The excitement was palpable as we met up with a procession of 20 long boats each with 100 rowers for the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
This religious festival takes place around the villages of Inle Lake for 18 days leading up to the full moon in October and the lighting festival known as Thadingyut.
Four holy images of Buddha from the highly revered Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda travel on the Royal Karaweik (mythological bird) barge and are towed by rowers from village to village, spending a night or two in each village’s monastery. In October 2015, I had the opportunity to witness this unique festival.
After travelling by longtail boat for an hour from the jetty in Nyaung Shwe, we came upon several other teak wood boats waiting along the banks, each filled with Buddhist devotees with gifts of flowers and food for Buddha. It was 7:30 am, and we had made it to a smaller part of the lake. The people in the homes that lined the water’s edge watched from their windows, sat on the stairs that led to the water or on their small docks. They also had food and gifts, and many dressed in their best longyis.
Just after we arrived the first boat with 100 male Intha rowers appeared. Each boat had music, and the men wore the same colour of traditional Shan clothing. They rowed with their leg wrapped around their oar sometimes switching to row with their hands. Some stood on the upper part of the boat and danced.
It was a festive and happy celebration though the people waiting for the barge appeared solemn. They bowed as the Royal Golden Karaweik passed by.
Many boats joined the procession and followed as it made its way to the nearest monastery. We did too and soon found ourselves in the heart of it all, sandwiched between boats and at times we bumped.
We followed a few boats to a narrow channel just off the main traversing part of Inle Lake to watch as the procession passed through the small village. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before and a wonderful way to bring in Thadingyut.
The lead boat in the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival procession on Inle Lake, October 2015
A boat of 100 rowers at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival procession on Inle Lake, October 2015
Intha leg rowers at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival in Inle Lake, Myanmar
The Karaweik barge carrying four images of Buddha during the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival in Inle Lake, Myanmar
Royal Karaweik barge
Joining the procession at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival in Inle Lake, Myanmar
Thadingyut, the Festival of Lights – Inle Lake, Yangon & throughout the country
Thadingyut, the Festival of Lights is celebrated the day before, after and on the full moon day, usually in October, in Myanmar. It is in the seventh month of the Myanmar calendar, and the end of the Buddhist Lent. Do check for the exact dates if you plan to attend.
Young people pay respect to their parents and older relatives. My father, grandparents, great and great great grandparents are from Myanmar. For three years I had planned to visit Myanmar to coincide with Thadingyut as a way to honour my Burmese relatives and ancestors.
In October 2015, I finally got to visit the country for the first time with my dad and cousins. We celebrated Thadingyut in Naung Shwe (Inle Lake).
Homes, pagodas, monasteries and open market shops were lit with candles and a few paper lanterns dotted the sky. There was a constant sound of fireworks and fire crackers going off. My father bought some as well and had the shop owner send them into the sky. He also popped a few fire crackers off as he remembered doing as a teenager in Yangon.
I watched as two young men lit candles to put in the wall surrounding the Yadanar Manaung Pagoda and asked to take their photo. They agreed and gave me a candle to light too.
Watch my view of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival from inside a longtail boat.
Thadingyut in Yangon
A street fair takes place in downtown Yangon. I’ve seen photos of the event from relatives there. It seems like it’s a good time to be in the city. Unfortunately, it was raining when we arrived late from Inle Lake on the last night of the festival
Sunset in Kawthaung, the gateway to the Mergui Archipelago is in the Andaman Sea in south Myanmar and is about 30 minutes by long tail boat from Ranong, Thailand. In November 2015, I spent 3 nights & 4 days exploring this region of over 800 mostly uninhabited islands.
I travelled by liveaboard boat, snorkelled the clear blue waters, found Nemo, walked on powdery-soft sandy white beaches and hung out in places with no one else in sight.
Only 2612 tourists explored these islands in 2015, I am grateful to be one of them.
Somewhere in the lush rolling hills of Shan state in Myanmar between Bagan and Inle Lake. We travelled by private vehicle for about 12 hours past colourful fields and remote hill villages where Shan people still dress in traditional clothing.
It was one of the most scenic drives I’ve embarked on but it’s not for the faint of heart. The roads are very windy with narrow 2-lane roads and tight turns.
In Myanmar they drive on the right side of the road like in the North America but most of the vehicles are from Japan and the driver is also seated on the right. Not a good position to be in when trying to overtake a large truck or bus. Somehow they manage unfazed. Many of the truck and bus drivers give the “okay to pass” sign by flashing their left-hand turn signal. Fascinating. I handled it all well, the rest of my family not so much. There were a few nail-biting moments but I tried to live in a state of bliss and not pay attention to the road and the driving. I find it’s better that way ?
I have always known that my paternal heritage is from Myanmar. I’ve also known about the political and humanitarian issues there. I have followed the news as much as I could and watched any documentary I could get my hands on over the last ten years. I never expected anything to change though I wished and I hoped it would.
As much as I wanted to join in ‘Free Burma’ campaigns, I didn’t because you live in the fear that “they” would find out and my relatives would feel the repercussions. I was careful with what was said or shared on social media.
In 2010, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest after 15 years. In November 2012, I stayed up into the wee hours and watched when Barack Obama visited Myanmar and made history by becoming the first sitting United States president to do so. Hope was palpable, but we remained cautious.
I have always called the place where my father and grandmother are from, Burma. It’s also where a grandfather I’ve never met but spoke to once, lived, along with his parents and their parents and so on. Until about three years ago whenever someone asked me what my ethnic background was, and I mentioned Burma or Myanmar, most were puzzled as they had never heard of it let alone tell me where it was. It became routine to answer that it was in south-east Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh, China, Laos, Thailand, and India, that the people are similar to Thai people in appearance and that the food is influenced by Thai and Indian food, but is unlike anything most of have tasted and is unique.
Myanmar started to appear in “where to go” lists in travel magazines and my social media feeds slowly began to fill with images from the country in the last two years. Now I refer to it as Myanmar as that’s what most people know it as. Though when I say it, it sounds like ‘Myan-ma’, not ‘My-an-mar’, the ‘r’ is silent and the ‘ma’ is abrupt. That is what my dad taught me.
About three years ago and after some significant changes, I decided I wanted to visit Myanmar. I told my dad about my desire to do so and asked him if he would join me. I wanted to learn about his history and see where he came from, meet my relatives that still live there and walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. I invited some of our cousins to join us. One of my dad’s first cousins and her husband were excited to come along as we started talking about plans more than two years ago.
I wanted to visit during Thadingyut, the Festival of Lights, on the full moon in October. It’s a time when pagodas, temples, and Buddhist homes are lit up with candles. It’s also a time when youth pay homage to their grandparents; I thought it would be meaningful.
Celebrating Thadingyut in Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) in October 2015
Arriving in Mandalay, Myanmar
On October 21st, 2015, that day finally came. As my flight descended into Mandalay, I peered out the window with my father beside me, excited at the first sight of golden stupas that dotted the landscape and the brown-coloured Irrawaddy River that snaked its way through the city.
Checking into our hotel, I turned and noticed a face I had only recognized from Facebook but had known about all my life. My father’s first cousin from Yangon and her husband were sitting there in the lobby of our hotel. They travelled to Mandalay to accompany us around the city and to meet our relatives. We all greeted one another and in that moment I was thankful that the Burmese government had relaxed its censorship of the Internet in the last two years so that we could connect on Facebook. It was the third time that my dad was seeing his cousin since he left his birthplace and home in Rangoon (Yangon), 50 years before.
We made our way through the dusty roads of Mandalay. Old motorbikes, scooters, and many new cars filled the streets. Soon we arrived at an alleyway. I wasn’t sure where we were, but I knew we were going to a cousin’s house. It was after 3:30 pm and I had just learned that our family had been waiting for us since 7 am even though we weren’t due to land in Mandalay until that afternoon.
I followed my aunty’s husband out of the van. In Myanmar culture, she is known as ‘aunty’ and not ‘first cousin once removed’ as it is here in Canada. As I walked through the alleyway dodging small potholes, uneven ground, garbage, motorbikes and orange betel nut splattered patterns I noticed there were small buildings on each side of me. Some made of bricks, some of woven bamboo. It looked like the back entrance of shops, but longyis, western clothes, and worn household blankets hung over the fences. I realized that the buildings were people’s homes and that we were in a residential neighbourhood. I looked ahead and noticed a group of people, maybe 30 or more. They watched as we walked towards them. I thought of how we would have to pass them as they looked on. Suddenly it dawned on me that the group were not random people, but were the family waiting for us.
That day I met 11 of my granduncle’s 12 children (my father’s first cousins), some of their children and their families. There were over 50 people in attendance of the more than 90 relatives I have in Mandalay. Even though it was slightly overwhelming and there was a significant language barrier, my heart was full. It took a long time to get there, more than 40 years.
After I had taken photos of all our relatives to share with family that couldn’t be there, they took some of me.