Well, we have already booked our flights and hotels and then we realized it would be the Thingyan (i.e. the Water Festival) when we were in Yangon. Most shops, markets, restaurants, and spas would be closed; even overnight bus transportation from Yangon to Bagan would be suspended during that time. So, our plans to visit some of the classic sights in Yangon had to be changed!
But well, it is only that week of the year when the Burmese government would loosen their restrictions on gatherings in the country’s former capital and biggest city, Yangon, it could be a unique time to witness how the locals could temporarily forget about their political and religious conflicts and truly enjoy the week-long holiday that they deserve.
Thingyan – the Water Festival in Myanmar
Thingyan, commonly known as the “Water Festival” by the westerners and “Songkran” in Thailand, is the Burmese New Year Festival and usually falls around mid-April (sometimes overlapping the Easter Holidays). The celebration also takes place in other Southeast Asian countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and even East Asian countries like China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, where it has a largely Buddhist culture. The water festival is getting commercially big in Thailand (especially Bangkok) while international tourists would flood into the country during that week to join one of the biggest festivals of the year. Everything in the city is wet – because traditionally, people are supposed to subtly and gently sprinkle water on one another during the festival as a part of the cleansing ritual to welcome the New Year. It is believed that everything old must be washed or thrown away as it would bring bad luck to the owner.
While the festival falls during the hottest month of the year in Southeast Asia, the gently “sprinkling of water” tradition was then turned most preferably into a “splashing of water” fiesta. It happens basically everywhere to everyone. The “water fights” happen at parties (sometimes rave ones), at water-spraying stations on the side of the street, outside hotels, on a moving truck full of festive spirits; and no matter if you are a stranger or a friend, or a passing-by vehicle… you are the target.
Our Yangon water spraying route
Since “No One is Safe” (What are you talking about? Those were blessings!) – water-proofing is key when you are wandering in any street in the city. Like us, we got splashed (or should I say, “blessed”) by a bunch of kids 15 seconds after we walked out of our hotel heading to the city center; and I have also seen taxi drivers put plastic to cover the inside of their vehicles. Well, too bad I didn’t bring a squirt gun with me for the party. 😛
We explore the old town in Yangon that day and that’s where most of the celebration took place. Our hotel is a mere 5-minute walk away from the giant Shwedagon Pagoda, and it’s a 15-minute drive from the old town.
Really, nothing opens!
Although I have said it once, I say it again – all shops are closed during Thingyan! Therefore, when we reached our first stop, the Bogyoke Aung Sann Market, it was closed and we could just take some photos outside (We read on the Internet and the information has been inconsistent, some said about 20-30% of shops would still be opened during Thingyan, and we wanted to try our luck. As it turned out, the entire market was closed that day, and we couldn’t even go in). Afterward, we walked along Bo Gyoke Road to the nearby Yangon Central Railway Station. During the festival, Bo Gyoke Road was quiet, with a few hawkers still in business along 27th Street to 36th Street along the Bo Gyoke Road. However, there might be party-goers splashing water from the pickup truck on the road so stay alert!
The Yangon Central Railway Station is a historic railway station built in 1877. The building was designed in the British Victorian style and the local train route (Yangon Circular Railway) still operates today, circulating Yangon city in about 3 hours; like any “old” train system in developing countries, the train services, however, are slow, unpunctual, and quite inefficient.
Although many locals may still rely on the train line to commute these days, it was more like a sightseeing attraction to tourists as it definitely felt like traveling back in time when the train glid through trees and old villages.
Splashing at Maha Bandula Park
We headed to the Sule Pagoda afterward, and we had a little lunch at the 999 Shan Noodle Shop. As I said not many places open during the festival, yet we were lucky enough to make a reservation for afternoon tea in the Strand hotel Yangon later.
The Sule Paya Pagoda is a good starting point to explore Yangon’s old town as it’s an intersection of Maha Bandula Road and Sule Pagoda Road. Many historical colonial-style architectures are found along these roads, all the way to the Strand Road on the riverside.
The Maha Bandula Park has turned into a busy place with events and celebration parties. Loud music, bustling locals, and street vendors filled the place, with the Independence Monument, Yangon City Hall, and Yangon Region Court in the background. The Garden pool has become the ultimate water fight arena and I could feel icy water running through my back when we walked through the park.
We saw quite a few beautiful colonial-style buildings along our way to the Strand Hotel as well. Like Accountant General’s office, General Post Office, and the Lokanat Gallery. The Lokanat Gallery (and I have to mention it as I love art) is a yellow building and it showcases works of contemporary Burmese artists in the last four decades.
Time to unwind in the Strand Hotel
After an afternoon of the water fight, we were already soaking wet. Luckily, the water did cool us down under the immense heat. The Strand Hotel was built in 1907 along the promenade of Yangoon River by the Sarkies brothers and Armenian hoteliers. We headed into the hotel’s café after changing into our dry clothes, and it was time to relax a little bit.
They are serving afternoon tea set in two different styles: The Classic high Tea menu includes a wide range of savory and pastry selections from caviar toast, foie gras terrine, cheese millefeuille, prawn sandwich, strawberry tart, choux bun, white chocolate tart, and so much more. Instead, I would recommend the Myanmar High Tea Menu. The Myanmar high tea menu serves a lot of Southeast Asian style delicacies from sticky rice balls, sago and coconut milk pudding, deep-fried banana ice cream, and more. The Tea Leaf Salad (Laphet) was definitely my favorite and I ate that basically the entire trip in Myanmar!
Stroll along the promenade all the way to the Botahaung Pagoda and enjoy the view of the sunset and the Yangoon River at the Botahtaung jetty. It was a nice way to end the day of the Thingyan celebration!
A few tips for Thingyan
Again, shops are closed and therefore make sure you have everything you need as it may not be easy to buy them during the festival.
- Water-proofing – that applies to everything (your wallet, watch, camera, and most importantly, cell phone) as water fights are everywhere, and it could be wild. Wear quick-dry shirts, and pants, sandals, flip-flops, and water-proof backpacks. Just dress the way that you would when you are going to the beach (Although some might not get into the water when they are at the beach).
- It would be nice to pack a change of clothes, or maybe a Longyi (or Paso) if you are planning to enter a temple. You are, still, not allowed to enter temples in a pair of hot pants and Cami tops or vests.
- It’s a celebration and it’s a blessing, so don’t get mad if you got wet and just embrace the spirits, and as I said, it’s a good way to cool down in the heat!
- The most unexpected “attacks” are (seriously) from the pickup trucks as they splash water all around the passers-by. Therefore, don’t think that you are safe on the road just because you see no one is around and you take out your camera or phone without waterproofing.
- Lastly, although I don’t see there is much of a problem, avoid interrupting the drivers by splashing water on the road to ensure safe traffic. 🙂