Myanmar is home to literally thousands of festivals. Big national festivals, regional celebrations, ethnic minority festivals – and as if that wasn’t enough, every single pagoda in the country, large or small, has its own festival to add to the mix. That’s a lot of festivals!
Myanmar’s festivals are generally based on the Burmese lunar calendar, taking into account various factors such as astrological signs, which means that the dates vary from year to year. Typically, the monks make their auguries in the first few months of the year and release a calendar for the following year in May.
Catching a festival in Burma is one of the best ways to get involved and interact with the local people at their most joyous and fun. All festivals are great fun, if you can catch them – but which do we recommend?
Thingyan, or Burmese New Year, is the biggest festival of the year and is celebrated in every town, village and hamlet throughout the country. Like Songkran in Thailand, it involves a lot of water-throwing – you will definitely get wet!
In Yangon and Mandalay, the local authorities build giant platforms in the centre of town and put on live music acts while spraying hoses of water into the crowd. Being in amongst the crowds, dancing and singing along to their favourite hits while up to their knees in water, is an unforgettable experience.
For an insight into the spiritual aspect of Thingyan, head to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon for New Year’s Day.
Thingyan runs for several days, so if you want a break from the super-soaking, head to the beach – where festivities are less full-on. Bring plastic bags to protect electronics, and be aware that many businesses close over the festive period. This is the most popular time for domestic travel, so ground transportation costs also rise.
2. Taunggyi Balloon Festival
An hour north of Inle Lake, the town of Taunggyi is famous for its balloon festival – held each year to celebrate the Tazaungdaing Festival of Lights, an ancient festival that has existed in Burma since before the advent of Buddhism.
In the 19th century, the British introduced balloons to the festivities – and today the day and night balloon competitions are the main event of the party. During the daytime, the competition centres around the design of the balloons, and you’ll see giant multi-coloured roosters, peacocks, dragons and pagodas. At night, it’s all about the lights: balloons are covered in candles and fireworks and and set off in the sky, with very dramatic results!
In addition to the balloons, there is a festival market selling all kinds of foods and souvenirs, and an entirely man-powered fairground – with merry-go-rounds pushed around by hand and Ferris wheels spun by monkey-like attendants scampering up and down the frames.
There’s not a lot of health and safety, so we recommend visiting with a guide who knows the safe places to stand. It can also get quite rowdy down at the front where the balloons are let off, so stand well back.
3. Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival
Held over 18 days, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival takes place on Inle Lake – one of the most picturesque destinations in Burma. During the festival, four Buddha images are loaded up onto an ornate golden barge and sailed around all the village of Inle Lake, spending at least one night in each village. The barge is transported using Inle’s famous leg-rowing technique, and whenever it arrives at a new village there’s a big local celebration to welcome it.
You’ll have to plan ahead carefully to visit this festival, as which villages you visit will depend on where the barge is on its journey! Wherever you end up, expect traditional dances, martial arts displays, competitions, music, and plenty of food and merriment.
Try to catch the last day of the festival, which is celebrated with leg-powered boat races on the lake – quite a sight to behold!
The ‘Beautiful Burma’ small group tour (October departure) stays in Inle during the festival.
4. Elephant Dance Festival
Don’t worry – it’s nothing to do with cruelty to animals! The elephants at the Kyauk Se Dance Festival are not real elephants but teams of people, who create brightly-coloured elephant costumes and perform incredibly well-choreographed dance and acrobatic routines to the delight of the crowd. Prizes are awarded for the best costumes and the best routines, and some of them really are amazing.
The festival is held over two days, and can often be combined with a visit to the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival when the two coincide. The Sagaing food festival also happens around this time, so it’s possible to combine three celebrations in one trip!
5. Pyin Oo Lwin Balloon Festival
If the Taunggyi Balloon Festival sounds a little full-on for you, this festival could be just the ticket. Held in the lovely colonial hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin, the celebrations here are much more low-key than in Taunggyi, with fewer balloons and no fireworks. Though there may be less raw excitement – there are lots of advantages: the festival is barely known to tourists, so you’ll be one of the very few Westerners getting involved. What’s more, the quieter atmosphere means that you can easily get up close to the balloon launch sites, and it’s a lot easier to find high-quality accommodation than in busy Taunggyi.
This is the perfect festival for families with children, and is easily combined with superb sightseeing in and around Pyin Oo Lwin.
If you’d like to time your Burma trip to coincide with one of these festivals, just chat to one of our expert travel consultants who will be happy to put together a free quote. Click here to get started. 2018 tour dates have also just been released, giving you the opportunity to sign up now to the ‘Beautiful Burma’ tour and experience the fantastic Phaung Daw Oo festival.