We are excited to announce that we survived Thingyan, the Burmese New Year Water Festival! After being completely soaked for five days straight, we made it out with just a couple embarrassing slips and learned more than a few local dance moves. Like many Burmese cities, Yangon has a wonderful mix of old and new Burmese traditions. We found ancient pagodas mixed with urban architecture and overgrown colonial buildings, a huge variety in customary clothing versus Western styles, and traditional Thanaka competing with a growing Asian trend of skin-whitening cosmetics.

Street view from the Thingyan New Year festivities in Yangon.

The mix of old and new culminates in the city’s celebration of Thingyan. In the past, water festival was typically observed by walking around your city or village pouring water on other people with cups. There was no blasting music, no wild dancing. As you can see in the video, modern technologies have transformed this into something much wilder. Cups have become overshadowed by pressurized water hoses, walking around reduced by motorbikes and pickup trucks, and traditional music drowned out by blaring performances from the Burmese equivalent of Spice Girls and N’SYNC.

Most people that use Thanaka first apply it early in the morning after a shower. This typically lasts until late evening – not the case during Thingyan. Right after you leave your doorstep in the morning, people run to pour buckets of water on you and wish you “Phyaw Thingyan,” or Happy New Year. If you dare to venture out onto the main streets, huge water hose stages sponsored by local businesses line the streets and make sure you are drenched from head to toe. As you can imagine, Thanaka does not last long in this environment. While walking around, we were only able to find a few lucky ones that managed to keep their Thanaka in tact. 

   (Top image)   A Burmese teen surrounded by the madness of Thingyan. Both boys here, like so many Burmese youth, are wearing unconventional Thanaka designs based on personal style.

 (Top image) A Burmese teen surrounded by the madness of Thingyan. Both boys here, like so many Burmese youth, are wearing unconventional Thanaka designs based on personal style.

The boy pictured above is one of the aforementioned lucky ones and a great example of what can be seen throughout Yangon. The younger generation is fascinated with Western culture now that the country has opened up and, surprisingly, there is a huge punk scene here. Kids wear studded flat bill hats and black clothing, have bleached and colored hairdos, and walk around town blasting heavy metal and locally-remixed American pop music. Despite these growing trends, many young people still hold on to local customs, especially Thanaka.

Many Burmese teenagers that we have talked to are proud to wear Thanaka. They see themselves as carrying on a cultural legacy that defines their people. Men and women have worn symmetrical circle and square designs for generations. Today, more so than ever, Burmese youths strive to apply Thanaka in new ways that express their individuality. Instead of circles and squares, there are many designs with x’s, stripes, dots, and asymmetrical patterns. As we have noticed, both Thingyan and Thanaka appear to be evolving with Burmese youth as their decisive leader.

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