Thursday, April 13, 2017

Shwedagon and the Start of Thingyan

April 13, 2017
Yangon, Myanmar

Diving right into the Thingyan water festival
Today was the first day of Thingyan, the Buddhist New Year celebration in Myanmar. It's also known as the water festival, since a major part of the celebration is "throwing water" on each other, symbolizing washing away the past year's bad, and starting with a clean slate. 

We had prepared for this, mostly by figuring out how we were going to protect our phones from getting wet. While in Chiang Mai, we bought a matching pair of plastic sachets to wear around our necks. They need them in Thailand too, since their celebration, Songkran, is celebrated at the same time in essentially the same fashion.  

Phone sachet, check! Hair prophylactic, check!
This morning, armed with our sachets and wearing clothes we wouldn't mind getting soaked, we set off for some site seeing. The plan for today was the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest Pagoda in the world with a long,interesting history. Arriving via taxi from our hotel, we were taken to the special foreigner's entrance, checked in, and escorted to an elevator wooshing us up to the hilltop Shwedagon, rather than climbing the hundreds of awning covered steps like all of the local visitors.

We are not really temple people. I mean, they provide an interesting and scenic backdrop all over Asia, but, like cathedrals in Europe, it's pretty easy to get quickly templed out in a "you seen one..." sort of way. That said, the Shwedagon was something special. The clean and peaceful hilltop setting in the midst of a huge city, the scale of the Pagoda, and the beautifully dressed pilgrims and Asian tourists coming to worship really made the experience fascinating. It's a very photogenic compound as well, where we took way too many pictures (surprise, surprise). Again. It was interesting that we seemed to be basically the only westerners at this popular tourist site. Perhaps all of the Western tourists come for sunset, as suggested in all of the guidebooks. 

First views of the Shwedagon, shortly after emerging from the foreigner entrance elevator
So many colorfully dressed Buddhists come to pay their respects at Shwedagon, it's at least as interesting as the pagoda itself

The first day of Thingyan, people wash various images of Buddha
After getting our Shwedagon fill, instead of taking the elevator back down, we descended via the Western steps so we could walk across the street to visit People's Park.

Scott descends the steps from the Shwedagon hilltop toward People's Park
We think that the main part of the park was closed (maybe for Thingyan, like everything else?), but the part containing an amusement park was open, where we walked around for a while, and got to take in additional views of Shwedagon from a distance.

Shwedagon, as seen from People's Park
This is also where we got our first "taste" of Thingyan, as some young girls delighted in dumping some buckets of water​down our backs, as well as splashing us in the face. Grabbing some bubble teas at a concession stand (where Caroline got doused, once again, by an employee of said stand)  and strolling a bit, we quickly wore out the appeal of People's Park - the most interesting part being that they actually had roller coasters and rides (they were not operating, but even if they were, no thanks).  

Advertisement in People's Park - Dutch Lady, it's not just a Burmese dairy brand!
We walked to the east to one of the city's lakes, and continued strolling, while getting Thingyan- doused from time to time by random people hanging around on the sidewalks. Most people seemed rather polite about it, gently pouring bowls and ladles of water over our shoulders and down our backs. In this heat, not such a bad thing. It’s the kids who love to go straight for the face (damn kids!)… 

Our cab back to the hotel was clearly prepared for Thingyan
After a brief respite at the hotel, we set off to experience Thingyan in full, downtown, where the real revelers go at it. We started by taking a pedestrian overpass over the main street by our hotel. From this elevated vantage point, we could see the madness ending below, as trucks full of Thingyan partiers were zooming about town below, with barrels full of water alongside them in the backs of the trucks, armed to spray each other and anyone on the sidewalks within their ranges.

Trucks laden with revelers, preparing to attack the farangs (foreigners)
We headed to what we think was the main stage, in front of City Hall next to Sule Pagoda. In front of the stage, it was a madhouse. Some pop band was on stage, and the ecstatic crowd was absolutely pulsating. Raised platforms behind and to the sides of the crowd were armed with huge, agricultural like sprinkler sprayers with which they were completely soaking the attendees, to everyone's delight. The street in front of the stage was still open for slow moving traffic (those party trucks described earlier) to drive by and get soaked by a section of crowd that had seats equipped with a line of hoses for additional dousing needs. 

Crowd gathering in front of the main stage, not pictured, to the left of the photo
Crowd gathering in front of the main stage, not pictured, to the left of the photo
The stage show alternated from Burmese pop to traditional dance and comedy to a hip hop group that seemed like the Burmese Beastie Boys.

A few different people wanted to get their photos taken with us, since we're so attractive (haha). Or just white. We obliged, but wished we could've gotten copies of the photos. One of the revelers at the main stage showed a particular interest in us, and we had a strained conversation over the loud music coming from the nearby stage. He taught us some traditional Burmese dance moves, explaining that he teaches dance, when he's not putting on events for Coca Cola. "Are you happy?!" he shouted at us several times, the Burmese version of "are you enjoying yourself?", or maybe even "do you love it?". On day one of Thingyan, immersing ourselves in the madness, yes, we are happy. 

Our new pal in Yangon seemed very excited to be able to talk with us, and show us some Burmese dance moves

Additional photos from the day - winnowed down from the hundreds taken:

Dinner this evening was on popular 19th street, where all of the bbq & beer shops are... so that's where all of the tourists are!
Look! It's the Myanmar Idol bus! And season 2! Myanmar has come a long way... some changes are better than others.
Shwedagon Pagoda
Paying respects at Shwedagon Pagoda

So much to photograph at Shwedagon Pagoda

We weren't the only ones taking photos at Shwedagon

Shwedagon Pagoda

This ogre's "like" pre-dates Mark Zuckerberg
"I love your haircut, can I photograph it?"

An adorable child on an elephant. Hkyac ca. ya le (cheh seh yah lee - "cute" in Burmese)

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