MANDALAY — Mandalay, the cultural capital of Burma, is preparing to celebrate Thingyan next week, but some local residents fear that longstanding traditions of the annual water festival are quickly becoming less popular.
Thingyan begins on Sunday and ends on Wednesday ahead of the Burmese New Year, and as part of the festivities people across the country will head out to the streets to enjoy musical performances and douse each other with water from elevated pandals.
In Mandalay, popular traditional band Myo Ma will lead a procession of floats through the city, performing on a truck decorated with the band’s mascot, a flying silver goose. The band, which formed over 75 years ago and today has more than 20 members, is known across the country for its songs about the water festival and has entertained crowds during the holiday for many years.
This year Myo Ma will perform newly composed songs featuring mainly saxophones, trumpets and traditional drums, with other celebrities and traditional dancers contributing to the show. “Veteran singer Mar Mar Aye will join us, as will the young star Pho Thaukyar,” Zaw Win Than, the band’s manager, told The Irrawaddy.
Keeping with tradition, the band will make its first stop at the Mahamuni Pagoda when it begins the float tour on April 14, the second day of the festival. In the evening they will head to the pandal of the city’s mayor, where floats will compete for the best decoration award, and over the next two days they will go around the city to entertain the crowds.
Traditionally, it is a great honor for pandal owners to host a performance by Myo Ma. But this year the band says only a couple pandals have invited them to play their traditional music, as many of the young festival-goers prefer DJ music, techno and hip-hop.
“Youngsters believe those songs are merrier than traditional ones. And there are no more traditional pandals like there were in past years, where we could entertain people with traditional songs and dances at night. They just prefer night club-like entertainment that can draw a big audience,” Zaw Win Than said.
“We’re not disappointed because we can’t stop the currents of change. We will just go around the city and entertain those who love to hear our songs and those who have invited us to play at their homes and pandals. We believe there will always be someone, old or young, who loves tradition.”
Around the city’s ancient moat, water cannons and hoses are currently being installed at pre-constructed pandals that are decorated with vinyl sheets promoting various advertisements.
The pandals are lit up at night as techno and hip-hop songs blare out. Young men with dyed hair and young women in miniskirts and spaghetti-strap tank tops hand out promotions for their pandals, encouraging pedestrians to buy tickets and join them during the festival.
This year, ticket prices for pandals in Mandalay range from 10,000 kyats to 150,000 kyats per day (US$10 to $150), depending on whether the pandal is ordinary or VIP. More expensive pandals offer better food, drinks and ferry services.
“Over the past 10 years, Mandalay’s water festival has become more commercialized,” Hsu Mget, a famous writer and local resident, told The Irrawaddy. “In the past, pandals were decorated with traditional arts and there was a competition. But that culture is fading with the practice of decorating pandals with ads on vinyl sheets.”
The writer said that a decade ago more than 20 floats competed in the festival, but that now no more than 10 floats participated, and only with much encouragement from the mayor.
“The water festival nowadays is nothing more than people getting wet, singing, dancing, getting drunk and going back home. We are so sad to see the veteran floats—like Myo Ma’s—no longer have a chance to entertain around the pandals like before,” he said.
He said he worried the traditions would be completely gone in a few years.
“We need to move along with the modernizing world, but we also need to understand the value of tradition, to maintain these traditions so we can hand them over to the next generation,” he added.