The week-long Nat Pwe in Taungbyone is the largest spirit festival in Burma (Myanmar), with tens of thousands of people attending the week-long celebrations around the full moon in August. They come from far and wide to pay tribute to two of the widest known Burmese nats, or spirits, hoping to gain good luck, let loose and watch the ceremonies, performed most often by transvestites.
There are 37 original nats in Burmese history, who have usually come into being thanks to gruesome deaths. Throughout the year, nat pwe, or spirit festivals, are held across the country, but the most famous is in Taungbyone, a small village around 20 kilometres north of Mandalay. A nat kadaw, a spirit’s wife or medium, is in charge of the week-long ceremonies.
If you ask the average local Yangoonie what they know about nat pwe, they will immediately call it the "gay festival", as the mediums are typically transgender or transvestites; the festival has become a safe haven for the LGBT crowd to attend, though all are welcomed.
The festival includes a large market full of venders hawking food, sweets, T-shirts and other merchandise. Masses of people shuffle and squish their way through tight walkways to pay tribute to the nat brothers for good luck and fortune for their new business, home or other venture.
The worshipping of the nat demonstrate well how animism has been incorporated into and tolerated by Buddhist culture in Burma.
The ceremonies held nightly have the feeling of a music festival, as different stages host different nat kadaw. Fans and followers go to see their favourite nat perform rituals at their particular stage. Nats take and give offerings from followers, most commonly bananas, money, flowers, fried chicken and liquor.
Many nat kadaw start early in the day, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and smoking giant rolled bundles of something or other as they dance to heavy bass and fast rhythms, belted out using traditional instruments and amplified over speakers. Once in their trance-like state, they are ready to channel the spirits.
Getting to Taungbyone is easy if you are staying in Mandalay. Truck taxis leave from the clock tower in the west side of the city centre every 20 or 30 minutes -- whenever they are full. Trucks are loaded to the brim -- sitting on top of a crate of pineapples on the roof of the truck is not unusual. This option will cost you 1,000 kyat for a one-way ride. The same deal applies returning. The train does not technically stop at the festival location, while motorbikes taken on a high-traffic day can be very unsafe.
On busy festival days -- such as the weekend -- be warned that the normal 45-minute truck taxi ride can extend for hours; we left on a Saturday and it took us over six hours to get back to Mandalay. We would try to arrive during the morning of a week day and depart during a late evening to see the least traffic. Most days and celebrations are similar.
Be aware that the crowds are not in the least bit supervised or controlled; it can be dangerous, so please do use your common sense. We would probably suggest children skip this one simply because of the numbers of people; many other nat festivals are celebrated around the country and will be safer.
Getting as drunk as the nat kadaw is not advised; as you would in any large crowd, look out for pickpockets and keep your bags in front of you.
The temperature can get very hot, and you may get stuck in the crowds, unable to budge and without any shade, so bring sun protection and carry water bottles.
Last but not least, there is a wide traditional belief we must caution you about: nat may enter not just the mediums, but also the spectators themselves. You've been warned.
By Christopher Smith
Last updated on 8th December, 2013.