Friday, August 20
Like most people everywhere, the Burmese strive for success in business, friendship, love, and life in general. Many of them seek good luck in these and other endeavors from spirits called nats. This is accomplished by making offerings and erecting shrines for them, and consulting with a colorfully costumed character called a nat kadaw (spirit medium) in a special music and dance event called a nat pwe (spirit show). Small nat pwes take place all over Myanmar every day, but the largest event of the year occurs every August when thousands of Burmese invade a small village called Taungbyone about 12 miles North of Mandalay in the central part of the country.
Equal parts street fair, carnival, concert and religious ceremony, the Taungbyone festival is an ultra-intense blast furnace of vivid, colorful, chaotic sights and sounds. In a tradition that dates back over 900 years, an orchestra consisting of saing-waing and kyi-waing (drums and gongs arranged in circular enclosures), hand drums, cymbals, a wood block, let-ko (bamboo clapper) and a heavily reverbed vocalist provide the blaring, clangorous rhythm for the faithful as they give offerings of food, alcohol, flowers and money to the nat kadaw in exchange for good luck blessings from the actual nat itself, which enters the body of the kadaw during a frenzy of dance and music.
In the early afternoon, I climbed aboard a rickety old bus that got instantly crammed full of a mass of Burmese humanity and bashed its way up the bumpy, food stall-lined roads North of Mandalay. As we hung a left onto a road divided by a small canal, women and children beggars lined each side, calling out for money or food. Then the bus heaved and squeezed its way into a really dusty, bumpy parking area, where everyone jumped off. I made my way down some endlessly long lanes lined on each side by stalls offering mountains of every kind of thing you can imagine. The usual food, drinks and clothing were well represented, plus unexpected items like cookware, cutlery, tools and endless other stuff. It looked like Wal-Mart got emptied out into a dirt lot.
I ventured down some side alleys, where I finally found a few flowery nat shrines and some Burmese musicians with their instruments. Employing hand gestures, I asked what time the music and dancing started, and they said 7:00, although I wasn't sure if they meant in the evening or the following morning, because these events often go on all night. Then a middle-aged Burmese lady from Yangon took me under her wing and totally started mothering me, guiding me around, buying me water, etc. It was so funny. After asking some locals where a ceremony might be underway, she led me through a maze of chaos over to the main temple.
Scores of people packed the narrow lanes and swarmed around the temple. Although it was later in the afternoon, the sun still cast a thick, sweltering blanket over everything, and the body heat from all of the frantic dancing and music inside pushed the temperature up to suffocating levels. The place was packed so tight, it was impossible to get insde the central fenced-in area where the nat kadaws worked their magic. After I watched a few rounds (so many nat kadaws were present that each one only got 15 minutes), my new guide led me over to a hut full of her friends, where we talked about nat culture and they fed me delicious, sweet bananas.
I also talked with a crew of guys in the next hut over who were working on a scripted movie based around the nat pwe. All of the people I met today were so nice, it was kind of unbelievable. By the time dusk floated around, I was totally battered by all of the heat and hyperactivity. My new friend was ready to leave, too, and offered to show me the way out to the pickup truck area, where we caught one back into Mandalay. When we got dropped off, I got invited to dinner with her and a friend. Both of them live in Yangon and came up for the festival.