The Water Festival
May 05, 2004
Years ago, when I was in Milan working for Sapient, my coworkers and I took a weekend trip to Venice. Carnival was starting Sunday night and we hoped to catch some of the pre-festivities. On Sunday night we go to catch our train back to Milan. The project is behind schedule and we have to be back at work on Monday. From the train station we watch the firework show announcing the start of Carnival. I was shocked that I was actually taking a train _away from_ one of the world's best parties. I came close to quitting my job and staying.
In Myanmar, I found myself in a similar situation. The Water Festival, known locally as Tinjan, is the Burmese New Years festival. It is celebrated by a week-long water fight of epic proportions. It's the biggest party of the year in Myanmar. On May 11th the festival was starting. My visa was going to expire a few days before then. I was not willing to leave another town just before the start of a big party so I decided to illegally overstay my visa.
The first day of the water festival, I spent in Bago. Everywhere that I went buckets of water were tossed at me, hoses were turned in my direction and squirt guns shot at me. Tourists are everyone's favorite target.
I was completely soaked before I even made it half a block from my hotel. I came to the first of many water stations. A huge tub was filled with water. Buckets are filled from the tub and then water is tossed at passing buses, pretty girls and of course at me (the only tourist). One bucket wasn't nearly enough. Everyone had to throw at least two full buckets of water at me before they were sure that I was as wet as can be. I picked up a bucket and joined in the fun.
The guidebooks say that you cannot travel during the water festival. Well, I've never been one to listen when someone tells me that I cannot do something. It seemed that being assaulted by water would make the 3 hour ride into Yangon a lot more fun. For the full experience, I caught a truck instead of the more expensive, and protective, busses. I ended up sitting on top on of the pickup truck which was overloaded with about 50 people.
This may be the first time in my travels, where I was comfortable and the locals were miserable. By 5pm the temperature had cooled down from a high of 105 to about 90. Apparently, this was too cold for everyone else on top of the truck. They were shivering uncontrollably from 40 mph breeze and the water. For me the water felt like the perfect way to cool down on a steaming afternoon.
Along the highway were roadblocks. The truck stopped at each one and was soaked by buckets and hoses - sometimes high pressure hoses. At first I didn't understand why the truck didn't go around the roadblocks. Then a bucket of water hit me in the face at about 20 mph as were leaving a stop. My eyes were open, and for a while I couldn't open my right eye and was concerned that the impact did serious damage. If any trucks tried speeding through these roadblocks then there would be real injuries.
Yangon was a massive roaming party. Pickup trucks full of teenagers circled the city. The water stops here were more organized and impressive than in Bago or along the highway. High pressure hoses fed dozens of smaller hoses manned by people on raised platforms. The vehicles formed lines, and one at a time got drenched. There was a real feeling of excitement. Myanmar is a poor country and the people don't have a lot of excuses to celebrate. Many of the young women rarely leave their houses. The Water Festival is their one chance to flirt and meet boys. Lots of drinking and a bit of dancing go on. And I was, of course, the star of the show. In the villages I might have a crowd of 60 people. At some of these water stops I'd have hundreds of people watch me dance.
I overstayed my visa by a week, but wasn't concerned. I'd been told that there was a $3/day fine for overstaying and that I should show up early for my flight to take care of the paperwork. Everything was just as I heard. I pay the $21 fine. The immigration officer copied information out of my passport. Then he asks me why I overstayed. I tell him the truth; I wanted to stay for the Water Festival. Then he shocks me with his response: "The Water Festival isn't over. Why are you leaving?"
Myanmar is a bureaucratic military dictatorship. I overstayed my visa illegally. But, instead of giving me a hard time, fining me heavily, or imprisoning me the immigration officer asks why I'm leaving before the party is over. Myanmar continues to surprise me. Someday, I'll have to come back.