It all starts so innocently. During a visit to the pottery village of Yandabo on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, a little girl shyly asks my fellow passengers from Scenic Aura if she can bless us to celebrate the start of Burmese New Year. Stifling a giggle, she brushes a water-laden thabyay sprig on our heads, clearly relishing our exaggerated squeals as the icy water drips down our necks.
Over the next few days, however, those drips become bucket-loads, and the squeals genuine screams as the craziest and biggest water fight in South-East Asia gathers momentum.
Thingyan, the traditional Buddhist New Year celebration held over four days in the scorching heat of mid-April, is the Burmese equivalent of Thailand's Songkran. While the Thais' exuberant celebration attracts most of the media attention, north of the border in Myanmar the revelry is unprecedented as the usually conservative country lets its hari down in a drenching to beat all drenchings.
Officially, Thingyan is a religious festival, marked by the offering of alms, the wearing of traditional yellow paduak blossoms and water sprinkling to symbolise cleansing and transformation. However, it has also become a great excuse to cool off, with everyone from toddlers to grannies and even maroon-clad monks getting in on the water-fight action.
As the four days of festivities progress, so the dousing escalates from squirts with water pistols, to buckets of water, to garden hoses released with abandonment over pedestrians, motorcyclists and open-backed trucks – jam-packed with drunken youths bumping and grinding to techno music that blasts from tinny stereos.
In larger towns, stages and grandstands line major thoroughfares, set up with fire hoses and sprinkler systems to soak anyone who dares pass. Meanwhile, in the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay, streets are closed to vehicles as massive crowds flock to concerts with performances by major artists, street fairs and wild alcohol-fuelled dance parties continuing into the night.
Traffic jams and utter chaos ensues and there are the inevitable motor accidents, with scooter riders particularly vulnerable to the lethal combination of drinking and a well-aimed bucket of water. In 2018, there were 26 reported deaths (down from 285 in 2017, with the discrepancy likely to be a result of censorship rather than good behaviour) and 600 people were admitted to Mandalay General Hospital mostly due to motorcycle accidents.
According to our Scenic guides, anything goes during Thingyan because the government relaxes laws restricting large gatherings, so authorities largely turn a blind eye to misdemeanours and displays of public drunkenness. Parents, too, loosen the reins allowing teenagers to stay up late, wear provocative Western clothing and dye their hair shades of green and purple with all sins forgiven on New Year's Day and its promise of new beginnings.
As for the dousing, anyone is fair game – with tourists no exception. Children in particular seem to take great delight in hearing our squeals and protestations about mobile phones and cameras, removed from plastic bags at our own peril; and pity the poor cruise passenger who has spent time styling their hair or dressing to the nines.
"Expect to get wet," we are warned during our induction after boarding Scenic Aura. "There's no point fighting or trying to avoid it – just relax, go with the flow and have fun."
Not wanting to miss the annual celebrations, our all-Burmese crew have their own New Year party planned; dressed in traditional clothing, they perform a beautiful parasol dance around the pool for passengers, dipping and swaying to a traditional Water Festival song. It's all very sweet and subdued … until the first glass of water is thrown.
Then it's all on, crew versus passengers, passengers versus anyone in the line of fire, using drinks, buckets and pool dunkings as ammunition. It's fantastic, soggy fun with the resulting smiles and raucous laughter so typical of our journey through this troubled, complex land.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore with connections to Yangon. See singaporeairlines.com
The Irrawaddy River Cruise departs Mandalay en route to Yangon or vice versa. Prices start from $9290 a person twin share. See scenic.com.au
Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Scenic.