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With an enormous Buddhist population, Burma is peppered with pagodas, and pilgrims travel from far and wide to celebrate festivals. If you have the chance to see one, seize it! Expect something unique, occasionally eccentric (bamboo elephant dancing, anyone?), and rarely entirely pious.
Buddhist festivals in Burma
This isn’t a comprehensive list, so don’t fret if your holiday doesn’t coincide with any of them; wandering around the pagodas is always special, and you may well stumble on a local tradition or two.
1. Shwedagon Pagoda Festival – March – Yangon
Where else to begin than at the biggest and boldest of them all? The gilded Shwedagon Pagoda in the city of Yangon plays host to one of the largest Buddhist festivals in Burma. Pilgrims travel from all corners of the country to make offerings and light a sea of candles at its base.
During the day, there are processions (quiet but for gentle gongs), and groups of pilgrims that arrive to circle the pagoda, pausing to pray as they pass. As the sun goes down, visitors light candles, sit cross-legged and pray quietly in the midst of the surrounding hubbub.
But by night…
It certainly breaks from tradition in the evening though. As night falls, the scents of joss sticks and street food fill the air, and the space transforms into something akin to a music festival. Spectators sit back to watch performers take to a huge stage, and throngs of people from all walks of life mill around beyond; from pink-robed young nuns, to gaggles of teenagers wearing thanaka paste, and elderly worshippers in longyi and leather sandals.
Fairy lights and lanterns are strung between trees, neon lights cast a glow over the stalls, and flashing Ferris wheels turn well into the night.
2. Ananda Pagoda/Temple Festival – December/January – Bagan
The golden stupa rising high above the palatial Ananda pagoda is impressive, but the surrounding activity is nearly as fascinating. A traffic jam, of a sort, surrounds Bagan with a stream of oxcarts billowing thick dust from their wheels, each piled eye with worldly belongings. As one of the most famous festivals in Burma, pilgrims flock here and often camp out for the duration.
Delicious smells drift out from under canopies, and busy stalls sell just about everything – piles and piles of brightly coloured longyi, trinkets (including mini gold replicas of Bagan’s temples), strings of beads, varnished pots that glisten in the sun, and even teak chairs. Celebrations can continue until dawn with fairground rides, and traditional staged shows that keep the crowds entertained.
It can be a noisy affair, so you might prefer to stay outside of Old Bagan, or take some ear plugs!
3. Thadingyut Light Festival – October – Nationwide
The end of Buddhist Lent is marked with a three-day public holiday where the Buddhist population take contributions to the pagodas, often sitting to pray or chant before them. Displays welcoming Buddha back from heaven take place in varying guises across the country, often with small collections of tea lights that grow row upon row as increasing numbers arrive.
The grandest celebration of all takes place at the revered Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon (no surprises there). In the evening, street food vendors busily pile up plates of rice, grill corn on the cob, or fry up local delicacies in sizzling vats. The atmosphere isn’t dissimilar to a county fair with spinning carousels and, of all things, fluffy pink candyfloss.
4. Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival – October – Inle
The Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival draws in the crowds for good reason. This one of a kind event draws together some of Burma’s most enduring images; the traditional one-legged fishing technique, the waters of Inle Lake, and gilded Buddhas.
The lake teems with longboats topped with beaded umbrellas, banana leaves or bunting, and propelled by groups of men using the local one-legged rowing technique. Four larger boats carry regal gold palanquins, each containing a heavily gilded image of Buddha from the local pagoda.
Fortunately, tourists aren’t expected to row on one leg themselves… See the spectacle up close from a longboat of your own on one of our October 2018 Beautiful Burma small group tour departures.
5. Manuha Pagoda Festival – September – Bagan
This three-day festival outside the Manuha Pagoda is one of the calendar’s more unusual and spirited. Enthusiastic crowds huddle together for a joyous parade, only parting to whoop and cheer as elaborately decorated papier-mâche animals and life-sized mythical figures rise above thumping stereos and shady umbrellas.
Do as the locals do and snack on complimentary rice cakes and pickled water melons.
6. Dancing Elephant Festival – October – Kyaukse near Mandalay
Fear not, no elephants are harmed in the Dancing Elephant celebrations. This festival, held at the end of Buddhist lent, is one of the more eccentric in Burma. Instead, dancers wearing ornately decorated bamboo and papier-mâché elephant costumes take to the stage in pairs to perform routines. They contort this way and that, shake their heads, patter their feet, and run forwards and backwards to eschew the grasp of an “elephant tamer”.
These performances – to the backdrop of crashing cymbals or thrumming tabla – are all in a bid to win the award for the best costume or dance.
7. Mahamuni Pagoda Festival – January/February – Mandalay
The Mahamani Pagoda in Mandalay is revered for having an enormous gilded Buddha. So far, so Burmese you might think. But unlike the majority of Buddhas, the image here is covered in hundreds of thick mounds of gold from neck to toe; a result of male devotees adorning it in layer upon layer of gold leaf.
Thousands of people make the trip here for a two-week festival where monks take part in a recital of Buddhist scriptures during the day, and traditional performances take place in the temple grounds by night. If your trip to Mandalay doesn’t coincide with the festival, early risers can witness a ritual of a different kind; each day at 4am, visitors are welcome to watch the fascinating ritual of monks washing the statue.
– Double and triple check your dates. Confusingly for Western travellers, they can change in accordance with the lunar calendar.
– Festivals are popular with domestic tourists, so book accommodation and transport well in advance.
– Some coincide with bank holidays so other popular attractions may be closed.
Whether you want to experience festivals in Burma while going it alone on a Fully Tailored Journey, or sharing the experience with new friends on a small group tour, our friendly team are ready to help with your plans, get in touch.