You know that sense of mounting excitement as the most important Festival of the year approaches – such as Christmas when I still lived in the UK, or Dassain in Nepal?  The sense of anticipation intensifies, shops get busier, preparations are increasingly visible and conversations are more and more dominated by plans and tasks for the coming festivities.

In this part of the world, many countries are celebrating Water Festivals and New Year.  As the weather becomes more hot and oppressive, the temperatures continue to rise and the air becomes heavy with the moisture of dreamed-for rains  and the exhaustion and tetchiness which the season nurtures.  The trees start to display their spectacular colours, with the purple jacaranda and bright yellow laburnum flowers already signalling the approaching change in seasons.

Jacaranda in the morning sunlight

Jacaranda in the morning sunlight

In Myanmar we celebrate Thingyan, the Water Festival from today, with four days of watery mayhem followed by the Myanmar New Year.

I love the air of anticipation as Thingyan approaches.  Everyone is challenging the unbearable heat and making their plans for the festival time.  Friends and colleagues have a spark in their eyes, as they pack up and head to their home communities or prepare for the festivities in Yangon.  This year in particular, there has been a proliferation of plastic blossom of the Padauk tree, which is the traditional symbol of Thingyan.  Little pots have been on sale at the traffic lights, sprigs adorning walls, windows and doors, all cars have a spray or two on the dashboard and even the shopping centre and airport have impressive displays!

Padauk displays abound

Padauk displays abound

A flowering of the Padauk on Tuesday sparked great excitement and I was gifted some sprigs on the way to work by a woman who runs a little, wooden betel stall at the end of my lane. 

Tuesday's fresh padauk blossom

Tuesday’s fresh padauk blossom


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The streets are filled with vans and trucks, packed with speakers blaring out raucous music and and youngsters dancing happily.  The length of the main roads beside the Lakes are a scene of frantic activity as pandals or stages are being erected against the clock , workmen hammering the wooden planks together and smart young folks hand out flyers for their pandal, advertising best packages of music, entertainment, refreshments and most of all – the number of hoses and powerful water cannons (firehoses with enormous force!)

Thingyan advertising

Thingyan advertising




Building the pandals

Building the pandals




As we packed up on Friday to leave for the Thingyan break, we were all doused, albeit gently, with sprigs of leaves and sandalwood water just to make sure we received Thingyan auspicious blessings, while other colleagues either sprinkled us with water from water bottles of were waiting outside with waterguns.  No one went home dry, nor was anyone drenched.  Unlike the days of the festival itself when you cannot avoid being soaked to the skin if you set foot out in the street!

Pre-Thingyan Sunset

Pre-Thingyan Sunset

Thingyan is a wonderful time of celebration and release and a very special experience.  However, this year I decided to slip out of the country on the eve of Thingyan, to find a space of tranquility and rest, and relative dryness while the festivities are at their peak!

A very happy Thingyan Water Festival to you all!

Brought by the rains

Apparently the cyclone (Mahasen) which is bearing down on the Bangladesh/Myanmar coast has weakened to Tropical Storm status.  Which has to be better news than cyclone status.  Marginally.  It does not mean however, that the highly vulnerable communities which are in its path, under the wide system spread across the region, and which be affected by the storm surge, winds and flooding, will not be impacted.  They almost certainly will be. The frantic preparations will for sure make a difference, but the vulnerability in these areas is enormous.

storm clouds over YangonThe fact that the storm kept changing its mind about exactly where it was headed, has kept us on tenterhooks refreshing the storm tracking maps and checking predictions constantly.  It seems to have changed tack again and is passing a good bit further north of us than originally predicted.  There are some pretty angry skies here though, whether the outer tendrils of Mahasen, or just coincidental monsoonal tantrums gathering.  Whatever it is, it is bringing dramatic bursts of rain, thunder, lightning and winds.

I was woken in the night by one such dramatic rainstorm.  The rains were pounding, the winds rushing and in the midst of it was the bullfrog.  He was seemingly confused, as he was giving out his loud “bring the rains” call, which is very different from his “wallowing in the rains” call.  Dawn saw a sky strewn with wispy clouds, and great clumps of chunky grey cloud against an incongruous bright blue sky.

The rains however, had brought an abundant flowering of the Padauk tree, even more  profuse than that of last week.  As soon as I left home, I saw women with Padauk in their hair, bikes and cars with a bloom and an influx of sellers among the traffic.  There must have been a huge overnight Padauk harvest.

Woman with Padauk flowers in her hair

Woman with Padauk flowers in her hair

Padauk seller

Padauk seller at the traffic lights

As I reached the bottom of my lane, however, the most special moment of the day happened.  The woman in one of the tiny wooden shops called out to me, asking me to wait a moment.  She reached over, holding out a small branch of the Padauk for me.  It was still covered in raindrops and giving out its characteristic sweet scent.  I gave some of the blossoms to colleagues, who put it in their hair.  Many other of the women already had blossoms pinned onto their hair.  The remaining blossoms sat on my desk, their scent and colours reminding me of how little is needed to bring a smile.  Despite the nervousness of the approaching cyclone towards the northern shores, there was an unexpected and welcome lightness somehow brought to the day.

April May 2013 598

By the end of the working day, the flowers were already wilting and news of Mahasen making landfall filtering through.  It seems from early reports that the system is continuing to weaken but we know that it will be devastating for too many.

As the rains sweep in they bring transformation – some welcome and some most definitely not.