Mandalay: A tale of two cities, part one: A new year to remember

With its patchwork history, Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, offers a rich landscape to explore; so much so that we extended our stay, intending to explore both the city and surrounding countryside. As it transpired, we ended up losing two days to Thingyan, the country’s New Year celebrations. We still got to explore the city, but we also experienced, at full velocity, how locals celebrate. For us, it was one of the wildest, wettest days to date…

At a distance of only a few weeks, it now seems quaintly naive, foolish even. We thought we’d be able to head out on our first full day (and day three of the four-day holiday), circle around where the main festivities were centred, and then spend the day exploring the palace, surrounding pagodas and Mandalay Hill, where people were no doubt gathering to make peaceful New Year’s offerings.

Wrong.

Within minutes we had become targets for ‘blessings’. These are delivered via buckets, basins and bottles of water, hoses on maximum, and basically any other receptacle that will a) hold water, and b) allow the blesser to throw it at the blessee.

Now of course it wasn’t the fact that we were foreigners that made us targets, everyone – with very few exceptions – is fair game. I should also point out: we knew that the New Year was celebrated here in the same way it is simultaneously celebrated elsewhere.

We had, of course, just come from Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where domestic and international tourists swarm each year to done water guns and turn the old city into a real-life battleground. Truth be told, although I enjoyed some moments, I found Songkran in Chiang Mai mostly, well, just not my cup of iced coffee. The New Year was rather overshadowed by the throngs wanting to bring out the inner child, and the at-times aggressive nature of it seemed at odds with its real meaning.

In Mandalay, it was the total opposite. There may have been a few water guns, but the only ones I remember seeing belonged to fellow travellers at our guesthouse. And while a bucket of icy water slapping against your mid-section is certainly not peaceful, a large number of times people came up to us to pour water over our shoulder and down our backs, the traditional way of offering a blessing. Some asked, some seemed almost apologetic (their gestures seemed to say, I’m sorry you probably don’t get this, but how can I not bless a foreigner?), and many waited until we’d taken our bags off.

Of course this is not to say we didn’t get soaked and have water coming at us from all directions at-times. We did, repeatedly; we were wringing out our t-shirts on the side of the road. And truth be told, after one long day of this, the novelty had quite worn off (which is why we spent the next day doing ‘admin’ at our guesthouse, aka hiding out in aircon!).

Any annoyance, though, was more about how disorienting it was, which meant we needed to keep stopping to work out where we were in relation to where we wanted to go (it was day #1 remember). However, we could only do this when we were sure we were in a dry zone and could safely pull out our phones. It just made the day a lot of start-stop, start-stop.

So, as I was saying, within minutes it was clear that our plans were going to have to become – and pardon the pun – far more fluid. Even if places were open, which they weren’t, there’s no way we could have wandered in dripping wet.

We decided, therefore, when in Rome…so instead of circling around, we headed straight for the centre of the action. Ground zero for official celebrations is the ring road that runs around the giant moat that circles the palace (each side runs over 2kms long). The entire southern half has been closed off and there are stalls, installations, and plenty of spaces for mutual blessings. Unlike in Chiang Mai, though, the moat is strictly out of bounds. Water is instead provided in large containers.

Best of all though, along the entire southern edge and stretching around and up the western side, there are stages, many stages. Each seems to be catering to a different audience – EDM, middle of the road Burmese pop, something that can only be described as Burmese pop meets Slipknot – and, in front of each, the locals are going wild. Water included.

It was a spectacle that won’t be easily forgotten, as was the intersection of the southern and eastern roads, which was so flooded…ahh, blessed…kids were literally swimming in the gutters. With such elated spirits everywhere, and as two of only six obvious tourists we saw, we were inundated with hellos and waves and handshakes and happy new years, and a few inebriated conversations in Burmese thrown in for good measure too. Sunshiney day.

Our second mistake – again, now acutely naive – was assuming that the liquid fun would be exhausted by late afternoon. We were kinda dry by this point, so, we thought, let’s tick one thing off the list and cycle 8km south to see the world’s longest teak bridge. It’s a 30-40 minute cycle, they told us at our guesthouse. Perfect, we thought.

Wrong.

Our second round of blessings were received as we navigated the increasing pandamonium of the streets heading south. The water works officially end for the day once the sun goes down, but, rather than tapering off as early evening approaches, they simply intensify. Pickup trucks, stuffed with people and stores of water, engage in all out battles with people on the side of the road, as the PM peak traffic swirls all around them. Log jams were occurring all over the place.

For our part, there wasn’t much option but to plough right through it all. We had to engage our best defensive driving skills, as our best avoidance tactic was to whizz down the middle of the road and passed traffic that had stopped to do battle. So in between buses and trucks and around bikes we rode; a little hair raising, fortunately no snarls, and it wasn’t always successful in avoiding oncoming waterwalls.

Once out of the city and speeding down an old main road, we finally broke free and managed to again almost dry out (thanks 38° heat!). We still arrived at the bridge quite wet, though, and a third, and mercifully far less severe, number of blessings awaited us as we arrived.

I can’t comment on whether the ‘world’s longest teak bridge’ was worth that degree of effort, but I’m sure you can now understand why we stayed indoors for Mandalay day #2!

To be continued…

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