Inle Lake, Myanmar. I’m in a narrow boat. My two Korean friends are behind me and a friendly Austrian chap is in front. We’re two days into the Burmese New Year water festival, Thingyan. The fesival begins around mid-April and lasts for four or five days. Four or five days of literal non-stop water throwing and hose-spraying . We’d been warned. Oh, we’d been warned about the utter chaos of Thingyan; about being run down by teams of teenagers on the backs of homemade trucks, and drunk Burmese blokes dementedly swinging their hoses like Leather Face in the closing moments of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre . Except he had an axe, which is way more dangerous than water.
Imagine Mad Max with Super Soakers. That goes some way to capturing the utter pelting anyone who wanders outside gets during the festival.
So here we are, two days in and I’ve started to develop a ringing in my ear from the number of direct hits I’ve taken to the head. I learned on day one the accuracy and power with which even the smallest child can launch a bucket of water at any moving target. If that target is a bumbling, guidebook-clutching out of towner then all the better. (This seems like a good time to remind you how difficult it is to run in flip-flops.)
Our boat edges its way between the houses of a floating village, the engine spitting black fumes that rise into the blue sky like a smoke signal. Ahead of us is a bridge that stretches between two buildings. There is a flurry of activity behind the windows. The noxious black clouds have been spotted. Children loom, buckets ready. My fingers curl around my ersatz shield: a lifejacket made for someone about twice my size.
As we approach the bridge, the first grinning child rests the lip of her bucket on the railing and begins to tip it up by its bottom. The bigger kids, arms straining, raise their buckets under their own power.
‘Oh no! No, no!’ I hear from behind me. Chung-gyo, being a regular sized human, foolishly wore his lifejacket and is completely vulnerable to their attack. He raises his camera, considers taking a snap, before his quaking hand places it beneath his seat. He resigns himself to the deluge, face raised to the sun and arms flung out like Willem Defoe at the end of Platoon. He opens his mouth and screams.
Gravity takes hold and the water spills out. The light catches it as it cascades downwards, the high-noon sun bursting through a prism of browns. Dark browns and light browns, some clumps of matter in there for good measure. Nice, brown, height-of-the-dry-season lake water. It hammers against my lifejacket, while behind me I hear Chung-gyo choke on the hellfire of his diminutive enemies. His girlfriend laughs and is rewarded with a single, mysterious water balloon to her chest. A sniper no doubt.
The kids cheer and wish us Happy New Year. The littlest girl makes an exaggerated sad face at me. She tugs at her shirt to indicate the lifejacket. It’s good-natured but I can tell she’s bummed out that she didn’t get me.
What kind of saddo denies a kid the pleasure of thoroughly soaking a grown adult in a water festival? With one disappointed glance the little bucket-tipper taught me the error of my uptight, dry-clothed ways. Ear infection or no, I wouldn’t deny another child the satisfaction of drenching me and possibly accidentally dropping their bucket on my head.
We’d been told about the inconvenience of travelling in Myanmar during Thingyan: the road closures, the shop holidays, the buckets and buckets of water to the face, but I can’t imagine a better way to see the country. I cannot overstate what a joyous festival it is. Even if you’re – inconceivably – more uptight than me, it’s just one of those things you must resign yourself to in order to fully enjoy your trip, like Irish public transport or British food. It’s worth it!
Go to Myanmar! Water festival or no!