Smiling Albino’s guide to Burmese Festivals

With Myanmar (aka Burma) opening up rapidly TCCC members will no doubt be wanting to learn more, visit and dig-in to this nation on the move. If there’s any country in Southeast Asia that deserves a second chance, it’s Myanmar.

Part of the British Empire until 1948, its vast natural resources and rich culture presented unlimited potential for growth and progress. Sadly, it was all derailed in 1962 when the military decided to take over, proceeding to run the economy and any dreams of development into the ground through corruption, censorship and brutal repression.

But thankfully, the light at the end of the tunnel seems brighter these days – many (but not all) restrictions have been lifted, investors and travelers are pouring in, and spirits are high. After so many years of darkness, the friendly, smiling Burmese people have yet another reason to inject their already raucous, deeply meaningful festivals with an extra dose of fun, and are ready to show them off to the world. Here are some of our favorites:

Ananda Pagoda Festival
While not one of the biggest festivals, it’s still a pretty spectacular site to see and take part in. At the end of December/beginning of January, thousands of villagers descend on the Ananda Pagoda, one of the oldest and most spectacular on the Bagan plain, which dates back to 1105. They usually come in buffalo-drawn carts with the whole family (even pets!) and essentially camp out for a week. Hundreds of monks chant for days on end and the carnival atmosphere is shared with family members, friends and strangers alike. On the morning of the day of the full moon, everyone presents food and religious items to the monks.

Thingyan Water Festival
Held during April, the same time as the wild Thai festival of Songkran, it celebrates the traditional harvest New Year with ceremonies based around spending time with family, blessing others with scented water and making merit at temples. Twenty years ago it wasn’t such a big deal, but as the modern world has slowly crept into Myanmar, the celebrations have gotten crazier. These days it’s pretty much a free-for-all with water-throwing. The meditative temple visits and family-centered activities are still there, but there’s also nutso-waterfights in the street, loud music, and plenty of partying around every corner.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival
This festival, held in September or October, is one of the coolest ones you’ll see. The Phaung Daw Oo temple is situated on the magnificent Inle Lake and contains five sacred Buddha images. Once a year four of them are placed on an elaborate, colorful boat and sailed around the lake visiting communities along the way, where villagers celebrate, rub gold leaf on the images and make offerings to the temple. Another interesting aspect of the festival is the boat races, where drivers propel their craft using an interesting one-leg rowing style unique to Myanmar. We dare you to try it out yourself!

Elephant Dancing Festival
It all started centuries ago when an ancient king put holy relics on the back of three elephants, which were then set loose. The locations where each one settled were considered sacred and towns were established on those spots. One of these places, legend says, is the town of Kyaukse, which celebrates this event every year in a unique way – with dancing elephant puppets! Cloth, paper and bamboo are used to create colorful, life-size costumes, which are then draped over a two-man team that do three laps around the hill that the town’s Shwethalayaung Pagoda is built on. Once this is done, each team puts on an intricate, synchronized dance not unlike the energetic ones performed in Chinese dragon dances. The ‘elephant’ with the most creative or energetic dance wins! Parades, food, and much merriment are involved as well. In recent decades, celebrations have spread and can now be seen in different towns around the area.

Thadingyut Festival
Most countries in Southeast Asia have some type of festival to honor the beginning and end of Buddhist Lent, and Myanmar is no different. To mark its closing in October, houses, pagodas, temples, and entire streets are decked out in an amazing collection of lights of all colors, shapes and sizes over a period of three days. People also head to their local temple in great numbers to make merit, thank their parents, elders, teachers, basically anyone who helped them out or assisted them, for their guidance and knowledge over the past year. Walk down any brightly-lit street among crowds of happy celebrants and it will be clear why this is also called the Festival of Lights.


Contact the Team at Smiling Albino:

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