vehicle moved into the water it was time to stand-up and dance.

When a vehicle moved into the water it was time to dance.

All these vehicles laden with celebrants pour into the streets, competing for a chance to pass by one of the huge water platforms. Once they get their time under the water, they go wild, dancing to the pop and hip hop sounds blasting from the stage and gyrating under the steady stream of water. In short order, the streets become flooded and traffic stalls in gridlock.

On side streets throughout the city, children, teens and even a few adults line the streets with buckets of water. As pedestrians, motorbikes and others pass by they are given a generous splashing of water — including some that has been chilled with ice. Being doused is considered a blessing, a cleansing of bad luck and sins from the previous year and a generous wish for health and prosperity in the year ahead.

Denying a well-wisher the pleasure of giving you a good dunk would be rude. And, westerners are not given a pass, including those toting expensive camera equipment. By the time I had left my hotel and walked the four blocks to the major festivities, I was soaked to the bone. And many of the celebrants who blessed me with their water were thoughtful and downright artful in avoiding my camera.

As I approached many people walking up the street, I would point to my camera. They would respond by holding up their arm or pointing it out to the side, a signal that I needed to hold the camera out from my body. Then I got hosed.

This young man was in in his own world, singing and dancing to the music.

The young man wearing the sunglasses was in in his own world, singing and dancing to the music.

This is one of the rare times that the military government tolerates congregations of large numbers of people. And so, the Burmese make the most of it, drinking, dancing and enjoying the spray of water under Myanmar’s sizzling hot sun.

No matter how forceful the water, this guy could dance, dance and dance.

No matter how forceful the water, this guy could dance, dance and dance.

And they dressed up sassy for this party. Black was the most popular color, with men wearing fashion-label black jeans, black boots and silver-studded black belts. This was topped off by their best clubbing shirts, as well as western hair fashions, including many with orange and blond coloring.

And once they had been soaked to the bone, few peeled off their shirts. Fashion had priority.

Haberdashery aside, one of the most striking visuals to me was watching thousands of predominantly straight men dancing together. In many Asian cultures, men frequently leave girlfriends and wives at home when they go out to party. Sadly, women’s roles are still limited to keeping the house tidy, preparing food and making babies. Men are for fun — and so they strike out to such events often with just their buddies.

There was more than tea in that bottle.

There was more than tea in that bottle.

Combine this practice with their lack of inhibition in expressing their affection for one another and I was sometimes wondering if I was at the water festival or a gay pride weekend. I feel badly about practices that relegate women to second-class status. That’s just not cool. But there also was joy in seeing these guys truly enjoying their friends, dancing, arms around one another and giving many hugs.

And there were other social-political undercurrents at work: These young people have gotten a taste of freedom and they like it. Myanmar President U Thein Sein has promised to move the country to democracy. No doubt he sees the western fashion styles of his country’s youth, hears their music and knows where they want their country to go.

Early in the day, traffic moves freely around the big water platforms.

Early in the day, traffic moves freely around the big water platforms.

By late morning the streets are packed and Mandalay's police are overwhelmed.

By late morning the streets are packed and Mandalay’s police are overwhelmed.

It's not a great time or place to have your vehicle breakdown but these guys try a speedy repair.

It’s not a great time or place to have your vehicle breakdown, but these guys try a speedy repair.

And finally the traffic, people and water come together to create a massive, soggy party.

And finally the traffic, people and water come together to create a massive, soggy party.

Celebrants dressed like they were going clubbing. And they danced that way, too.

Celebrants dressed like they were going clubbing. And they danced that way, too.

Young men danced with their buddies to welcome in the new year.

Young men danced with their buddies to welcome in the new year.

Many party goers jumped off their vehicles and danced in the streets once they were under the water.

Many party goers jumped off their vehicles and danced in the streets once they were under the water.

Getting high atop the vehicles appeared to be the prime location for some seeking water and music.

Getting high atop the vehicles appeared to be the prime location for some seeking water and music.

Sometimes the revelers just needed to take a rest from the spray, dancing and hot sun.

Sometimes the revelers just needed to take a rest from the spray, dancing and hot sun.

The water provided cool relief to those seeking a break from Myanmar's hot sun.

The water provided cool relief to those seeking a break from Myanmar’s hot sun.

In a country that allows few large public celebrations, the water festival offered an outlet for youthful expression.

In a country that allows few large public celebrations, the water festival offered an outlet for youthful expression.

And when they were not doing their own dance, celebrants cheered on their friends.

And when they were not doing their own dance, celebrants cheered on their friends.

By the end of the day, Mandalay's streets were clogged with water and traffic.

By the end of the day, Mandalay’s streets were clogged with water, people and traffic.

 

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