“Where will you go today?” asked the hotelier.
Caroline and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Just around Mandalay,” I replied, vaguely.
“Today is a big festival for the full moon! It is the last of three days,” he revealed, pulling out a map. “You can drive here, and then turn up here and then you can go to Taungpyone. It will be easy to find, you’ll see many motorbikes going that way. And dancers.”
“Great!” we agreed. And paid him 8000 Kyat for a one-day motorbike hire. We weren’t staying at his hotel, but he gave us a reasonable price on the rental, and his little snippet of advice turned out to be quite an experience.
We had no idea at the time, but we were heading towards the most famous ‘Nat’ festival in Myanmar. ‘Nats’ are basically spirits, and have a whole huge back story that I won’t go into here. This particular festival, called the Taungpyone Festival, happens once a year in honour of two brothers. The short story is that these brothers were the drunken, gambling, lazy adopted sons of King Anawrahta. The king got annoyed when the brothers didn’t help build a pagoda he wanted erected, so he had them killed. They became spirits (Nats), and suddenly the king decided they were now deities, and made them guardians of the temple. Consequently they became the most famous Nats in Burma.
So now, once a year, Burmese people travel over the country and descend upon this tiny town, paying respect to the brothers by offering cash, booze, food, and flowers. They party for three days (or five or six depending on whose version you hear) and are entertained by dancers, tattoo artists, fortune tellers and performers.
And so, without any of the knowledge that I’ve just given you, we set off on our rented motorbike for Taungpyone. We knew we were on course when the blaring of loud, tinny music could be heard. As we neared the din, which was an interesting but intrusive shriek of traditional Burmese techno erupting from large cone-shaped speakers, we saw dancers lining the street holding metal pots. The pots were offered for passing motorists to deposit money into, and they rattled as the dancers shook them. Since there are no coins in Myanmar (lovely), I assumed the rattling came from rocks, but I can’t confirm this. Caroline tossed cash into a few of the pots as we drove by, but we quickly ran out of small bills, and soon the money-dancers numbered in the hundreds, with different Burmese techno blasting at 50-metre intervals. The roads became clogged with cars and motorcycles, and I, through necessity rather than choice, improved my weaving and dodging skills dramatically.
As we got closer to the main event, we began to notice much less joyful people holding out pots, begging. Many of them had crutches, and a few had exposed wounds, bandages, or missing limbs. These people looked like they’d been in a battle, and perhaps some had. There is ongoing internal conflict across Myanmar, in areas restricted to foreign travelers. Among these forlorn, embattled people, were young monks scampering about happily, and jovial dancers with money pots.
Arriving at the festival was even more chaotic than driving there. A man jumped out from nowhere and eagerly signaled at me to park my bike, so I did. Going to festivals and fairs in New Zealand, I’m used to official people directing traffic is it approaches, ushering cars into positions that best alleviate the congestion caused by the increased flow. However, this was a Myanmar festival, and we learned that there were many parking areas all competing for business. So instead of slow, methodic organization, we saw fast-paced, eager competition. In the end, our parking spot was cheap, and so it didn’t really matter anyway.
If arriving at the festival was chaotic, entering the flood of people was insane. The fairs I am used to are busy, but this was another level – and that level was motorcycles. Even in the areas that were clearly meant for people, motorcycles pushed through, honking impatiently. One hit me from behind, but it was going too slow to do any damage. The rider looked very apologetic, and I found myself inexplicably saying, “Sorry” to him. Everywhere around us, strange things were happening; several smiling women sat on a raised stage next to scales and piles of what looked like fudge while people below appeared to be trading and haggling for it. Men blew party streamers that were ten times longer than normal. People wore colourful, papier-mache hats. Music screamed from the many treble-horns. Huge chunks of ice were washed of grime, and then set atop little stands where they dripped through filters into cups. Stacks of deep-fried discs were on sale. People scuttled about on active train tracks. It was glorious – kind of like a party market, with more dancing and less fish.
One section of the fair contained rides and games. The ferris wheel was quite large, and completely manual. This meant that the carnies had to clamber all over it to make it rotate. As well as death-defying climbs to the top of the spinning steel, they hung under the dropping seats to pull the whole thing downwards – and still managed to smoke cigarettes at the same time. Riders would approach, spit out betel juice, then hand over a filthy bill for a ride. It was a shambles of a system, but somehow it seemed to work.
The other big ride was the ‘swinging pirate ship’ that we’ve all seen before, except that this was the first ever prototype of it, probably built around the time of Christ. It was constructed of rusted metal (iron?) and splintered wood, and was decorated with large, colourful patches of paint. It creaked and shuddered, and sections of it were held together with tape. Once the ship had filled up with gleeful Burmese people, it was pushed by the carnies until there was enough momentum to start the diesel engine. After that, every time the ship swung down the engine would engage, roar, and the attached chimney would belch out black smoke. The riders screamed with delight, but we decided to skip it, our travel insurance policy having recently expired.
There were several games on offer, and they were all the same: plastic bottles of colourful liquid lined shelves, and players had to knock them down with balls. We might have joined in, but there were a lot of people lined up to play, and they seemed to be involved in a complex system of haggling with the carnies. It was incomprehensible. The haggling certainly didn’t seem like a typical ‘three balls for a dollar’ situation. Adding to the confusion was the fact that people seemed to be knocking down bottles, but not all of them were getting prizes. We didn’t learn the rules, but we did see one person get given a can of beer as their prize.
As we were leaving the festival, pushing through the thousands of happy Buddhists, a young guy grabbed my arm tightly.
“Come,” he said, his mouth stained red from chewing betel and his eyes wild. He pointed towards a nearby temple. “100 kyat!”
“Wha..?” I was confused. “No, che zu bar.” I said and tried to walk away, but he held on tightly.
“100… 100…okay 200 kyat. 200!” he insisted. His price was increasing.
“For what?” I said, exasperated.
He said something in Burmese and then a group of young guys behind him repeated a word he’d said, laughing. I tried to pry his fingers off my arm but he wouldn’t let go.
“200, 200” he kept saying, his bloody mouth drawing all my attention. But then suddenly he seemed to give up, and finally let go. The guys who had laughed had moved past us, and one was yelling at a woman in a truck while the others cackled. Her face was cold.
With the sky darkening, we hurried off to find our motorbike.