When we heard about Thingyan water festival in Myanmar we had so many questions. Most importantly, why is Thingyan festival celebrated and can tourists even attend? Secondly, what do you bring and wear? Finally, is it as crazy as the YouTube videos and our friends make it out to be?
We’d heard it was essentially three days of non-stop water fights, music and fun to celebrate the Burmese New Year but after experiencing it for ourselves, it was so much more. We will cover everything you need to know about the water festival in Myanmar and why you need to include it in your backpacking Myanmar trip.
WHEN IS THINGYAN FESTIVAL IN MYANMAR?
Thingyan is the Burmese New Year and takes place at the end of the dry season, usually mid-April. The dates are calculated according to the Burmese calendar. We attended Thingyan festival in 2019 which started on Saturday 13th April and ended on Tuesday 16th April.
The water festival in Myanmar 2021 will take place on the same dates Tuesday 13 April and end on Friday 16 April. You can also check for future dates here. The festival can last 3, 4 or 5 days depending on the year as the date is determined by astrologers and is held on a full moon.
We found the water fights and music usually started around 10am and ended by 10pm, with all water fights stopping on the final day as this is when New Years Day is.
HISTORY OF THINGYAN FESTIVAL
Thingyan is a Sanskrit word that translates to “transition of the Sun from Pisces to Aries.” It is based on a Hindu Myth adopted by Buddhists. According to the legend, Arsi (The King of Brahmas) lost a bet to Śakra the King of Devas so was consequently decapitated.
The head of an elephant was then put on the body of Arsi who then became Ganesha – one of the most worshipped Gods in Hinduism.
However, the power of Asri was so great that when his head was thrown into the sea it would dry up, skies would combust into flames if it was thrown in the air and land scorched if thrown onto land. Therefore, Sakra ordered that each year a princess Devi would carry the head and going forward the new year signified the changing of hands for Brahma’s head.
WHY IS THERE A WATER FESTIVAL IN MYANMAR?
During Thingyan festival, traditionally the younger generation would visit their elders to wash their hair as a sign of respect. Scented water is also poured over the head of Buddha images, with this sacred ceremony taking place all over Myanmar on the first day of celebrations.
It is believed this is how the water festival in Myanmar became the festival that is cherished today, as the water symbolizes the washing away of sins and any bad luck from the previous year. This also means you begin the New Year with essentially a “clean slate” – the mind, body and soul are purified and ready for the year ahead. The water festival in Myanmar is also related to the dry season, as the water is particularly refreshing in April – the hottest month of the year.
Thingyan festival is similar to Songkran which we also celebrated in Thailand (and is celebrated in Laos) as well as Chaul Chnam Thmey festival in Cambodia. These also represent the New Year and are celebrated with water thrown in the streets, music and feasting.
WHERE TO CELEBRATE THINGYAN FESTIVAL IN MYANMAR?
Thingyan festival is celebrated in different ways depending on the region you are based. Traditionally in Mon State, a meal consisting of dried fish, onion, mango and beeswax would be prepared whereas in Shan State there are three other celebrations within the water festival.
Generally, Thingyan festival follows the same itinerary – day one is known as Thingyan Eve and temples fill with locals washing the buddha, praying and providing monks with offerings. The water fights start on day two, which is believed to be when Thagya Min (King of Nat who we learned about during our day trip to Mount Popa) is believed to have made his journey from heaven to earth. This is followed by two more days of water fights, food and celebrations.
It was by complete chance our Myanmar itinerary fell over the dates of Thingyan festival and that we would be in Yangon which is considered the best place to celebrate.
WHAT TO EXPECT CELEBRATING THINGYAN WATER FESTIVAL IN MYANMAR
What time does Thingyan Festival start?
Firstly, we arrived in Yangon on day one of Thingyan festival straight off a night bus around 6am. Thankfully our hotel allowed an early check-in (for a small fee) and we were able to nap and prepare for the day ahead.
The water fights do not start until 9am, with a few hours break to avoid the midday sun around 12-3pm. Then you will hear the techno music start up again and the water fights continue until dark.
Are tourists welcomes to celebrate Thingyan Festival?
To be honest, we found information to be limited on what to expect as a tourist attending Thingyan Festival but we can assure you, tourists are welcomed with open arms and if anything given special treatment during this time.
We quickly learned during our time backpacking Myanmar that the Burmese people are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people we have ever met but Thingyan festival proved this even more.
Locals were so excited to splash us with water, paint our faces and wish us good luck for the Burmese New Year. As you walk through the soaked streets you will find shops, families and cafes set up with gazebos and large barrels of water as well as hoses and even bamboo stages ready to soak passers-by.
As a tourist, you are a natural target to be soaked because there are very few tourists, but this is all part of the fun of Thingyan as you simply have to walk out onto the street to join in – no tour, entry ticket or special venue required!
Younger generations also jump into trucks and parade around Yangon – throwing water at each other as well as driving under the bamboo stages to be soaked. As a tourist, it’s easy to hop in a truck if you’re feeling brave but be warned these did look incredibly unsafe and deaths are common during Thingyan from festival goers falling out of trucks.
There is no doubt, the water festival in Myanmar is a chaotic yet unforgettable experience and we felt truly welcomed to celebrate it even as tourists.
Are there events during Thingyan Festival?
Although we only joined in the more local, traditional celebrations in the street for Thingyan festival, there are huge main stages with concerts and presentations from Burmese celebrities which you can purchase tickets for in other parts of Yangon (usually near Inya Road and Kandawgyi Road.)
These stages are more like the type you’d see at music festivals and the concerts take place all afternoon and late into the night with live DJs, bands and lots of drunken teenagers in attendance.
Although we love music festivals (and being Scottish, anything that involves alcohol) we understand this is not what Thingyan festival is about. We understand the frustrations of elders and religious residents of Yangon who are disappointed in the way Thingyan has progressed into more of an alcohol-fuelled street party than religious celebration.
As a tourist, by all means enjoy the water festival in Myanmar and jump in a truck, make friends and throw water like there’s no tomorrow but remember what the festival represents and it is not an excuse to get wasted and bounce around to techno music – you could do that at home.
Traditional Food at Thingyan
As well as the fun of splashing water in the streets, dancing with locals, non-stop music and New Year wishes you will be treated to some incredible food during the water festival in Myanmar.
These treats are simply handed out by locals during Thingyan festival and our favourites included Mote Lone Yay Paw which are coconut milk and sticky rice balls filled with a sweet palm sugar syrup.
You may also have the chance to try Thingyan hta-min which translates to water festival rice set. Although it originated in the Mon state, it can be found throughout the country during the water festival in Myanmar.
Can you avoid getting wet?
Yes, although you’d be seriously missing out if you do choose not to take part. You will have to remain indoors until dark or seek refuge on the rooftop and watch from above.
Although we left Yangon on day three of Thingyan and had no issues in getting from our hotel to our Uber without getting wet as locals recognised our luggage and that we were completely dry so avoided us. Although we did find we were easy targets, most locals asked before soaking us anyway but generally if you’re already wet that’s the sign, you’re taking part.
TIPS FOR ATTENDING THINGYAN WATER FESTIVAL IN MYANMAR
It is a Public Holiday
Bear this in mind when arranging taxis, airport transfers and accommodation. We found some cafes were still open and owners welcomed us in even though we were super soggy but appreciate that for some, it won’t be business as usual and expect price increases due to the festivities.
Watch it from above
As a sneaky tip, we recommend staying in Merchant Art Hotel in Yangon as it has a rooftop. This provided the perfect place for a well deserved break but still watch the chaos on the streets below. The hotel staff were also super understanding and joined in the Thingyan fun – supplying water, towels and tips or Thingyan throughout our time there.
Some people are off limits
Yes the water festival in Myanmar is a huge celebration but you cannot throw water at everyone. Monks, elders and motorcyclists are off-limits. We also found most locals asked our permission first or gave a friendly nod before drenching us so recommend doing the same.
Learn to wish a Happy Burmese New Year
Locals were so appreciative when we wished them “hnit thit ku mingalarpa” which is Happy New Year in Burmese.
Do not wear anything you would be upset to get ruined. It is celebrated in April which is one of the hottest months of the year in Myanmar so your clothing will dry super quickly but it’s not just water that is thrown, we were also painted with bright yellow paint. Flip flops are best (although hard to run in) but they dry super quick and are cheaper to replace than trainers if need be.
We recommend purchasing a dry bag (literally every street vendor will be selling them) as this will keep your valuables dry although we still recommend leaving them at home. We didn’t take our phones because we wanted to just enjoy the moment and not waste a minute worrying if our phones would be damaged.
Thingyan water festival is a once in a lifetime experience so completely understand you’d want to capture a photo or two, but don’t live it through a screen. We would recommend taking a Go Pro as the safest, worry free waterproof option if you want photos to remember your time there.
We hope our guide has answered any questions you may have about the water festival in Myanmar and that our tips ensure you have a soggy but safe time. Although we tried our best to explain what it’s like to celebrate Thingyan festival, words cannot describe the atmosphere of those few days so until you book the flights and take part yourself you won’t realise just how much fun you’ll have. Let us know in the comments if you’ve celebrated Thingyan in Myanmar and if there’s any tips we’ve missed!