Myanmar’s festive events range from solemn Dhammasetkya, marking the beginning of Buddhist Lent, through to the manic Thingyan water festival and the incredible Thadingyut festival of lights. Here are several important festivals for you to enjoy Myanmar tours.
1. Htamein, Manao and Tabaunglinary
In Kachin State, the predominantly Christian minority people celebrate their annual Thanksgiving ceremony in early January with masked and costumed Manao dances around a decorated pole – a celebration to placate Kachin nat and ensure peace, plenty, and prosperity. It’s difficult to predict with any accuracy the exact date on which a manao may be held, the decision being taken by the duwa (Kachin elders). The sup manao looks to the future, while the padang manao celebrates a past success or victory.
The festival involves the sacrifice of cattle or buffalo to placate and honor the nat, with traditional Kachin music and dance centered around a manao taing (totem pole). A manao may go on for 24 hours, and a lot of locally brewed alcohol is drunk. The biggest manao is held in January at Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, to celebrate Kachin State Day and bringing together all the various branches of the traditional Kachin tribe for a week of dancing, games and all-round merriment which can make your Burma tours memorable.
Tabaung, the last month of the traditional Burmese year (March/April), is considered a time of romance and tranquillity. On the full moon day of Tabaung, Burmese travel to lakes or rivers where they play music, sing and recite poetry, often in the company of a loved one.
Tabaung also signals the start of Myanmar’s largest temple festival, the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival in Yangon, which was held in February and March 2012 for the first time since the uprising of 1988. In your Myanmar holidays, you can join thousands of people dressing in ceremonial costumes and descend on the shrine for the event, while traditional puppet shows, dance and music recitals, and robe-weaving competitions also take place.
The beginning of the hot season in April is celebrated with the mammoth Thingyan (“changing over”) water festival (April 13–16). Myanmar’s biggest party, Thingyan celebrates the Burmese New Year, traditionally held on the full moon day of the lunar month of Tagu (although dates are now fixed according to the Western calendar). The festival goes on for three or four days, the length of the celebration determined by ponna or Brahman astrologers. Water is poured from buckets, sprayed from water pistols and hoses, and even blasted from fire hydrants to wash away the old year and welcome the new. The drenching stops each day at 6.30pm, and is followed by an evening of feasting and partying. For the duration of the festival, government buildings and businesses are closed and pretty much the entire country shuts down.
In your Myanmar tours, you can see pandals – pavilions or stages made from bamboo and beautifully decorated with flowers and papier mâché – being erected in which lines of garlanded girls dressed in identical suits of colorful material perform carefully rehearsed a song and dance routines while boys douse them with water. More overtly suggestive versions spring up in the liberal, upper-class neighborhoods of Yangon, where hot pants, crop tops, and Western-style dancing replace the traditional elegance.
Thingyan also celebrates the descent to earth of Thagyamin, the king of the 37 nats, to bring blessings for the new year. He brings two books with him: one bound in gold to record the names of children who have been well-behaved over the past year, and one bound in dog skin to record the names of any naughty children. Thagyamin rides a winged golden horse and bears a water jar, symbolic of peace and prosperity. Households greet Thagyamin with flowers and palm leaves at the front door. Guns are fired and music is played in salute. Gaily decorated floats parade up and down the streets of the cities and larger towns. But there are also moments of tranquillity for you to enjoy Myanmar Burma in the midst of this exuberance. Most revelers find time to make offerings at pagodas and at the homes of their elders, and Buddha images are washed by the devout.
The full moon day of the lunar month of Kason (April/May) sees celebrations for the birthday of Lord Buddha (sometimes known as Vesak). Water is poured over the roots of sacred Banyan trees, beneath the branches of which the Buddha attained enlightenment. At the full moon, the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha are celebrated. Joining a procession of musicians and dancers to the local pagoda will mark your holidays to Myanmar interesting.
During the full moon of Nayon (May to June), after the rains have begun and the hot, dry months are at an end, Burmese students are tested on their knowledge of the Tripitaka (the Buddhist scriptures). Abbot’s lecture before large crowds, schools operated by monasteries are opened to the public, and eminent scholars exhibit their knowledge to public acclaim.
5. Buddhist Lent
The full moon day of the month of Waso (June/ July) marks the arrival of Buddhist Lent, celebrated with the festival of Dhammasetkya, a solemn religious occasion, marking the beginning of a period during which all monks go into a period of deep retreat for study and meditation. This is also an auspicious time for young men to have their shinpyu initiation into the monk-hood. For the next three months, the country is soaked in water as the monsoons gain strength. During this time, monks are not permitted to travel, and the devout will enter a period of fasting.
The month of Wagaung (July/August) is celebrated with the Maha Dok (“Draw-a-Lot”) Festival. Since no marriage or other secular celebration is permitted during Buddhist Lent, the full moon day of Wagaung is observed as a festival of merit-making. The name of each member of the local sangha is written on a piece of paper, which is then rolled up and deposited into a large basket. A representative from each household of the community draws a slip of paper from the basket, and, the next day, provides an elaborate feast for the monk named on the piece of paper. One layman will have drawn a paper containing the name of the Gautama Buddha and he has the honor of hosting the Buddha.
By mid-September, the rainy season is at its height, and Myanmar’s waterways, from the mighty Ayeyarwady to the smallest stream, are full. To celebrate this bounty, Tawthalin (boat races) are held all over the country. The most impressive for tours take place in the Shan State of Myanmar, at the Phaung Daw U Festival on Inle Lake.
Heralding the end of Buddhist Lent and the approach of the cool season, the Thadingyut festival of lights (October) celebrates the Buddha’s return from heaven to earth after preaching to the gods, ushering a period of weddings and other secular celebrations. To symbolize the radiance of the Buddha on his return, millions of candles and oil lamps illuminate monasteries, pagodas, houses, and trees throughout the land.
The festival of Tazaungmone (the Weaving Festival) takes place between October and November. Under the full moon, unmarried women work at their looms all night to make new robes for the monks. These are then presented to the monks at the local temple early next morning.
7. Nat festivals and Pyatho
The full moon day of the month of Nadaw (November/December) is dedicated to celebrations to the spirit world and is when most nat festivals take place, including the raucous Taungbyon Festival, held in the town of Wagaung, north of Mandalay. Some major nat celebrations are also held at other times of the year, including the Mount Popa Festival, held during the month of Nayon (May/June) and the traditional Shan Festival in Kyaukme, held during the month of Tabaung (February/March).
Pyatho (December/January) is the month of temple festivals. This was formerly a time when Burmese royalty displayed its strength with military parades, although today it’s reserved mostly for local pagoda festivals (including the massive Ananda Temple Festival in Bagan). These are partly religious, with gifts presented to monks and offerings made for temple upkeep, and partly secular, with impromptu markets set up around temples accompanied by plenty of eating and drinking, performances of music and dance, plus the occasional boxing match.
The Kayin New Year (December/January) is a time of vibrant Myanmar tours, but especially in Kayin State and the Ayeyarwady Delta.