Saturday, August 21
In a futile and laughable attempt to beat the heat, I set out for Taungbyone in the late afternoon. But, that didn't matter, because it's miserably hot 24 hours per day in Southeast Asia. Most forms of transport in Myanmar won't depart until they're full, and, true to form, the bus I got on sat for 20 or 30 minutes. A few ladies climbed aboard, but not enough for the driver to launch a mission. I finally got tired of waiting and wedged myself into the back of a packed mini-truck headed for Taungbyone. I sat with my back up against the cab, right in the middle of a bunch of locals and families--practically on top of their feet. It was uncomfortable as hell, but I loved every minute.
Upon arrival, I skipped the impossibly crowded main temple and went straight to the myriad smaller nat pwe events that were going down in the seemingly endless thatched huts of the back alleys. I didn't have to walk far to come across one. Sometimes two of them were blasting away right across a dirt lane just a few feet away from each other! At the center of each was the nat kadaw, a very highly revered figure in the nat subculture. "A flamboyant and charismatic master of ceremonies dressed in elegant costume, the kadaw is a spirit medium, dancer, storyteller, and magician who exposes the crowd to a living incarnation of the nat. Many of the kadaws are male crossdressers performing the role of female Nats."--Sublime Frequencies
To help relieve the effects of extreme heat, nat pwe attendees constantly fan the nat kadaws and each other. At the first show I stepped into, an incredibly nice, matronly lady noticed me soaked in sweat and gushing gallons more, then she fanned me for a half hour non-stop. I was already a very humble person, but that little act of supreme kindness humbled me about 2,684,598 billion times more. A while later, as I was leaving that hut compound, the same lady made sure I found my way out okay, then smiled and waved as I walked away. I know that will be one of the most memorable moments of this whole three-and-a-half month trip.
In the next pwe, several women were caught in the throes of an ecstatic trance dance, which I luckily caught on video, while in another, a tranny queen all dolled up in a long, sparkling pink dress entertained her entourage with some stylish moves then plied them with whiskey. An elderly lady nat kadaw blessed her troupe in a quiet and somber moment at yet another event, while a couple of others down the lane sashayed in the most stylish manner you could ever dream of.
And all the while, within each pwe, a traditional Burmese orchestra worked the faithful up into an absolute frothing frenzy. As the drummers pounded away on their skins, the cymbals, clappers, gongs and wood blocks joined in--all with so much gusto, exuberance and joy, it felt like the Earth was just being born. The icing was slathered onto this big, wild, quivering cake by the little lady singer, who belted out a high-pitched, reverb-drenched melody that brought it all home to the Burmese nat worshipping faithful.
Around 1:00 a.m., I checked up on the main temple, but it was still overwhelmingly crowded. Completely spent, I made my way through the muddy, trash-filled dirt paths, over a stinky creek or two and out past all of the vendor stalls into the loud, chaotic transport lane, where I was lucky to score shotgun in the cab of a big pickup truck heading back to Mandalay. And it only cost a dollar! I never saw any tourists all day, except, ironically, right as I was leaving. The next day, one guy told me he stayed until 5:00 a.m. and the festivities were still going strong! (The last day is August 25.) The Taungbyone nat pwe easily ranks as one of the top ten events I've ever attended, and one of the funnest times of my whole life. It doesn't get any more raw and real than this!