The taxi driver from the airport taught me my first words in Myanmar. It is more a good will message than hello, but like “Jambo” in Kenya, you hear it all the time
It is Thingyan, the New Year Water Festival. On Sunday I spent the day with three others from my hostel. We first walked to Sule Pagoda in the South of the city. There were fountains in the park behind, people selling food and drink at plastic children’s tables and chairs and two stands. One of them was for a concert which started with a group of girls of about ten years of age, dressed in bright green national costumes and performing a long and elaborate dance. The other was a raised platform where people held on to hoses and sprayed passers-by. We did not realise then that this was a very gentle introduction to the day.
I bought a hat made of banana leaves, (I had wisely left my own hat and glasses at the hostel), we had coffee or tea at a stall and then set off for Kandawgyi Lake area.
The whole road in front of the lake was full of vehicles, food stalls and people. More platforms with hoses pumped out water from the lake to loud dance music. We jumped on the bandwagon, that is, we asked some people if we could join them in their pickup truck, the preferred means of transport for Thingyan, and proceeded to get bombarded with water and sound. Everyone was dancing and laughing and waving.
We then walked back along the side of the street that was not getting sprayed, but this did not prevent the Myanmars from throwing bowls, sneaking up behind you and pouring ice-cold water down your neck and following up with a smile and a cheery wave.
After a brief pause for lunch, the revels resumed. Tom, a German who had been in Myanmar for a while, knew that the party continued at Inya Lake, in the North, but it was too far to walk. So once again we asked for a lift. A wonderful family – a middle-aged couple, a young woman, her mother, her cousin and an aunt and uncle who drove the pickup – took care of us for the rest of the day. We drove through hoses again and again, then up one side of Inya lake and round. By now the crowds were getting seriously large and people were throwing water from all directions. Traffic came to a standstill as three lanes merged into one and cars and buses stopped in front of the stands to let passengers dance to the music, which was now live. We sat or stood in the searing hot white truck for over an hour before we reached the deluge again and at that moment the singer broke into Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”. The crowd went, well, wild, and we all joined in and jumped up and down and laughed and cried.
Leaving the stands eventually, the family took us to a restaurant in a stunning location by the lake and offered us food and drink. We were a bit stunned, as they had already been so kind and after a drink and lots of photos, they even drove us back to the hostel!
No pictures, because my phone stayed in the plastic pouch I’d bought in Bangkok. My watch did not survive the day, neither did my trousers, which got so wet they ripped.
The next day, towards sunset, I was making my way to Shwedagon Pagoda when I passed a Buddhist monk. He smiled and said hello in English. I responded and he asked me where I was going. We started to talk and he offered to go with me. I felt very privileged. His English was slight but his smile beatific. I told him I had been to Lumbini, he told me he would like to travel. His name is Vijaya and he became a monk at ten. We met another monk who is an English teacher in real life. It turns out that you can become a monk for the religious festivals, then return to life outside. We began to talk about Buddhism and after taking me to his monastery, Min Khon, a small, simple building behind the Pagoda, he invited me to return the next day.
So yesterday morning I went to buy my train ticket to Mandalay, ( less than 3 pounds) and dropped in on Pansodan Gallery, a tiny place up a dark narrow stairway, specialising in modern Myanmar art. There I was given tea, then coffee and invited to sit and talk, (see their website).
In the afternoon I returned to Min Khon to more talk about their religious beliefs. This time four monks accompanied me to the Pagoda – people must have thought I was someone special – and then given a delicious 6-dish vegetarian meal at the monastery, with fruit and cake to take home.
This morning, when I said goodbye to Vijaya, he was sitting outside, with radio music blaring as crowds of sopping wet young people, some of whom may have been up all night, came for a free breakfast of pink sago with coconut.
This afternoon, the last day of Thingyan, there was a thunderstorm and the rain pelted down. I have been drenched for four days.