Yangon Thingyan: Traditional Celebration or Mere Water Party?

Nang Poe Hnin Phyu laments the changes in Yangon’s Thingyan celebrations.

I grew up in Lashio, the capital city of Northern Shan State, home to approximately 130,000 people. As kids, the Thingyan holidays were the best holidays. There was no school for three months and the classes for the next school year did not start until after the Thingyan festival.

Recalling back in my memory, I could not possibly talk about Thingyan without mentioning our ‘Sugar Uncle’. No, you did not read it wrong. We relished these yellow cubes cut from sugarcane, that you could chew until sweet juice would run out. Every year, this uncle (not a relative, but we would use this term to show respect to an older man) would turn up near the alley of our house and make his sugar business by selling sugarcane juice and sugarcane flowers. The latter was a bamboo structure made in the shape of an umbrella, with spikes that he would stick small sugarcane cubes on. While we sucked on the cubes, we enjoyed watching the Thingyan Dance being practiced, which was organized by the Women’s Affairs group from our block. Sugar and free entertainment sounds pretty good already, right? Well, the best is yet to come.

Every year, our family would organize ‘Studita’ (a social event when people make food or drinks and give them away to everyone), varying from traditional sweet snacks to full course meals. Friends of the block came to help and we enjoyed the company every year. When a splash of rain came, we knew it was time. There was nothing like the smell of earth after the rain kissed the ground. It was green, yellow and fresh. We would make teams and walk around the block to find the nine types of leaves, branches and flowers needed to make a perfect ‘Thingyan Pot’ to welcome the King of Thingyan. For 16 years, I always enjoyed the spirit of Thingyan and the memories that came with it.

The idea of Thingyan for me was all due to change dramatically when I moved to Yangon in 2008. I’ll admit that I was one of those country girls who could not quite live up to the hype of Yangon city. The clothing was different, the language, the attitude and social circles were a complete culture shock to me. What topped all of this was the infamous Yangon Thingyan. The effect was not extremely shocking to me immediately as I moved away to study abroad for a few years. When I returned in 2016, everything was different. I had a fair understanding of EDM (electronic dance music) culture, which was gradually taking hold among the young generations. It was an acceptable cultural shift which came along with the increasing number of dance clubs in Yangon. With the change of political leadership, I must admit that I had expected better recreational activities to substitute for the culture of clubbing and beer sipping, practiced by both young and old. But Thingyan has experienced the worst culture shift of all.

In 2016, when I was finally back home to celebrate my first ever Thingyan after many years, disappointment slapped me in the face. There was me excited to celebrate the festival. I rang my childhood friends who were also living in Yangon. Half of them were travelling and some of them were going to the meditation center, each to their own agenda. So, I was left with the last resort of calling a friend who was born and raised in Yangon. He excitedly told me how glorious the Mandats (stages on which Thingyan performances take place) were going to be that year because they would include international DJs and international stage designers.

For me the idea of the Thingyan celebration was engraved with free food, fun and friends. Yangon proudly celebrates Thingyan with alcohol, loud music and expensive Mandat tickets. A ticket to a well-known Mandat where celebrities and elites of Yangon come would cost between 80 and 200 USD. For that price, you could enjoy the DJs while sipping alcohol from an over-priced bucket you purchased on the Mandat. I politely declined, saying that it was not how I wanted to celebrate Thingyan. Also, I was a broke graduate with no job.

Some of my friends call me old-fashioned for having this view on Yangon Thingyan. Well, I’d rather wake up in the morning with the spirit to conquer the world than being hammered from the effects of alcohol.  Thingyan is a festival when the old and young come together and celebrate with the essence of kindness, nature and new beginnings. It is not supposed to strip you of your money to enjoy what should be a public festival. The culture of paying to sit on Mandats is fully commercialized and may create some jobs for the people in the construction and entertainment fields or people who collect used beer cans to make money. But how much of that revenue stream is going to the people?

One can argue that we can’t just close our eyes and wish for it to go away because with modernization comes unwanted culture shifts. But what I see is a festival which discriminates against young people based on the amount of money they can spend on tickets. The fancy hoses which are kept running for long hours on Mandats to entertain the partygoers are a waste of water in the water-scarce city of Yangon. Thankfully, traffic is not so much of a problem since Yangon administration decided to restrict some areas for Mandats.

It is indeed hard to see the positive side of this Yangon Thingyan. However, apart from these commercialized Mandats, there are still acts of kindness on the streets of Yangon. There are still children enjoying the water splashing activities on the streets. There are still ‘Studita’ on many street corners, open to anyone who comes by to freshen up with a sweet drink or a quick snack. Departing from the Yangon scene, in many cities of Myanmar, Thingyan is still a festival that an old-fashioned person like me would enjoy immensely.

Nang Poe Hnin Phyu is a Bamar-Pa Oh ethnic from Taunggyi, and spent her childhood years in many regions of Shan State. She moved to Yangon in 2008 and graduated from YUFL with a major in English. She is now pursuing a Masters Degree in Humanitarian Action in Europe at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, with the hope of alleviating human suffering in conflict torn regions.