How did we end up here? Basically through some random Googling and coincidence, wherein we discovered we just happened to be in Mandalay the week that Myanmar’s biggest spirit festival, also know as a nat pwe, was happening in the nearby town of Taung Byone. While famous in Myanmar, it’s not really advertised as a tourist attraction due to it being pretty crazy, even by Burmese standards. Which of course meant we had to at least check it out. But first, some background.
Among the Burmese, many worship nats (a.k.a. spirits) in conjunction with practicing Buddhism. Nat worshippers believe that suffering is caused by mischievous spirits, thus they give offerings in order to appease them and ensure good fortune. There are 37 “official” nats, most of which who came into being by dying in some sort of gruesome manner. The Taung Byone Nat Pwe is dedicated to two particular nats: brothers who were bludgeoned to death due to a combination of treachery and bad luck. During nat festivals, spirit mediums (a.k.a. nat kadaw) gather and perform extravagant dancing-type rituals in order to channel the nat spirits, while worshippers come to join in the dancing and give their offerings (usually bananas, flowers and money it seems). Traditionally nat mediums were women, however in modern times beliefs shifted, and it is now thought that homosexual/transgender/transvestite men make the best mediums (I have been told this is because they are generally better at dancing and communicating, which I would have to agree about). As such, many locals also refer to Taung Byone Nat Pwe as “the gay festival”, and while it’s not what we would consider a Western-type Pride festival, it is definitely a very LGBTQ-friendly event in an otherwise conservative country.
We had read that there was transit by a clock tower in Mandalay to the festival, but as we couldn’t figure out how to use the transit (i.e. jeeps driving by yelling things in Burmese) we wandered around until we found a couple of motorbike taxis that understood “nat festival” and agreed to take us there, as well as wait and drive us back. The journey to Taung Byone was about 45 minutes, and definitely part of the adventure. Taking motorbikes actually turned out to be a pretty good idea, since they have no qualms about bypassing the tollbooth traffic jams by weaving around traffic and driving on the shoulder/dirt/other side of the road.
This was Christopher’s first time on a motorbike, but he eventually relaxed and held on to the motorcycle instead of the driver like a girl. Unfortunately his motorcycle broke down part way there, so we had a coke at a local tea shop with the other driver while it was being repaired. The cable thingy for the accelerator had broken or something so once the driver had run down the road and got a new one it was a quick fix. The other driver explained that that was why he rented, as Chris’s driver owned his motorcycle (which cost 660,000 kyat or about $600) and had to fix it himself. Anyways, after that was finished we were back on the road.
All along the road to Taung Byone there were little tents blaring Burmese dance music, with people dancing around in all sorts of costumes and shaking silver bowls of coins. Our drivers didn’t speak great English, but if I understood their explanation correctly, the dancing people were taking advantage of the festival traffic to try and raise money for various things, such as the recent flood victims.
As we neared the festival grounds we started seeing a lot of jeeps piled comedically high with people and produce. It was looking exciting. Our motorbike drivers told us to watch our stuff, as “lots of things would be happening all around.”
When we arrived at the giant motorbike parking lot, one of our drivers nicely lent us his cell phone so that we would be able to call them when we were ready to go. They then pointed out some landmarks for us so we could find our way back to them again, and off we went into the fray.
The entrance to the festival is a big market-type thing with about a billion people in it, selling all sorts of trinkets, offerings and snacks. We did not know what any of said snacks were but saw them making them in these big metal vats.
We went into a pagoda and saw a hundred people queued up to put flowers on a statue, so escaped before we were trapped. After wandering around for a bit we found the nat mediums. They seem to be a little like celebrities here, which each one having their own little bamboo hut, often with posters and photos and offerings and a little “posse” of sorts that follows them in a procession to their stage. The stage areas have room for worshippers to sit and watch or dance, as well as giant speakers and a band of Burmese instruments. Now, I don’t really know much about spirit channeling but from what I can tell from Taung Byone, it generally involves dressing in drag, dancing to extremely loud music, sometimes singing/lip syncing, drinking, smoking cigarettes in between acts, and a lot of money, flowers, and bananas being thrown around.
Many worshippers (that I suspect were on…something) get really into the dancing, and in familiar drag show fashion, are often pulled onto the stage to participate. We stood far enough back to avoid that scenario, due to having zero knowledge about proper spirit channeling etiquette (if such a thing exists) and having a healthy amount of fear that Chris, as the only white person within a 25km radius we were pretty sure, would be an obvious target.
I should note that out of the thousands of people there I’m pretty sure we were the only tourists. Chris was getting a lot of looks and a number of people tried to talk to us, although as no one knew more English than “hello” the conversations didn’t get very far. Various people also patted him with their flowers, which after later inquiries we think may mean they were blessing him, or something.
We wandered around for a couple of hours taking in the craziness. There were tons of shops selling toys (including realistic guns that would NOT be allowed in Canada), various cheap kitchen implements, and clothes (including some hilariously poorly screen printed Myanmar soccer jerseys) among other things.
Some other stuff of note that we saw: an extremely rickety and also human-powered (as in, powered by people climbing up it) ferris wheel, pants-less children running around, and a man getting tattooed in a tent.
Eventually we got a call from our motorcycle drivers and were also getting too hot and dusty so we meandered back and found them. We heard the festival gets even more crazy when the sun goes down and we didn’t think we needed to witness that, so we headed back to Mandalay where we hit up a local Chinese restaurant for some much needed nourishment.