Mandalay – the epicentre of water madness

Mandalay… oh Mandalay… we had the time of our life there! It was 4 days of pure madness. Water Festival is celebrated in almost all countries in Southeast Asia. It’s a celebration in waiting for Buddhist New Year. They party for four days and then pray on the fifth – New Year’s Day, in honour of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. We thought there wasn’t much going on in Myanmar, considering that the country was run by a military government, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. The whole country just went crazy and Mandalay was the epicentre of that absolute uncontrolled explosion of water chaos. Everybody was on the streets. Kids, teens, women, old people. Everyone with buckets, bowls and hoses. Most with warm water, but a few of them with ice cold water. That was the worse. It always arrived from the least likely people – little girls and sweet grandmas. But let me start from the beginning.

As soon as we arrived at the airport, we teamed up with two guys from Amsterdam for a taxi and then at the hotel we met another couple of friends. We went for early lunch together and since then we were a team for the whole water festival. We left our hotel at 10.30am and weren’t back until 7pm. We got sucked in and spat out by the festival. Water battle was on on every corner and it was impossible not to participate. After light lunch at a local eatery we bought water guns and bowls and started a serious war with kids of the streets. Once we got bored with losing every battle, we came up with an idea of getting on one of the trucks. Driving around town on trucks and pick-ups was favourite entertainment for the Burmese and we wanted to join in. It didn’t take us long to find the right truck. Then the party started for good. At lunch we had a bottle of rum, then one more and on the truck two or three more. As the truck was driving through walls of water pouring from platforms above the streets, we danced and drunk with the Burmese family that hosted us. The water was so powerful that at times it was hard to breathe, let alone talk. It went straight to mouth and nose. People holding the hoses had no mercy. Some of them had fire-fighter hoses and those really hurt. It took a lot of effort not to drink the water. It was coming straight from the canal surrounding Mandalay Palace and I’m sure it would fail every sanitary inspection. The amount of water that came down from those hoses was insane. Within hours the whole city centre was flooded ankle-high and in some places almost knee-high. People were dancing in it, kids swimming, motorbikes and cars trying to get from one stage to another. The stages went on for kilometers all around the palace. We stayed on the truck a few hours. The family was so welcoming and caring, they made the whole thing even more fun. They really looked after us. When one of the six of us got lost, they helped us look for him, they offered us food and drink and even helped to look for a bag that got lost somewhere on the way. Lovely people. When we got back down from the truck, we got swallowed by the party on the street. I can’t count how many Happy New Year’s we shouted and how many bottles of rum Ale welcomed, hugging people and shaking their hands. I refused to drink, but Ale didn’t say no to any bottle coming in his direction. Before I knew it, he started swaying on his feet. It was time to go back to the hotel. Walking through flooded streets, we took turns in helping Ale to walk straight, we got lost a few times, but in the end we found our way back.

The next day we spent all morning laughing at our adventures. It turned out that by the end of the party one of ours got lost somewhere and came back to the hotel at 3 o’clock in the morning. He made friends at the party with a Burmese family, who took him to their village, fed him, gave more rum, food to take home and a longgyi (male skirt). Then they dropped him off at our hotel. Unlike us, he continued to party that day. The rest of the group though voted for a decent dry day. We rented bicycles and cycled 13km to Amarapura’s U Bein Bridge. We thought it would be a long, hot and boring ride. Wrong. All the way from the very start to the very end of the route we came across water parties, kids with buckets, women with hoses, whole gangs chasing us with water. We got to the bridge soaked from top to toe. There was not a thread of dry fabric on us. The bridge itself wasn’t a work of art, just a bridge. We had a walk to the end of it and back (which is 2.4km in total), dried ourselves in the meantime and when the sun disappeared behind the horizon, we headed back, hoping to get to the hotel dry. No chance. We got each a bucket of water in our face right on the first corner.
On the third day of the festival we thought the Burmese would get a little bored with that water throwing, pouring and splashing, but no. The thing was getting more and more ferocious and we were back in the game. After lunch of noodles and Mandalay Rum we headed to the palace. This time we partied on stages, dancing, drinking and puring water on the crazy crowd. The funny thing was that Burmese people were turned away when they wanted to get on stage, because apparently there were too many people there already, but we were always allowed to get in. One stage had a good DJ that made young Burmese crowd mad. There were 95% locals and 5% foreigners, all dancing, drinking and pouring water. Ale again was making friends by drinking from any bottle that came his way and by the time the music stopped at 6pm he was feeling real good. Let’s just say it was a hard job to walk him home. He jumped on motorbikes trying to drive off with a “friend” and persisted that the hotel was too far to walk to. The Dutch boys lured him with pizza and Peroni and it did miracles! “Come on Alex, hot pizza is waiting for you at the hotel, just a few more meters,” they kept saying. It was hilarious. And how my beloved thanked me for bringing him back home? “And you? Who are you?,” he asked me when I was getting him to bed.

That was it for party. The day after was our last day in Mandalay and we were determined to see something of this city before leaving. Yet again, all we got were hoses of water pumped from the river. The palace was closed for visitors, monasteries were abandoned, only Mandalay Hill was open and the entrance was for free (guess, the ticket lady was pumping water on the street). We stayed on the hill until it got dark and then hitch-hiked to the hotel on a truck of a Burmese-Indian family. Another fantastic people. So friendly and helpful that they took us right to the door of our hotel. But stopping them was another hilarious experience. First we stood on the street with our thumbs out, but people just passed us waving and cheering. Then we realised we had to do it the Asian way, waving by bending the wrist down. As soon as we did that a few motorbikes and trucks stopped. We jumped on the closest one and drove off with the Indian family.

At 2.30 am of the same night we were up packing our bags and catching a 4 am train to Hsipaw. We thought we’d sleep on the train but every now and then we got splashed with water coming from the open window. Water Festival was supposed to be over, but I guess throwing water at passing trains at dark was too much fun to resist.

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