This week heralded in the long-awaited Water Festival. Also celebrated in Thailand, this is one of those religious festivals that has become a byword for lavish, hedonistic party time.
My teacher trainee doesn’t like the wild display of animalistic pleasure. He views it in a skeptical manner of boys getting drunk and fighting, money being wasted on throwing water and people inevitably ending up with a cold after 2 or 3 hours of having river water thrown in their faces. He has been with his friends 2 times in his 22 years, and each time he only used one bucket of water. I don’t quite have the same feelings. I dislike the drunkenness and the fighting, of course. But I think that perhaps it is better to spend cash on water than on drinks; although maybe that is naive of me and people feel the need to spend money on both. I will concede that the event is a lot more sexualized than I would ever imagine from the Myanmar I have come to know.
In most villages there is a special stage area set up; ours uses the fabric reserved for monk ceremonies and gaudy tinsel to spell out ‘Happy Thingyan.’ I do like the use of tinsel for any celebration; I think it is underused in the west, reserved only for Christmas. Young people, mainly men go from village to village to drive past the area where the girls stand and dance behind huge buckets of water. If a pretty girl is spied on all of the boys descend on that village and lob water at the unsuspecting victim.
There are two scales of water buckets that a boy is able to buy. One is a general bucket with a small plastic cup to throw in the general vicinity of the girls dancing. This is 200 kyats; about 10 pence. Or, if a girl is special, he can pay 500 kyats (around 35 pence) to dispense a smaller silver bowl of water down the back of her neck. To contextualize this pricing structure, a sizable bowl of fried rice or rice noodles in broth for breakfast is 100 kyats, while a watermelon or papaya is 700 kyats (50 pence). Meanwhile you can buy 3 cucumbers or a small bar of soap for 500 kyats. A 1 liter bottle of drinking water in a restaurant sets you back 500 kyats, or if you go to supermarket you can get the same bottle for 200 kyats.
In our village the staging area is about 30 feet long by about 10 feet wide. There are three big canoes filled with water and another 6 huge black buckets filled to the brim with water. This is where the girls stand. Behind this arena is the hut where the generator is hard at work pulling water from the river while booming out rave music on an over-amplified speak system. Each canoe and bucket has several small plastic mugs bobbing on the surface which the girls use to return the favor of drenching whichever boy is within firing range.
I went along 3 days out of a possible 5. The first day was a family event where we stood under the shade of a tamarind tree and watched the hedonism. I thought it looked rather fun. I was reminded of the brutal water fights we would endure as children in the time when England had warm summers. we watched for around 30 minutes before retiring to the cool of our house. The following day my student was on ‘bucket duty’ of filling the buckets for the young men who came to throw and filling the canoes to keep the girls in water.
On the third day I participated in the dancing and throwing. I was a touch nervous I’ll admit. I like dancing though and I’m not especially shy anymore about people watching me. Is it professional to let loose and dance around in a muddy pit while being soaked to the skin with river water? Professional would not actually be the first word that springs to my vocabulary; however, I have gained more than a few friends in the village who all think that my joining in is the best thing ever. I think that it shows solidarity and that I don’t have any judgements of the people here.
Everyone has decided that on account of my dancing and having been in the village for long enough that I am part of the general village life. I get a lot of people smiling and dancing at me now whenever I go the market or the teashop. I think that the reserved and cautious air has been obliterated by my shaking and swaying; after all, those hips don't lie and it was fun to be involved!
NEH Director of Studies and Teacher Trainer
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