The Thangyan Water Festival celebrates the Burmese New Year
It is April sixteen, and I find myself in Yangon along with my fellow travellers and it is New Years Eve. We were about to experience the water festival close up, on the back of a flat top truck to be precise, crammed aboard, along with three Burmese locals and a large tank filled with water. Each of us is armed with a brightly coloured plastic cup. None of us had any idea of what to expect, what to do or how to behave. The answer came quickly as one of our Burmese ‘helpers’ pours water on my head and it’s on! Our truck pulls away from the Strand Hotel and immediately across the road is a temporary grandstand, especially erected for the celebrations, adorned in ‘Happy New Year’ banners, music blaring from gigantic speakers and full of young Burmese revellers all with hoses squirting mega litres of water onto the trucks which line up like lambs to the slaughter.
We join the queue of trucks full of gyrating, fancy dressed and face painted locals and soon enough we are being drenched in torrents of water. In your face, in your back, on your head, there is nothing you can do and nowhere to hide. This is not the ideal place to be if you have just had your hair done or your pants neatly creased, everything is immediately wet through. The truck pauses while the laughing faces holding a variety of hoses pick their targets and give us a thorough wetting before we are told to move on by an equally wet policeman. The streets of Yangon are full of New Years parties. Groups of men and women, old and young, boys and girls, piled onto the backs of trucks, jeeps, buses and taxis. Some streets are closed off, the crowd is colourful, everyone waving, smiling, banging drums, strange musical sounds everywhere. Blowing whistles, shouting and screaming, everyone seems to be in a catatonic state of happiness.
We learn to give as good as we get, soaking people with our plastic cups, excitedly dipping into our tank scooping up water to toss on anybody within range. Their are cheers of triumph as we develop techniques for tossing the water, finding our targets with great hilarity and growing precision. The locals are pleased to be wet in such a way, it gives merit to receive a dowsing and for them quite a novelty from a bunch of westerners who just got off the plane from Singapore! Everyone wants to say hello to us, they wave smiling and cheerful, they ask us in stilted English “Are you Happy?” We are, and they definitely are.
We stop for a Myanmar beer or two at a local place, even the proprietor seems to have had the odd drink, his glazed but smiling eyes welcoming us to his modest café. The beer tastes good and the adrenalin is rushing. The temperature on this day is around 33 degrees so by the time we struggle aboard our vehicle we are just about dry. This state of normality is brief as we are hosed, buckets of water tossed at us, people cheering and shouting as they dowse us. Eventually we find ourselves at another ‘Grandstand’ the traffic is congested and the going is slow. We pause next to other vehicles where we can chat with the locals and throw water on them; we are well equipped with our strategic tank, unlike some others who just have the odd water bottle. Here we have the opportunity to do the hosing as we climb the podium stairs and let fly on the passing cars and people. A sweet revenge for some!
By this time the afternoon is well passed and we have been wet though for the last three hours. We head back to Strand Road, hurtling along beside the Yangon River. Our driver cannot resist one more dowsing so he pulls over at a water station where the locals go berserk throwing water on us. Here we get dowsed with ice cold water, you certainly know about it then! There is a collective grown from our vehicle as the icy water finds its mark. Back to the Strand Hotel and we are a bedraggled, soaked and exhausted lot. We hang around outside to dry off but the hotel staff encourage us inside and provide soft white towels for us to use. This is the Thangyan Water Festival, the end of the year, everyone is wet so don’t worry about it. We don’t and tumble into the hotel slightly numbed, welcome to Myanmar (Burma)!
Hitching a ride from Burma to Thailand
‘If I had never had bad luck I would not have had any luck at all’ – Woody Allen.
The border crossing from Dawei in southern Myanmar to Kanchanaburi in Thailand has only been open for the last few years following a ceasefire between the Kayin (Karen) people and the Burmese. I was the first foreigner to take this road as part of research for our Yangon to Bangkok by road, river and rail journey. Since my first visit I have crossed a number of times with our small groups. This story is from November 2017.
If you travel due east from Dawei in southern Myanmar you will reach the Thai border six hours later all being well, a distance of about 200 kilometres. The road is mainly dirt and follows a river for at least half its journey. We left at 7am in our 20-seat bus and soon after dipped onto the dirt road that was rough following a big wet season. We found a road ungraded, furrowed and deeply potholed without relief. Still we pressed on well enough, mercifully the sky clear and blue as we made our way down to the river valley. Here the countryside is beautiful and remote; there are very few villages, sometimes the roof of an old hut can be seen peeking from the canopy of green jungle. We were alone with our bus and the dirt road where only the odd vehicle, usually a 4WD, rumbles past us from the Thai side laden with undisclosed goods destined for the dark markets of Dawei. We stopped at a Kayin checkpoint (KNLA army is still active here), their blue flag fluttering above a shanty outpost of bamboo huts with banana leaf thatching. It was here that a passing 4WD stopped and a conversation ensued:
They told us that two hours further on from this point there was a broken-down front-end loader across the road, its arm and shovel extended in a stranded arc. They said our bus was too high to get underneath, although smaller vehicles were okay. I looked at my local guide and driver with some concern, we were already three hours down the track. We decided to push on, maybe we could get under, or maybe the broken front-end loader would be fixed and gone by the time we arrived. We drove on through potholes and ruts and eventually reached a small roadside stop, no more than a shack and the only sign of life we had seen since the last Kayin checkpoint. Here they were also flying the Kayin flag.
We paused for the toilet and some tea and were told by the odd collection of travellers at this unlikely oasis that the offending piece of machinery was indeed stuck across the road and blocking any vehicle with height. I decided to make a reconnaissance with my bus driver Mr Pujoe, and with the help of a local Kayin chap and his dilapidated Toyota half cab (there was no glass in the side windows) we set off.
At a cracking pace we sped up the hill for 15 minutes bouncing off ruts and crevices as if they did not exist. Sure enough, the yellow beast was besieged across the road, its engine split from its cavity looking rather alone as it sat uselessly beside its host. There were no mechanics around but clearly there was some work being undertaken. Our car could easily get under the outstretched arm, but Pujoe and I knew immediately that our bus could not.
Decision made, we could not pass so it was back to our waiting guests to break the news. We were remote, very remote. No phone reception, the road blocked indefinitely (we learnt it had been two days already), nowhere to stay and little food. We were two and a half hours from the Thai border by car; it had already taken us six hours to get to this stalemate. In my mind we were close enough to take a chance, effectively to hitch a ride. But out here? The road was as rough as it could be. Of the rare cars that went by I had no idea of their bona fides – they could have been of any persuasion – just a few years ago this road was impassable due to fighting between the Burmese and the Kayin.
Sometimes bad luck turns into good luck. We arrived back at the collection of bamboo huts from our reconnaissance just as a white mini van pulled in and unloaded its passengers to stretch their legs. I noticed the van was not full. I sensed the opportunity and petitioned the Shan driver to take us. At first he said he was full, but then realising our plight he agreed to squeeze in our guests – it was tight but good enough, and there was only one way to the Thai border. It seemed our chance had come, and after a short consultation with our guests we agreed to hitch a ride now, the opportunity may not present again and we knew that the Thai border would close at 6 pm that day. There is nowhere to stay on the Myanmar side and any further delay would dash our hopes.
Part one of the problem was solved, but what about the bags? Six big ones, plus me and my Burmese guide Judy. There was no more room in the white mini van. A vigorous discussion ensued; we needed another car to take us and the bags to the border. I looked at the Kayin fellow who had earlier taken Pujoe and me up the hill, he didn’t seem interested. At this moment another chap entered the conversation and it turns out he was the Burmese military officer for the area. He was dressed in board shorts, a sky-blue Manchester City soccer shirt and thongs. Later he put on his Burmese military hat – I imagine to sort of legitimise things. The driver of the white mini van with our stowaways was getting impatient; he wanted to get on, so it was with some relief that the Burmese officer directed Mr Saw Thi Paw (the Kayin driver with the broken-down Toyota) to take us to the border. There was just enough room for Judy to squeeze into the half cabin behind the driver’s seat, her head almost squashed into the ceiling, and in the open tray behind us Pujoe would sit with our bags.
I shall never forget that moment as we sped off, along with the white mini van, Pujoe riding shotgun in the back of the old ute on that incredibly rough and dusty track. The road got worse as we went, and the bus, even if the road had been clear, would not have made it. Another two and a half hours followed of shaking and bumping and we chatted as best we could. The driver who was Kayin could speak Burmese and Thai as it turned out. He was a great fellow, strong boned, dark and short with a cheeky grin. For him I think there was a certain amount of pride in ferrying this foreigner and his entourage to the border. He kept apologising for the tardiness of the car, everything seemed broken, but the engine was sound. We reached the border covered in dust, shaken and rattled but intact. Our guests had it relatively easy in the white mini van and were in good spirits. We met our Thai guides and farewelled Judy and Pujoe, crossing into Thailand 25 minutes before the border closed for the night. By 7.30 pm that evening I was in my hotel room. Exhausted but elated.
Post script: If you’re wondering about future trips on this section of road, we use 4WD vehicles – convenient and comfortable.
Three days on board the RV River Kwai
‘Take me to the river’ – Al Green 1974
Goddard & Howse have pioneered a new journey in Myanmar and Thailand, travelling overland from Yangon due south to the coastal town of Dawei, then east to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai. The journey is based loosely around the so- called ‘Death Railway’ built by POW’s and forced indigenous labour during the WWII tyranny of the Japanese. On this journey we visit the old railway on both the Burmese and Thai sides, as well as the beautifully maintained Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries
In a journey that has many highlights, the three days we spend aboard the RV River Kwaiare memorable. For this journey we charter the whole boat which has ten well-appointed cabins, a spacious sundeck, bar and restaurant. All of the cabins are air-conditioned, with ensuites and comfortable beds. Three days aboard the RV River Kwaialso includes a number of day excursions which we can tailor to our group. Typically, we would visit the vestiges of Hellfire Pass near Kanchanaburi where Australia POW’s toiled in slave-like conditions to build the railway.
We also board the local train and travel on the remnants of the line to the viaduct, another piece of construction expertly done by the Aussie POW’s. The back story goes that whilst the POW’s worked feverishly to build the viaduct, they also left deliberate flaws that would hopefully scuttle the Japanese at some time in the future. These are moving and memorable places that are easily visited from our private vessel. It is pleasant to return to our boat and start cruising before the sun sets and a gin and tonic finds its way into your hand.
Depending on the water level, the boat will meander along the river visiting waterfalls and local villages. The RV River Kwai is relaxing and also stimulating at the same time, a perfect way to conclude our Yangon to Bangkok by road, river and rail journey.
A taxi ride in Myanmar
A taxi ride from Scotts Market, downtown Yangon, to the Governors Residence Hotel at 35 Taw Win Road, is a short ride through leafy streets – or at least it should be. After spending a few kyats (that’s Burmese local currency) on some t-shirts and sandalwood Buddha images I decide to head back to my hotel. There are about 20 taxis to choose from, but for some reason I find myself in a 1970’s Toyota that sounds like a tank! Inside the interior is falling to bits and it is messy with empty drink bottles strewn everywhere, but I am in, so I am off. There is an elderly gentlemen driving and he looks as disheveled as his cab. He clutches a piece of paper with Burmese writing and has a hazy, beetlenut-induced look in his eye. The men of Myanmar constantly chew the beetlenut, crushed into small pieces, pasted with lime and wrapped in green leaf. They toss the whole package into their mouths and chew, never swallowing, and periodically spitting out the red juice with a flurry and little consideration of their public surroundings. The effect of constant chewing gives the men a red tooth smile and whatever is in that beetlenut seems to have an analgesic effect, which accounts for the bleary eyes. There is a plastic bag tied to the steering wheel and I suspect it contains everything in the world that is important to my taxi-driving friend. “Taw Win Road” I say. He nods, so off we go.
I have taken taxis many times from Scotts Market where you can buy jade Buddhas, ruby bracelets, gold rings and necklaces, silver ear rings and bolts of cloth. Tall and dark longyi-clad men will sidle up to you as you browse the shops asking you to change money. Smiling Burmese merchants will call you into their shop with the promise of a cheap price, hoping for the first sale of the day. If you buy something they will take your crisp US dollars or fistful of kyat and brush it across their display cabinets, muttering to themselves ‘lucky money’. If you have been travelling around Burma for a month and missed out on buying that treasured item en route, you can usually make up for it at Scotts Market.
The journey is taking longer than I remember – the landmarks are familiar but I get the feeling we are not going in the right direction. The Toyota has a deep throaty engine that rumbles through the gears, and there are mirrors on either side of the front guards which make the vehicle look quite imposing. My driver friend speaks no English so there is no conversation. I find myself near the Savoy Hotel on Dahamazedi Road and I know we are a long way from my hotel. If my elderly driver turns right here and into Inya Road it will lead us north from Yangon and I may finish up in Mandalay! I resolve to show him the hotel card. He looks at it vaguely, sort of nods, turns right anyway and motions ahead with his hand. I suddenly realise that my ageing Burmese taxi friend cannot read – whether it is Burmese or English. In fact he can probably barely see and probably lost the good part of his hearing a few years ago.
We are rattling along Inya Road, heading north, so I ask him to stop by waving my arms and pulling all sorts of faces. He gets the message and we pull up next to a couple of young lads out for a stroll. Many Yangon residents can speak English, particularly the younger ones, so I take my chances and show them the hotel card. They indicate to the driver we are going the wrong way so we turn around, my blind and illiterate taxi driver doing his best to reassure me that we are now on the right track. At no stage was I really that concerned about my safety or even the intentions of my taxi driver – Myanmar is a safe place and Yangon is a safe city, at least when compared with some other cities in the world. We head back down Inya Road and come to the turn where the Savoy Hotel is, and that’s enough for me. I suggest we call it quits and I pay him 2000 kyat for his trouble – this is about $2 and the standard price for a fare just about anywhere around Yangon. I say thanks, but he has got no idea. I wonder afterwards where he thought he was taking me – maybe just for a drive so he could get some money. I don’t think so. There is a hotel on the Inya Road built by the Russians in the mid-eighties and still popular with tourists; I had even stayed there on my first visit many years ago. So I resolve that this was probably the only hotel he knew, and in the absence of not being able to read, with very average sight and just about being deaf, I probably did well to make it as far as I did!
I ask the door staff at the Savoy Hotel to get me a cab to the Governors Residence Hotel and twenty minutes later I am in my room.