Welcome respite in (mostly) April heat: Asia’s New Year water festivals

Merrymakers dance on a truck as they are sprayed with water during the first day of the annual Thingyan water festival in Myanmar. Source: AP

WATER is often used in Asia to herald the start of the new year.

While the rituals begin the run of festivities, the result is pretty much the same wherever you are – splashing water, soaked clothes and much revelry.

Thankfully, many of these festivities take place in April, when much of the Asian region is baking hot and the liberal dousing of water is a welcome respite.

During these festivals, any self-respecting tourist which ventures outdoors should expect to be targeted by locals with water guns and hoses.

The best way to enjoy it is to expect to get wet, plan accordingly, and go out with a good sense of humor.

As New Year is a popular time to travel for tourists and locals alike, accommodation and travel during this period should be booked well in advance.

Thingyan, Myanmar

The Myanmar New Year water festival is celebrated from April 13-16.

While it’s a Buddhist festival and the start of a variety of religious activities, the real fun for tourists is in the music, song, dance and water-throwing that is associated with it.

Merrymaking is generally centered around neighborhood stages where traditional dance and music are performed at high volume throughout the night – pack your ear plugs if you plan to sleep through this.

Given this is the hottest time of the year, the water cannons, pistols and buckets are usually very welcome. If you want to stay dry, you should stay in your hotel room.

Yangon, the former capital, is normally the epicenter of these celebrations with truckloads of people traveling to the city to engage in the fun. It’s far more laid-back in regional towns and centers.

Songkran, Thailand

If you visit Thailand in mid-April, expect to run into Songkran, a celebration of the Thai New Year from April 13-15. We say “run into” because you simply won’t escape the festivities with celebrations taking place on every street and corner in the nation. In larger public areas, entire streets are closed off for street parties.

We say “run into” because you simply won’t escape the festivities with celebrations taking place on every street and corner in the nation. In larger public areas, entire streets are closed off for street parties.

While the festival traditionally includes merit-making, offering food to monks, paying respect to ancestors, and enjoying music and concerts, it has become particularly well-known in Bangkok and Chiang Mai for its water parties.

Songkran is probably the best-known water festival in Asia and backpackers in particular often arrive en masse in popular tourist spots to join in the revelry.

Tuk tuks are often the target of water attacks with buckets full of ice water. You may also be liberally smeared with chalk.

Bon Om Touk, Cambodia

Rowers wait for the start of a boat race as part of the water festival in Kampong Speu province, south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Source: AP

The Cambodian Water Festival, Bon Om Touk, is not held in April, but in October or November at the end of the dry season, marking the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.

Everyone then flocks to the banks of these rivers to celebrate and give thanks for the life the rivers provide the country.

They also come to watch traditional boat races and concerts. While every part of Cambodia joins the celebrations, the biggest ones take place in Phnom Penh by Sisowath Quay where millions turn up.

Besides the regatta, there are three major ceremonies held during Bom Om Touk. They include a ceremony with salutations to the moon, the eating of a special rice mixed with coconut and banana, and floating illuminated boats.

Pii Mai, Laos

In Laos, the New Year period is called Pii Mai and it is celebrated every year from April 14-16.

Like other New Year festivals, this one has Buddhist roots, therefore merit-making is a big part of it with animals set free as well as the decoration or repainting of temple grounds.

People will also go to monks or elders to receive blessings.

Water is used to wash homes, Buddha images, monks and elders, but also thrown at friends and just about anyone in the vicinity.

While the more traditional aspects are held during the day, the evening is reserved for music, dancing and entertainment.

To wish someone a Happy New Year, you can say sok dii pimai and then soak them with water.

Heritage city Luang Prabang is probably one of the best places to see the festivities as the celebrations can last up to a week.

On top of the usual events, there are also a beauty contest and the procession of the Buddha image of Prabang.