Sunday, August 20, 2017

At Inle, the best seats in the house

A procession passes through a golden archway in Nyaungshwe, carrying four Buddha images from Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, on October 22. Photo: George RajnaA procession passes through a golden archway in Nyaungshwe, carrying four Buddha images from Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, on October 22. Photo: George Rajna

When I arrived in Myanmar on September 28, 2012, I planned our 27 days of travel so that we could see the famous leg rowers and Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, one of the largest Buddhist celebrations in the country.

I did not realise that our hotel, the Golden Empress, would be located on a corner in the town of Nyaungshwe that would offer us a great view of the procession. Our seats on the second-floor balcony made me feel like Katie Couric at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. There was literally not a better seat in the country to see the golden Buddha images pass through the final tower on the way to the monastery for their three nights of rest.

During the 18-day festival – which takes place at Inle Lake in Shan State and which this year started on October 16 – four of the five Buddha images from Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda journeyed around the lake on a gilded royal barge shaped like a karaweik (mythical bird), which was pulled by hundreds of leg-rowers.

One image always remains at the pagoda, while the other relics travel to many villages around the lake so that Buddhists can pay their respects, the men doing so by adding gold leaf to them. After centuries of veneration the images, which are thought to date back to the 12th century, look more like gold mounds or rocks than the shape of Buddha.

After travelling from village to village, the images arrive in Nyaungshwe for a giant three-night festival. Thousands of people from different regions, including the plains, mountains and small, remote villages, trek to town to revere the statues.

The area has the feeling of a festive carnival. The pilgrims come to enjoy the event but more importantly to gain merit. For several blocks in each direction from the host monastery, tents were built to house an incredible array of restaurants and shops selling everything from pots and pans, to clothing, shoes, children’s toys, sweets, food, thanaka and, of course, gold leaf for the images.

From 5am October 22 we heard music in the streets, but then it abruptly stopped around 7am. Electricity in the city was turned off as a precaution against the possibility that the palanquin carrying the Buddha relics might cause damage if any of the poles hit the wires.

There were also 90 extra policemen stationed in the town, securing the corners of each city block as a safety measure since there were so many visitors for the annual celebration. In 2011, the military were in charge but this year it was decided that the police would be adequate.

Hundreds of people went to the jetty to watch the Buddha procession arrive by gilded barge. By 9am, most people were wandering back from the jetty towards the monastery where the Buddha statues would be housed for three nights. The journey from pagoda to pagoda and village to village was celebrated and a carpet of lotus flowers and rice popcorn was laid down in the street to prepare for the Buddha images’ arrival.

Flower sellers were close by, to allow the wandering throngs of people to buy their flowers and make an offering to the golden tower. The children appeared especially joyful, laying, throwing and streaming the petals onto the already carpeted street.

Young and old, locals and tourists alike participated in the preparations with white, light pink and dark pink blossoms. The ethnic Pa-O ladies, in all black with colourful headdresses, were particularly noticeable among the crowd, the majority of whom were wearing traditional longyi. Most of the women wore thanaka on their faces to protect their skin from the sun, as well as for the aesthetic appeal.

Before the arrival of the Buddha images in Nyaungshwe, a golden archway and tower had been built at the edge of Phaungtaw Pyan Street, at the site of the Buddha procession’s last stop before being taken to the monastery. The archway was adorned with 1-metre-long green and blue peacocks in each corner, with gold or white umbrellas also perched attentively at the pinnacle of all four corners.

We took our special seats on the second-floor balconies of the Golden Empress Hotel. We could hear the procession of the golden Buddha relics arriving from down the street but could not yet spot them. Traffic was stopped and anticipation for the final turn of the procession began.

First, I saw a line of ochre-robed monks. Then, a group dressed all in white playing a variety of musical instruments appeared. I was not sure what to expect next but for some reason my mind drifted to visions of the annual New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Parade. I explained to our hosts about the Los Angeles parade and described how the floats are completely decorated in flowers. After seeing the carpet of lotus blossoms and popped rice at Inle Lake, I imagined the procession would one day include floats of flowers and marching bands similar to the Rose Bowl.

Next, a few young men carried four small golden chariots. Then a larger group of people with decorated umbrellas arrived. Suddenly I realised the Buddha images and relic were next.

I saw two lines of people pulling ropes. The carriage was full of gold, adorned with four large white umbrellas. The chariot that housed the Buddha images had a golden spire at the apex. I had been told that the images would stop for three minutes under this final tower. People gathered around to see the images up close. Then the procession moved to the monastery down the street.

Three times that afternoon and evening, we ventured into the monastery to see the worshippers gather and add gold leaf to the relics. Every time we were there, it was crowded with men, women and children watching. The central area was always full of men, young and old, adding more gold leaf to the images.

Everywhere in Myanmar, the amiable local people were welcoming and helpful, and at Inle Lake they explained to us different parts of the ceremony and procession. We were kindly invited into their homes. During one of the visits to the monastery, my travel partner George added gold leaf to the Buddha statues.

I felt honoured to be included in this important religious festival. I highly recommend a visit to Myanmar and Shan State, especially during the time of the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival in Nyaungshwe.

Lisa and George Rajna met online in 2007 and started travelling together internationally almost immediately. Lisa is a member of the Traveller’s Century Club for travellers who have been to more than 100 countries. She and George are spending a sabbatical year in Southeast Asia. Follow their travels online at