Burmese Water Festival


This is a tradition that I have some experience with and that my aunt told me more about. When I was little, every April we would go to our local Burmese temple to celebrate Burmese New Year. After sitting through Buddhist religious services, us children would be handed little squirt guns. We were encouraged to go outside and shoot each other with water. There were often blow-up water slides and sprinklers outside, too. It was a lot of fun, so I never questioned what the meaning of all the water was. We called it the “water festival”, and I learned from my aunt that getting sprayed with water symbolizes a cleansing of the year’s sins and a clean slate for the year to come. She told me that in Burma the celebration is much more involved. Burmese people get inside open vehicles, like Jeeps or pickup trucks and form a parade. Each car passes by small stages where dancers perform in Burmese style. My aunt remembers them dancing to a song specifically relevant to the water festival. Other people on the small stage are tasked with throwing water at the passing parade of open vehicles so that everyone on them can be cleansed. 


My aunt noted that this was a tradition that Thai people also do, creating a sort of cultural bond between the two countries. She acknowledged that a lot of Southeast Asian countries share common cultural elements. 

My aunt also said that in Burma, teenage relationships were frowned upon. Dating wasn’t really a thing for her and her siblings growing up. The expectation was that they’d eventually bring someone to their parents and ask if they could marry. It wasn’t about the child’s romantic feelings as much as it was about the parents’ feelings. This relationship was subverted when the whole family came to the U.S., but that’s a different story. 

The reason I bring this up is because, strangely enough, the water festival marked one of the only times when flirtatious behavior was not only allowed, but even encouraged. Older children would chase their crushes around with water guns, trying to get water on each other. For children in general, the festival is more about having fun than it is about cleansing the past year religiously. 

My aunt acknowledged that in her generation she only remembers going to one official wedding. Everyone else eloped to marry someone their parents didn’t approve of. My aunt said a lot of them went to Shan state, a part of Burma that is known for its natural beauty.


The water festival once again displays the ideals of community and neighborhoods in Burmese culture. Most holidays or events revolve around large groups of people that aren’t all blood related. It also displays the inseparable integration of the Buddhist religion into culture, but asserts that religion is more important the older you are. The water festival contains Buddhist services and food offerings are always brought to the monks who lead them, establishing respect for them as well as restating their central purpose to Burmese society as religious guides. Finally, my aunt’s generation of the family is very interesting because they seem to subvert lots of the traditional Burmese expectations for marriage and family. A few of my aunts and uncles aren’t Burmese at all (including my dad) – something that might be frowned upon back in Burma. However, they all had official, parent-supported weddings. I do know that my grandparents didn’t exactly follow their parents’ wishes and eloped, so they might be part of the transition to more romantically-motivated marriage too.