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Myanmar festivals are rich in tradition, history and always guaranteed to satisfy the national thirst for fun and frolic. Below we list our favourites …
Ananda Pagoda Festival
Where: Ananda Temple, Bagan
When: Full moon day of Pyatho, January
Bullock carts bring pilgrims and festival-goers to the grand Ananda Temple of Bagan. Alms bowls filled with crops are offered to monks who wait in lines, and in front of the pagoda there is a fairground with market stalls and food stands.
Kachin Manao Festival
Where: Myitkyina and Putao, Kachin State
Celebrating the Kachin New Year, in January the six tribes of the Kachin people come together in their traditional costume. Spiritual dances are performed, principally around the richly decorated Manao poles.
Moe Byae Festival
Where: Moe-Byae, Shan State
When: Full moon day of Tabodwe, January-February
This four-day festival is the largest in Shan State, attracting the people of mountain tribes such as the Pa’O, Kayah and Padaung. Moe Byae is a small town situated on the border of Kayah State, and during this festival the central pagoda is surrounded by stalls selling everything from sweets to illegal motorbikes. There are musicians and dance performances which can be enjoyed while settling down to a hog roast and glass of rice whiskey.
Where: Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay
When: Waxing and Full Moon Day of Tabodwe, February
These celebrations take place at the famed Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, the Royal City’s answer to Shwedagon. Rice delicacies are sold and consumed in vast quantities and incense is burned for the celebrated Mahamuni Image.
Nyan Taw Pagoda Festival
Where: Pyin-Oo-Lwin (Maymyo), Mandalay Region
Join the genteel people of the old British hill station Pyin Oo Lwin for their annual pagoda festival. As well as the inhabitants of the town, locals from Mandalay as well as Shan from over the border commonly make the journey to come and celebrate.
Golden Hilltop Festival
When: Full Moon of Tabodwe, January-February
A classic pagoda festival, the Golden Hilltop Festival of Kyaik Khauk Pagoda just across the Bago River from Yangon has the air of a funfair, with plenty of food stalls as well as those selling ceramic clay pots from Twante, bamboo mats and odd bits of furniture. There are dance shows and film screenings late into the night.
Shwe Saryan Pagoda Festival
Where: Shwe Saryan Village, Patheingyi, Mandalay Region
Just a 45 minute drive from Mandalay one can visit this more placid Myanmar festival, where visitors browse through boxes of traditional toys and baskets made of dried toddy palm.
Where: Indawgyi Lake, Kachin State
At the beginning of spring the lake of Indawgyi (Myanmar’s largest lake) shallows to such an extent that two sandbanks emerge allowing festival-goers and pilgrims to walk to the pagoda at the centre. Shortly after the festival, the sandbanks are submerged by the water once more.
This Myanmar festival is celebrated throughout the country. Htamane is a delicacy made up of sticky rice, sesame seeds, coconuts, peanuts and ginger. The sticky rice is soaked overnight and after poured into large vats stirred by strong men until all is cooked. The htamane is then offered to Buddha and given away to all those visiting the pagodas.
Baw Gyo Festival
Where: Near Hsipaw, Shan State
Once a year the four hidden Buddha images of the Baw Gyo Pagoda just outside of Hsipaw are brought out and placed on display to be gilded with gold leaf. The tea-growing ethnic group of the Palaung and jewellers from Kyaukme come here to sell their goods and produce. Certain gambling games are permitted for the duration of the pagoda festival. An old saying states: ‘He who has not seen Baw Gyo, has not seen Shan State.’
Pindaya Cave Festival
Where: Pindaya, Danu Self-Administered Zone, Shan State
When: 11th waxing day of Tabaung, March
At the Pindaya Cave Festival, many different ethnic groups from Shan State come together to celebrate at the cave pagoda. Many may also swim in Pindaya’s central lake, which is said to turn bathers beautiful.
Where: Kakku, Pa’O Self-Administered Zone, Shan State
The pagoda field of Kakku is a wonder any time of the year but is particularly enchanting when the locals are celebrating. In March, the Kakku Pagoda Festival attracts the ethnic groups of the Pa’O, Palaung, Lishaw, Danu and of course the Shan.
Shwedagon Pagoda Festival
This five-day festival leading up to the full moon sees teams of weavers compete to loom the largest amount of cloth to donate to the monks. Over all the days, hundreds flock to Yangon’s glittering wonder to donate water and flowers to the Buddha images both on the pagoda terrace as well as in the surrounding gardens.
Full Moon Day of Tabaung
This Myanmar festival sees all the pagodas in the country attract locals and pilgrims to their terrace to partake in offerings, donations and gentle festivities.
Maung Dong Nat Festival
Where: Monywa, Sagaing Division
This nat festival is a flamboyant celebration of all things witch. The festival commemorates Ye Kin Kadaw, the Queen of Witches, and one time favourite wife of King Taung Un. Ye Kin had extraordinary powers, but was uncared for by the king’s other wives. For this reason she was sent into exile to Maung Dong where she was later found drowned. A statue of Ye Kin – just 30 cm high – can be viewed at Maung Dong at the festival in March where all 37 nat are placed on shrines for devotees to offer bananas, green coconuts, betel leaves, colourful arrangements of flowers and money bouquets.
Where: Monywa, Sagaing Division
On the Shwebo Road just 12 kilometres north of Monywa, the town of Ah-Lone celebrates Ma Ngwe Daung (‘Sister Silver Wings’), the daughter of Ah-Lone Bodaw, a minor Indian prince. The festival is a celebration of Ngwe Daung’s love life and festival-goers prey for the opportunity to have as many mistresses as hairs on their head.
Mann Shwe Settaw Pagoda Festival
Where: Magway Division
Mann Shwe Sattaw Pagoda Festival is one of the largest pagoda festivals in Upper Myanmar. Mann Shwe Settaw is 36 miles from Magway and is bedecked with stools and stands during festival time. Pilgrims and festival-goers can also bathe in the Mann Creek.
Shwemawdaw Pagoda Festival
A classic pagoda festival at the tallest paya in the country, at Shwemawdaw one will be able to view entertainment as well as browse goods ranging from toys to clothes to models and ornaments.
Thingyan Water Festival, Myanmar New Year
Though many festivals are limited to certain townships of localities, there is nowhere in Myanmar where the inhabitants do not fervently take part in the Thingyan Water Festival of Myanmar.
Essentially a religious occasion for people to cleanse themselves of sin, for many the Myanmar water festival is simply a chance to enjoy a massive water fight. Whereas a century ago urchins would squirt water out of pipettes made from bamboo, nowadays brightly coloured super soakers are used and hoses and hydrants are implemented by the more industrious.
The act of throwing water over one another symbolises the coolness and clearness of the new year as well as ridding each other of the dirt and grime of the last year. Save for monks and nuns, no-one – including prim foreigners – escapes a good drenchingl. And, indeed, no one would want to as, besides being a lot of fun and a relief from the scorching April sun, to be ‘wetted’ as a foreigner should be regarded as a great privilege.
Where: Mount Popa
During Thingyan, pilgrims from all over the country make their way to Mount Popa near to Bagan to pay their respects to Popa’s nat shrines.
Shite-Thaung Pagoda Festival
Where: Mrauk U, Rakhine State
This pagoda festival is much the same as the other pagoda festivals throughout the country, however it also includes a competition of traditional Rakhine boxing, gyin-wei, which the people of Rakhine proclaim to be much tougher than the Burmese let-wei.
Kason Sacred Bo Tree Watering Ceremony
Commemorating the day the Buddha was born, the day he attained enlightenment, and the day of his passing, the Kason Sacred Bo Tree Watering Ceremony falls on the day of the full moon of Kason in the Myanmar calendar, early May in the Gregorian calendar. Visitors go to pagodas to chant Pali scripts and water the sacred Bo Trees, the specie of tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.
Sand Stupa Festival
Where: Pa Le` Ngwe Yaung, Mandalay
In three different quarters of Mandalay (Pa Le’ Ngwe Yaung, Yahai, and Min Thar Su), over the course of one night sand stupas are built supported by bamboo mats and posts. Visitors to this festival come to lay offerings and donations around the stupas.
Thi-Ho-Shin Pagoda Festival
Where: Pakokku, Magway Region
A classic pagoda festival with a market and stages for entertainment in the evening. Zat pwe – performances of dance drama – and anyeint – shows melding instrumental musical and comedy routines – are put on to entertain festival-goers throughout the day and into the night.
Where: Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay
The annual tournament for chinlone or ‘cane ball’ (a Burmese version of ‘keepy-uppy’) is held in Mandalay, at the Mahamuni Pagoda. For a month, chinlone players from throughout the country come to compete in the competition. Large crowds come out to watch and local folk music is played to entertain the audience between matches.
The Waso Festival
This countrywide Myanmar festival commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon and marks the beginning of Buddhist Lent. During the months of Buddhist Lent, members of the Sangha – monks, novices and nuns – retreat into the monasteries and nunneries. The ‘Waso robes’ are donated to them by the lay community for use during Lent.
Lawkananda Pagoda Festival
Where: New Bagan
Lawkanandar is one of the finest pagodas to be found in New Bagan, a village on the banks of the Ayeyarwady. The pagoda is still used as an everyday place of worship and due to the sweeping riverside views the pagoda festival at Lawkanandar is one of the most picturesque in the country.
Shwe Kyun Pin Nat Pwe
Where: Mingun, Mandalay
When: Myanmar month of Wargaung, August
According to legend, after having lost four of his six children in a battle against the Sawbwa (‘prince’ or ‘lord’) of Hsipaw, the two remaining children of King Mindon’s younger brother were struck by a tree trunk and drowned in the Shweli River at Thit Maik Myun while attending a boat race. Their mother subsequently died of heartbreak, and the two deceased children were declared to be nat guardians, and are now the keepers of the river.
At this Myanmar festival, after the harvest in August each year, people from the surrounding villagers come to offer donations at the shrines temporarily housed in large tents, while nat mediums entertain the crowd.
Where: Taungbyone, Mandalay Region
When: 14th waxing day of Wargaung, August
This festival is the largest and most famous nat festival in the entirety of the country. It is held to celebrate the legend of the nat brothers, Byat Wi and Byat Ta, who after eating the body of a dead alchemist adopted extraordinary powers.
Byat Ta went on to marry Mae Wunna, known as the ‘mother nat’ or ‘Mother of Popa.’ Byat Ta worked in the gardens of King Anawrahta and was executed by the king one day for failing to bring back flowers. Byat Ta, who had a weakness for the scent of flowers, had spent the whole day sniffing the botany and forgot to collect any for his liege.
Byat Ta and Mae Wunna’s two sons were taken into Anawrahta’s court. Initially favourites of the king, they were also killed when Anawrahta was tricked by a jealous son into believing that the two adopted boys had neglected to bring a brick each for the construction of the Pagoda of Wishes. Later wracked by guilt and regret, in their memory Anawrahta built a shrine at Taungbyone, the place of their execution. Today, the Pagoda of Wishes still stands, with two bricks missing.
Taungbyone Festival is very popular with the youth of Mandalay, and has also become a natural meeting place for the country’s LGBT community. There are nat-medium dressed up and outrageous, little shows taking place and plenty of food stalls and market stands. The festival is made up of a large number of tents and it is worthy simply dipping your nose into as many as you can to see what you may stumble across.
Pwint Phyu Fish Feeding Festival
Where: Pwint Phyu, Magway Region
One of the more curious Myanmar festivals, the Pwint Phyu Fish Feeding Festival actually lasts throughout the rainy season but is best attended in the middle of August. Locals believe that the gigantic catfish that are only seen at this time of year are making an appearance to pay their own homage to Buddha at the Kyaungdawya Pagoda in Pwint Phyu. Therefore, those who have come to visit the Kyaungdawya will also take part in feeding the writhing pilgrims in the water, usually from the banks of the Mone Canal.
Bagan Boat Racing
In August visitors to Myanmar can watch the traditional Burmese boat races on the Ayeyarwady at Bagan. Races in the Burmese longboats is a pastime that goes back centuries, and although not as common as it was before British rule, today it remains one of the most popular spectacles in Myanmar.
Yaduna Gu Nat Festival
Where: Amarapura, Mandalay Region
On her way back to Mount Popa from Taungbyone where a shrine was constructed for her two murdered sons, Mae Wunna, known as the ‘mother nat’ and ‘Mother of Popa’, stopped by Yadana Gu. In her honour there is now an annual nat festival which one can reach by hiring a rowing boat on the river.
Manuha Pagoda Festival
Where: Myinkaba, Bagan
When: Full moon day of Tawthalin, September
This festival takes place at the Manuha Pagoda, one of the finest temples in the Bagan region, designed and built by the prisoner Mon King Manuha. The Manuha Pagoda Festival is followed by the Holy Man Festival, or Bodaw Gu Hutet Pwe, on the waning day of Tawthalin, at Mount Popa.
Shwe Kyet Yet Boat Racing Festival
Where: Amarapura, Mandalay Region
This boat racing competition has taken place in Amarapura since the Court of Ava ruled from the nearby town of Inwa, over two hundred years ago. The festival’s intention is to support the monks during the war dwin, commonly referred to as ‘Buddhist Lent’.
Each team represents a different village of the vicinity. The boats are roughly 4.2 by 1.6 metres and carry ten rowers. The races are governed by 40 rules including a ban on mocking competitors and drinking alcohol. If a participant falls into the water, his team is automatically disqualified.
Boe Boe Gyi Nat Festival
Where: Taungthaman Lake, Amarapura, Mandalay Region
This Myanmar festival is in honour of Boe Boe Gyi, an accomplished alchemist who became a nat after his death. The festival commences with a raucous tea-leaf fight, those that are hit being compelled to return to the festival the following year.
Indein Pagoda Festival
Where: Indein, Inle Lake
The Indein Pagoda Festival is held at the old village of Indein, reachable over Inle Lake with a boat boarded at Nyaung Shwe. Indein boasts a large number of ancient shrines and stupas, all in varying stages of decay, amidst which the festival takes place.
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival
Where: Inle Lake
The Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival sees four of the five Buddha images of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, ferried from village to village over the course of three weeks. The images are carried over Inle Lake in a traditional Burmese barge in the form of the mythical bird the karaweik. The barge is pulled along by a score of Intha ‘hundred-man boats’, the rowers upon which are each from a particular village on and around the lake.
Flags, bells, and – more recently – ghetto blasters are attached to the boats, making the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival one of the most lively and visually spectacular festivals in Myanmar.
Dummy Elephant Festival
Where: Kyauk Se, Mandalay Region
At this festival two life-size elephants are made out of paper and bamboo, one black and one white and both richly adorned with decorations. Men climb inside the elephants and dance around the town to the accompaniment of drums.
Thadingyut, Festival of Lights
When: Waxing day of Thadingyut, October
Celebrated countrywide, Thadingyut the Festival of Lights sees houses, shops and pagodas throughout the country adorn themselves with candles in the evening of the first waxing day of the month of Thadingyut.
The initial day of the festival is more sombre than many of the other Myanmar festivals; Thadingyut is a kind of Buddhist thanksgiving and a chance to pay homage to monks, teachers, parents and all elders. If in Myanmar for Thadingyut, one should make sure they make their way to a pagoda, to see the stupas and terrace lit up by the flames of hundreds of candles.
In the following days Thadingyut takes the form of more commonplace pagoda festival with stalls and street performances.
In Hsipaw, Thadingyut directly precedes their Mahamuni Pagoda Festival. A funfare fit with carousel and ferris wheel is set up nearby the pagoda while the main street through the town becomes congested with the procession of offerings. The people of Hsipaw make bamboo constructions to carry their donations – food, money, anything that can fall into the broad category of ‘special things’ – to the pagoda.
The men and boys of the town carry the constructions and when a halt in the procession comes (in fact there are more halts than progression) spin the constructions around in a circle in an alarming but thrilling manner. All dressed up and often wearing bandanas and having applied thick eyeliner, the men and boys of Hsipaw dance hysterically to the music blasting out of boom boxes.
Kyaikhtiyo (Golden Rock) Festival
Where: Kyaikhto, Mon State
Taking place in concordance with Thadingyut, at Mon State’s Kyaikhtiyo Festival, 9, 000 candles and 9, 000 flowers are donated to the Buddha at the pagoda at the summit of the mountain. There are trucks taking pilgrims up and down Mt. Kyaikhtiyo, however many foreigners may prefer to take part in the authentic early morning 11 kilometre hike up to the top. If nothing else, you will find yourself in jolly company, surrounded by the infectious anticipation on festival day.
Myathalon Pagoda Festival
The Magway Myathalon Pagoda is situated near to the banks of the Ayeyarwady river. The scenery is particularly striking at this part of Magway, and the golden stupa of Myathalon particularly beautiful.
Homes and pagodas are illuminated at this second festival of light, usually better attended than the first due to the monsoon having passed. Monks are provided with robes and other donations (the giving is known as ”kahtain’), and festival-goers make and share mixed salads of maezali buds, believed to possess magical properties when eaten at this time of year.
Taunggyi Hot Air Balloon Festival
Where: Taunggyi, Shan State
Taunggyi’s Hot Air Balloon Festival is for good reason the most famous Myanmar festival after Thingyan water festival. Tazaungdaing is celebrated throughout the country, but the festival activities in Taunggyi are famous for their flamboyancy and recklessness.
Leading up to the festival much sweat and expertise is expended on the creation of the most beautiful hot air balloons. Throughout the festival, these balloons are set off day and night. While those in the day are usually designed in the form of a pagoda or animal, those in the evening are of the conventional shape, but attached to their sides are multicoloured paper lanterns as well as fireworks which fire off once the balloon has been released.
Similar festivals are also held in Kalaw an the Pa’O region near Inle Lake. Both these are less crowded than the festival in Taunggyi.
Thanboddhay Pagoda Ceremony
Where: Monywa, Sagaing Region
The pagoda complex of Thanboddhay appears like a funfair throughout the year with twisting spiral staircases and a temple that looks like something out of Disney. At its annual festival, visitors can sample the local thanaka and sandalwood as well as woven textiles such as cotton blankets and longyi and thamain.
Robe Weaving Contests
These occur throughout Myanmar on the night before the full moon. Groups of women work on saffron robes known as ma tho thin gan until dawn. All the robes are offered to the Buddha image, and following this a prize giving ceremony takes place.
At the protracted Shwezigon Pagoda Festival in Bagan, visitors will be able to view traditional zats – performances incorporating dance and live music – and anyeints – theatrics of a more comedic disposition. On the full moon day of November, there is a communal food offering and various domestic articles are donated to the monastery.
Shwe Myat Mhan Pagoda Festival
Where: Shwe Taung, near Pyay, Bago Region
This pagoda festival is much like the others in Myanmar, but comes with the curious tale of Mrs Hurtno, wife of the one-time British commissioner in Pyay, who after donating her pair of glasses to the Buddha at the Shwe Myat Mhan Pagoda Festival, found that her eyesight was completely restored. People with their own eye complaints now commonly come to the Shwe Myat Mhan Pagoda in the hope of a similar miracle.
Akha New Year
Where: Kyaing Tong, Shan State
The Akha are one of the ethnic peoples living along the Salween River and around the capital of Eastern Shan State Kyaing Tong. Once a year, all the Akha villagers descend down from the hills to congregate on the football pitch at the centre of the town to dance and sing. The following day the participants have a long breakfast that turns into a longer lunch, wishing everyone a prosperous new year.