The festivals that take place up and down the country are often the unexpected highlights for those travelling in Myanmar.
Which of us were not entranced when first seeing the Inthar of Inle in their ochre trousers rowing in unison upon the “100-man” boats at the Phaung Daw Oo Festival? And whose heart does not flutter upon the memory of a thousand candles illuminating the Shwedagon terrace during Thadingyut or when diving for cover under a strip of tarpaulin as the balloons of Taunggyi burst overhead?
One of the lesser-known festivals of Myanmar is that of the sand pagodas constructed both in the month of Tabaung & again in Kason (approximately March & May.) Like in a traditional European fair, the sand pagoda festivals of Myanmar draw theatrical troupes, dancing bands and purveyors of magic and puppetry making for a jolly and exuberant day out.
Sand Pagodas in Mandalay
Myanmar history is often intertwined with myth and legend. However it is widely accepted that the building of sand pagodas came to Myanmar when the King of Inwa, Shin Pyu Min, waged war upon Siam in the 1760s and brought back to his kingdom a score of prisoners including the Thai royal court.
Housed in relative comfort, Thai customs and traditions began to seep into Burmese society. One of these customs was the construction of sand pagodas as an act of Buddhist worship. For centuries the people of Siam living in riverside towns had celebrated in this way each Spring when the water in the river and streams was at its lowest ebb before the onslaught of the monsoon.
After the full moon day of Tabaung the umbrella crown is removed and the sand stupa is no longer a pagoda. Weeks later, on the eighth day of Kason, water is sprayed upon the sand so to make it easier to deconstruct. It is then on the thirteenth day of Kason that the sand pagodas are rebuilt in a single day.
This speedy reconstruction of the sand pagodas over the course of one day is famous for taking place in three different quarters of Mandalay: Pa Le’ Ngwe Yaung, Yahai, and Min Thar Su. The pagodas are supported by bamboo and pilgrims visit the pagodas on their completion to lay offering and donations.
The Thai heritage of Mandalay’s sand pagodas lives on through the Thai mont ti noodle dish, from which the Mandalay version originates.
Rakhine & Bagan
In Rahine and Bagan, along the Kaladan & Ayeyarwaddy Rivers respectively, sand pagodas are also constructed in Myanmar’s dry season.
In Rakhine this is known as the “Shite-Thaunghmyaut” festival and is held on the full moon day of Tabaung in celebration of Rakhine culture and the Arakanese kings that would have practiced the same festival centuries ago. In the pomp of Mrauk U – Rakhine’s “lost kingdom” – sand pagodas would be built to spur on prosperity and peace and deliverance from danger.
The pagodas are built upon the sand banks that emerge as the water level of the river drops. They are left in place until the rising water erodes them into the bed of the river.
The Tide Today
Creating these sand pagodas – which often rise to over five tiers – is as difficult as it sounds. It is said that the first sand pagodas of Mandalay were built with a mixture of Myanmar and Thai sand which held together particularly well. Today, oil is added so to make the sand sticky and keep it more consistent.
However the art of construction with sand is dying out and many believe that today’s generation of sand artists are not as skilled as their forefathers.
Like much of Myanmar culture, the sand pagodas are having to fight for attention in an increasingly globalized world.
For tourists in Myanmar, it is worth travelling to see the country’s sand pagodas before the tide rises and they slip under the surface and out of sight.
Bertie Alexander Lawson is the Managing Director of Sampan Travel, curating hand-crafted journeys through Myanmar, including to Mandalay and southern Rakhine. The photo at the top was taken by Zaw Zaw Wai Sinphyukyun.