It must have been April 1951, maybe 1952, when my father wandered down from his house at 86 Park Road in Rangoon and took a series of photos of people enjoying the New Year’s Water Festival. Here we celebrate New Year’s Eve on December 31st, and the only water consumed is usually the next day along with a health dose of aspirin
In Burma, the New Year comes in mid-April, the hottest time of the year and water is a key part of it for days on end. The Water Festival is a cleansing rite, one where water is poured, dumped, sprayed or water-gunned over you by a friend, family member or complete stranger. The symbolic cleansing of the old makes you ready for the new.
Much like Christmas here perhaps, or any holiday really, the Buddhist center of the Water Festival has been slightly lost in the excuse to have a huge massive party – complete with rock bands, massive stands built out of bamboo where fire hoses are uses to water down an endless streams of cars and trucks packed with people.
During my trip to Burma, as I showed my new Burmese friends many of my father’s old pictures, they were quite interested in all the old photos, like this one of the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda in Yangon. There just aren’t a ton of photos around from sixty years ago, at least none that are easily seen by the average person.
Now, this photo is an early one of the most famous reclining Buddhas in Asia – before the earthquake in the 1960s, the Buddha there was massive, and sitting. But for all of the ones, that I brought with me, every single Burmese person I showed them too fixated on, and smiled when they saw the ones of the Water Festival. My friends would look carefully at each picture, always commenting on how happy everyone looked, and smiling deeply.
I was later then invited to go to the Water Festival with my good friend Mr. Kyi and his family and it’s an experience I highly recommend – especially if you have a Burmese friend or two and their family to take you with you.
First, the principal behind the Festival is the same – but the techniques for water dispersion have been enhanced dramatically since my father’s time in Burma.
These days, while buckets are still in use, on the major roads in Yangon for example, massive structures have been built out of bamboo as temporary stands for revelers. The hoses you see are connected primarily to the relatively clean Inya Lake and powered by massive generators, beer and live music.
Families and groups of friends rent the trucks you see and drive up to – through the world’s longest single file traffic jam, and stop in front of these pandals to receive what is less a blessing of water and more a full throated attack of water – especially as I found out – if you are the one white person that can be targeted, and you are tall.
Imagine it’s 120 degrees and humid and you slowly wind your way through an incredibly long traffic jam to where there are a series of these pandals. It’s mid morning and the hoses get turned on and the music starts jumping. Everyone, and I mean everyone from age 6 to age 90, is drinking beer because the Burmese do not think of beer as alcohol and it’s okay to drink and during the Water Festival it’s okay to drink in massive quantities – most of the trucks end up as floating recycling centers of beer cans.
You creep forward and then it’s your turn. Maybe you bought the $1 sunglasses that they sell to protect your eyes (they really need to sell cups though) and as the water hits you, and the music blares, you dance and jump and dance.
For me, the Burmese New Year was at the end of my trip – I thought at the time that this was going to be a great ending to my trip, little did I know the surprise that was in store for me on my last day in the country.
I enjoyed the Water Festival with my friend Mr. Kyi and his family – he rented a white pick up truck and I remember well my first experience coming up to a pandal. We crept forward, slowly, and then it was our turn – the hoses turned on us and the water was much more forceful than I imagined – I started to jump along with Mr. Kyi (which he managed to do in a longyi which was impressive.)
After a minute or two, we moved out of the firing line – the water poured out of our truck (along with a lot of empty beer cans and take out food containers.) I was a bit stunned when Mr. Kyi asked me the question of the day –
“Ko James, pyoo la?”
“Are you happy?”
It’s such a simple question but one we rarely ask ourselves and honestly, I don’t think at the time that anyone had ever asked me before – certainly never asked me with the sincerity and love that Mr. Kyi was asking me.
I remember wiping the water from my hair. It was 120 degrees out- chaos on all side, but an amazing positive and joyful energy in the hair. I had been in Burma and Southeast Asia for the better part of six months – I didn’t really know what was going to happen next in my world but his question stopped me in my tracks.
But the answer, on that hot April day, after I thought about it, despite my travel, frustration and worry about the future, the answer was yes.
“Floating: What I Found When I Went Looking For My Father. will be released on March 17, 2017 in Burma. The limited edition hardcover which is being sold now to benefit three Burmese organizations is now available for pre-order.”