Are you the kind of person who is always the last to realize a public holiday is coming up? The Myanmar government just announced even more public holidays than we already had by giving compensation days in case a public holiday falls on a weekend. Great for some travelling upcountry so do mark these public holidays in your calendar and start planning:
Thadingyut public holiday – 5 days: Friday 11 Oct – Tuesday 15 Oct
Tazaungdaing public holiday – 5 days: Saturday 9 Nov – Tuesday 12 Nov
Many traditional Myanmar festivals are held after the Buddhist Lent (the customary 3 months retreat when monks don’t travel and many people practice by giving up, for example, meat or alcohol). The festivals are fun gatherings of communities often combined with games, a funfair, good shopping deals, and of course food. Many townships around the country organize a pwe which are fantastic festivals to join as a tourist. The more traditional ones have a theatre with dances, slapstick, and singing performances often going on till late night or even early next morning. Other festivals have become huge events with competitions amongst communities like to build the biggest papier-mâché hot air balloon or have the best dancing elephant performance (note for the animal rights activists: Before start calling the Myanmore management, be aware that the elephants are papier-mâché ones replicas worn by 2 men who perform often acrobatic dances – no real elephants are used, come to think of it… Myanmar is probably the first country using “elephants” for festivals in a real sustainable way).
Here is a list of the upcoming festivals around the country, some are famous and getting crowded while some are very much unknown and worth visiting as well. As many local tourists are travelling during Thadingyut and Thazaungdine public holidays, public busses, domestic flights, and hotels are fully booked so do start now to plan your long weekend upcountry.
Manuha Pagoda Festival
Bagan – 12th to 14th September 2019
Manuha Pagoda Festival is held for 3 days starting from the previous day to Full Moon Day of Tawtalin. The Myinkaba region dwellers donate rice cakes and pickled winter melon to the visitors during the festival. This traditional practice is said to have descended from the time of the King Manuha and can still be seen at the festival today. Colourful papier-mâché figures competitions take place during the Manuha Pagoda Festival and you will see a parade of colours around the city in the forms of the Manuha King himself, tigers, cows, elephants, horses, etc.
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival
Inle Lake – 29th September to 16th October 2019
A spectacular festival whereby boats with up to 50 or 60 leg rowers are pulling a barge with sacred Buddha images from one village to the other on the lake. Try to be in a private boat on the lake and ask the boatman to enquire where the procession will be passing and you can be sure to make some great images of this procession. It is a nice festival to visit although it can be a bit crowded. Plan to have a couple of days in Inle Lake to make sure you don’t miss the procession as there is sometimes a “resting day” or call your travel agent.
Dancing elephant festival
Kyaukse – 12th to 14th October 2019
Kyaukse, about 3 hours’ drive from Bagan (same distance from Mandalay) is famous for the big papier-mâché elephant costumes made there. Two men wearing the elephant costume perform acrobatic dancing on the streets of Kyaukse. A good festival to see village life in Myanmar, there are no real elephants involved in this festival.
Thadingyut (Festival of lights)
Nationwide – 12nd to 14th October 2019
The end of the Buddhist Lent is a time to pay respect to parents, teachers and elderly persons. On the full moon day of October (often the middle of October) houses and pagodas are lit with candles. If you’re in the country on this day, light a candle near your hotel and walk around the city in the evening (or visit the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon if you happen to be there) and enjoy the magical atmosphere.
Shinpin Sagyo Pagoda Festival
Salay – 21st to 24th October 2019
Shinpin Sagyo pagoda located in Salay (1.5 hrs.’ drive from Bagan) celebrates this festival twice a year where thousands of pilgrims from the different villages participate in alms offering to the pagoda and monks. You can visit the market as local vendors selling local snacks, seasonal fruits and goods.
Festival Mya Tha Lon
Magwe – 06th to 24th October 2019
One of the famous pagoda festivals in the central part of Myanmar in Magwe Division with traditional performances, a funfair and typical food from the dry zone.
Shwezigon Pagoda festival
Bagan – 29th October to 12th November 2019
This is a temple festival attended by thousands of villagers from the whole region. The highlight is a procession of hundreds of monks collecting donations on the full moon day of Tazaungdaing. Very interesting to go and see the festival if you’re in the Bagan area.
Taunggyi balloon festival
Taunggyi: 03rd to 12th November 2019
Taunggyi is famous for the Tazaungdaing celebrations when huge papier-mâché hot air balloons (in different shapes) are launched from the crowded festival field in Taunggyi. Once the balloon reaches a height of about 20 meter the fireworks attached to the balloons are launched in all directions. A fun and spectacular festival which you should try to join if you’re in Inle Lake area. Don’t get too close to the launch site of the balloons, hot dripping wax (or firecracker) tend to fall on the crowd.
Pyin Oo Lwin balloon festival
Pyin Oo Lwin: 03rd to 12th November 2019
Pyin Oo Lwin hot air balloon festival normally held near Maha Anthookantha Pagoda and the festival for the first time in 2005. It is similar, but smaller in scale to the festival in Taunggyi which takes place at the same time of year.
Tazaungdaing (Festival of lights)
Nationwide – 10th to 12th November 2019
This is the time that yellow robes (and many other monks’ accessories) are offered to monks around the country. During the days prior to the festival, you will see bamboo poles with donations (including bank notes folded in beautiful shapes). On the evening of the festival, hot air balloons are launched throughout the country and most of the temples organise weaving competitions. A good time to be in any medium sized town in Myanmar.
My personal favourite festival? I think the balloon festival in Taunggyi is spectacular! I advise to go in the day time when the animal shaped balloons are launched and stay till about 9 or 10 pm to see some of the balloons lightened with candles and fireworks. Use common sense and it’s NOT dangerous (as some people might tell you); stay within designated areas far from the launch site. Especially for families, the day time is most fun actually and much quieter.
Edwin Briels is MD of Khiri Travel Myanmar and has been working for over 15 years in travel in Myanmar and will share his experiences traveling in Myanmar in a monthly column.