By ARKAR MOE
It was exactly one year ago that 20-year-old Maung Pai Soe’s life suddenly veered from the carefree course that it had followed up until that time.
During the heady festivities marking Thingyan, the Burmese New Year, he and his girlfriend got so drunk that they couldn’t even remember having sex. A year later, they were parents.
It is a common enough experience these days, as an important event on the Buddhist calendar increasingly becomes an excuse for overindulgence in a country where there are few outlets for young people looking for fun.
Burma’s Thingyan celebrations are even more over-the-top than the Thai equivalent, Songkhran, which attracts revelers from around the world for a wild water-throwing party that can last the best part of a week.
In Burma, the festivities are far more raucous, with music blaring from speakers set up on stages known as mandat, which also serve as platforms for partygoers armed with fire hoses.
But water is not the only thing that flows freely during Thingyan. Rum, beer and other alcoholic drinks are also widely available, provided by mandat organizers as part of the set price they charge for the use of their stages. Many also have a supply of speed tablets on hand to help their patrons fight off the chill of a day-long drenching.
For many, Thingyan is a time to take risks that would be unthinkable at any other time of year. One musician recalled how he became addicted to speed three years ago after receiving some free of charge during Thingyan.
Some are exposed to even greater dangers, in the form of unprotected sex.
Maung Pai Soe and his girlfriend, Daewi, can consider themselves lucky that their moment of passion did not have more tragic consequences. Many others are not so fortunate, according to an expert who was recently interviewed by the Rangoon-based weekly journal, Modern.
Dr Sit Naing, director of Marie Stopes International Myanmar, a sexual and reproductive healthcare organization, said that HIV infections rise dramatically during Thingyan, because couples often fail to take precautions to protect themselves.
He urged young people to use condoms to avoid contracting AIDS or venereal diseases and to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
Maung Pai Soe, chastened by his own experience, offered other advice. Young people should avoid overindulgence if they wanted to stay out of trouble, he said.
Thingyan has lost much of its beauty in recent years, said a film director and writer who lamented that this tradition, which goes back to the Pagan era of a millennium ago, is now little more than a money-making opportunity.
For Burma’s young people, however, Thingyan’s fading charm is the least of their worries, as many discover that the dangers of overdoing can result in more than just the loss of their innocence.
The Irrawaddy’s Rangoon correspondent Kyi Wai contributed to this article.