Date: 31 July - 7 Aug 2017
Venue: Mandalay, Bagan
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.