Taungbyone Festival is Myanmar’s answer to Gay Pride, a rickety country fair, a Pentecostal church and Glastonbury Festival all combined and turned up to 11. Make no mistake, Taungbyone Nat Pwe, held a few miles out of Mandalay, is not for everyone. By anyone’s standard it is an utter barrage to the senses. A ‘Nat’ is the immortal spirit of a real or folkloric figure who died in an immoral or unnatural incident who is exalted through animist worship in parallel to Buddhism. ‘Pwe’ is Myanmar for festival.
Arriving early we unfolded ourselves from the sardine tin pickup truck shared taxi from Mandalay. Shuffling our way through avenues of pop up shop stalls in the the sticky mud, shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of worshippers, drunks, posing youths, chic transvestites and deformed beggars, tentatively we joined a path-side circle of people transfixed by an enigmatic front man who was delivering a spiel whilst flicking a small black pellet in and out of his mouth with deft and effeminate theatrical hand gestures along with copious shots of a white spirit. At his feet were arranged a collection of objects, including a dolls head, cans, bottles and medical instruments. These were tools to some kind of ceremony much in the vein of Vodun (AKA Voo-Doo). Although fascinating, much to our regret the searing midday sun was threatening to toast our feeble English constitutions and we were forced into the relative shelter of the central temple where an unrelenting throng hurled votive foliage at the feet of Nat statues.
Before long we were drawn to what our ears discerned as the unmistakably unhinged sound of live traditional Myanmar music. We found ourselves ushered into a small pavilion where the image that was to confront us will stay burned into out retinas for eternity: a pair of exceptionally glamorous old drag queens dressed up to the nines with K5000 notes safety pinned all over their costumes and a stream if cigarettes, often a handful at a time, being piled into their twisting orange lips and red grinding pan stained teeth working a dense crowd into a froth. They were, in the terminology of the nat pwe, ‘spirit wives’, wed to the Nat that Taungbyone festival celebrates. Alongside the duo at all times were their crew of fag-hags, fanning them and feeding them booze, starting with beer and ending with entire bottles of rum. As the crazed music ignited the formidable sound system the crowd became increasingly ecstatic. The women were dancing with equal drunken fervour to the men, punching fistfuls of holy leaves in the air, one by one falling into a fit of violent shaking as they were possessed by a nat spirit, to be respectfully carried aside to avoid their flailing limbs damaging the grinning children nearby.
The jubilant jigging, leaping and air punching of the crowd was infectious and we waved our holy branches on high. While regrettably not possessed by a Nat, due to the wild enthusiasm we received for our taking part, we felt in danger of incurring the wrath of a sprit wife for stealing the limelight. In Taungbyone more than anywhere else in Myanmar we were constantly filmed and treated like celebrities – it seemed that few people had ever seen a white face – so we pressed on in search of the next adventure.
Passing makeshift photo studios where you could have your picture taken dressed up as a Myanmar princess with a choice of lurid oil painting backdrops, and a huge cinema tent with an incredible rattling old projector, we found ourselves in a field of terrifyingly ramshackle fairground rides and sideshows. We made a hasty exit from a miserable animal show, complete with tiny cages, mangy monkeys playing cymbals accompanied by hellish feedback from numerous conflicting sound systems, and a truly odious ticket seller with an enormous bare sweaty paunch. Next we tentatively boarded a ferris wheel hoping for a cool breeze and a good view, only to find it was made of decaying wood, seemingly held together with Sellotape and powered not by an motor but by human beings. A troupe of ten or so lithe young boys climbed, monkey like, to the top in order for their weight to start it all turning in the manner of a pet mouse wheel, and proceeded to hang on to the rickety spokes, often upside down as the wheel whizzed round, completing their performance with a nonchalant backflip to dismount.
Feeling elated but overwhelmed by the blistering heat and crowds we avoided the miles of near stationary traffic jamming the access roads by jumping on motorbike taxi back to Mandalay. The day was too dense with one bizarre encounter after another to fully recount here. Nevertheless, if you like the sound of this festival and ever have the opportunity to go, do not miss it. Every year it lasts the whole week preceding the August full moon, and as the biggest of all the Nat Pwe it attracts the gay and transvestite community and fervent animists in equal measure from every part of the country. Although it didn’t stop us, knowing some Myanmar language will do you well as virtually no one we met spoke any English whatsoever. We went on a weekday four days before the full moon itself. Any busier and I think we might have suffocated, so probably best to get there before the weekend if you can. It’s under an hour from Mandalay (which incidentally is a wonderful and almost disarmingly welcoming city – ignore the guide books telling you it’s not) and your guesthouse can tell you where to get a pick up or motorbike taxi.
Jussi Brightmore 14.9.14