Monday, August 29, 2011

Day 80 - Taungbyone Nat Festival

I tried to plan my trip to coincide with the Wagaung Festival, which is the only festival that showed up on my Lonely Planet Book. The festival occurs in Taungbyone, about 12 miles north of Mandalay, during the week leading up to the full moon usually in August. According to some internet research, the festival celebrates “Nats,” who are Pre-Buddist annimist religious spirits. They can see through the past and future and are outside the cycle of rebirth. People from all over the country come to this small town to honor the “Nats” to ensure good fortune for the coming year. Some people even consider this a "gay Nat festival" because the Nats are considered to be transsexuals and many ladyboys come out to celebrate.

Before heading to Taungbyone, I took a motorbike to Mandalay Hill, another scene viewpoint on the summit of the tallest mountain in the city. I've seen plenty of hilltops throughout the trip, so it wasn't as special as I thought. It was a long climb up the steps (barefoot) to get to the top though, with stops at various worshipping spots, palm-reading stands, and souvenir stalls.

Afterwards, my motorbike driver took me to Taungbyone. The rural roads were packed with people trying to get to the festival. Droves of minibuses, pick-up trucks, and motorbikes clogged the streets, with people begging on the sides of the roads close to the festivities. There were so many Myanmar locals congregated in this one small town. I think I may have spotted only 5 or 6 other foreigners walking around.

The festival itself was like a countryside festival/carnival with tons of booths selling merchandise and food all around the grounds. Vendors had their own booths advertising their newest products. I didn't know what to expect, but I thought I could catch a glimpse of some dancing or music. I may have come too early, as I arrived on the 2nd day of 7 days of festivities. The small carnival rides were not operating when I walking past them, and a bounce house was just being filled with air.

I did notice some ladyboys walking around, which was something new and unexpected in this country. I don't know what the general opinion (or even law) regarding homosexuality or transgenderism is in this country due to the political situation, but I know that it isn't as lax as a country like Thailand. I don't think there was much of a sexual atmosphere in any of the big cities (Yangon/Mandalay) I visited, and I would like the say that the country is probably more conservative than most. So it was all very interesting to see ladyboys walking around freely and holding hands. Maybe the locals are accepting of it, or maybe they just ignore it?

I walked around some more, hoping that I would get lost. People were crammed in the local temple, probably praying and giving alms to the Nat spirits for good fortune. I didn't stay too long, as most of the activity of the day was just perusing through the different stalls around the festival grounds. 

View of Mandalay from Mandalay Hill
A Monkey around Mandalay Hill

Along the steps toward Mandalay Hill

So that's how a stupa becomes golden...

Beautiful Arched Hallways on the way to Mandalay Hill

Taungbyone Nat Festival

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