The Burmese people move to a calendar even more ancient than that of the west. Selected full-moon eves within the Buddhist Lunar Calendar mark special feast days across the country, bringing thousands to converge on their local temples to eat, dance, and do devotions.
January: Ananda Temple Festival, Bagan
On the full-moon day of the Buddhist month Pyatho, the temple town of Bagan celebrates the local Ananda Temple's festival day with a fairground on the temple's ample territory, drawing pilgrims from far and wide, many traveling in the traditional bullock-carts to make it to the venue. (The first tourists to Bagan took temple carts to make the rounds of the temples in the area, and this remains a popular Bagan transportation option even today.)
Buddhist monks spend upward of three straight days chanting scripture leading up to the full-moon day itself. As morning creeps in on the full-moon day of Pyatho, the thousands of pilgrims in attendance fill the alms bowls of the monks.
When is the Ananda Temple Festival? On the Gregorian Calendar, the festival takes place on the following dates:
- 2020: January 9
- 2021: January 27
- 2022: January 16
- 2023: January 5
January/February: Mahamuni Pagoda Festival, Mandalay
Mandalay locals celebrate the full-moon eve of Thabodwe by converging on the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, home to a massive gold-encrusted Buddha statue. More devoted believers will stay for two full days to hear a Buddhist philosophical text read straight through by monks.
You don't have to listen to a religious text in a foreign language to enjoy the festival: the grounds outside the temple take on a festival atmosphere, with pavilions hosting traditional dances, musical performances, and local theater groups.
The full-moon eve of Thabodwe also happens to commemorate Myanmar's extensive rice-growing culture, celebrated through a feast for the glutinous-rice dish known as Htamane (outside Mandalay, this occasion is actually known as the Htamane Festival). On this occasion, villages everywhere cook up huge batches of this popular sweet snack, made of glutinous rice combined with coconut flakes, roast peanuts, fritters, and fried ginger.
Other important temple festivals on this date: In Pyay, the full-moon eve of Thabodwe signals the start of the Nyan Yoe bonfire ceremony centered around Shwesandaw Pagoda (not to be confused with the similarly-named sunset-viewing pagoda in Bagan).
When is the Mahamuni Pagoda Festival? On the Gregorian Calendar, the festival takes place on the following dates:
- 2020: February 8
- 2021: February 26
- 2022: February 15
- 2023: February 4
April: Thingyan, the Burmese Water Festival
As with its fellow Buddhist countries, Myanmar celebrates the festival of Thingyan with plenty of water: revelers toss bucketfuls of water on passersby in the open, who welcome the once-a-year water battle with enthusiasm. Water symbolizes purity in the local lore, and pouring water represents cleansing the soul of the past year's evils and imperfections.
In the Myanmar capital of Yangon, the citizens have perfected the Thingyan festival to an art form: around Kandawgyi Lake, revelers draw water from the lake to feed water-spraying stations called “man-dat”; raucous party music throbs from speakers on the man-dat as the locals manning the stations spray water on everyone within range.
When is Thingyan? Unlike other Myanmar festivals, Thingyan takes place over a predictable set of dates relative to the Gregorian Calendar. Every year, Thingyan occurs from April 14 to 16.
September/October: Hpaung Daw U Festival, Inle Lake
During the month of Thadingyut, four of the five Buddha images resident in Hpaung Daw U Pagoda make a grand circuit of Inle Lake's villages, taking eighteen days to complete the tour.
Loaded onto a golden barge built especially for the occasion, the four Buddha images make the slow trip, towed by boats rowed by Inle Lake's famous leg-rowers. The barge tours the lake in a clockwise direction, with the four Buddha images spending each night in a different town monastery.
The festival reaches its peak when the barge reaches the town of Nyaungshwe, where pilgrims from all around the Shan state converge to venerate the statues.
But why do the Shan only take four Buddha images? The Inle townsfolk fear a repeat of a previous incident. According to legend, the last time the Inle folk took all five images on board, a storm capsized the barge, sending all the images to the bottom of the lake. Four were retrieved, but they gave up on the fifth after a long search. Upon returning to the pagoda, they found the fifth image back in its original place - wet but intact!
When is the Hpaung Daw U Festival? Hpaung Daw U Festival is a moveable feast relative to the Gregorian Calendar. As per the Burmese lunar calendar, the festival begins on the first Waxing Moon day of Thadingyut and ends 18 days later, a few days past the next full moon. On the Gregorian Calendar, the festival takes place on the following dates:
- 2019: September 29-October 16
- 2020: October 17-November 3
- 2021: October 6-23
- 2022: September 25-October 12
- 2023: October 15-November 1
October: Dancing Elephants Festival, Kyaukse
The full moon of the Thadingyut month is when Buddhists believe the Buddha descended back to earth after three months of preaching in the spiritual realm above. While the rest of Myanmar celebrates it by lighting the Buddha's way home, the town of Kyaukse near Mandalay commemorates it a little differently: with a “Dancing Elephant” festival, populated not by real elephants, but by pairs of dancers in gigantic elephant costumes.
The intricately-designed elephant costumes are made of paper, bamboo, glitter, satin, and glass. The dancers in the costumes move to the beat of drums, circumambulating the Shwe Tha Lyaung Pagoda a total of three times. Dancers are awarded prizes for their dancing skills and the beauty of their costumes; the rest of the community celebrates with feasting and entertainments throughout the temple grounds.
When is the Dancing Elephants Festival? On the Gregorian Calendar, the Dancing Elephants Festival takes place on the following dates:
- 2019: October 13
- 2020: October 31
- 2021: October 20
- 2022: October 9
- 2023: October 29
November: Kahtein Robe Weaving Competitions, Yangon
On the full-moon day of Tazaungmon (the eighth month of the Buddhist calendar), the Myanma mark the end of the rainy season with festivities all across the country. This is the traditional end of Buddhist Lent, known as Kahtein in the local language, when monks are traditionally presented with new robes by the communities they serve.
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon marks Kahtein with a robe-weaving competition, where teams of weavers work on traditional looms starting on the night before the full moon's eve and ending at the night of the full moon itself. This is repeated throughout the country, with devotees visiting major temples to present new robes to their local monks.
Other important temple festivals on this date: In Bagan, the must-see temple of Shwezigon holds its temple festival around the Tazaungmon full moon.
When is Kahtein? On the Gregorian Calendar, Kahtein takes place on the following dates:
- 2019: November 10-11
- 2020: November 28-29
- 2021: November 17-18
- 2022: November 6-7
- 2023: November 26-27
November: Hot Air Balloon Festival, Taunggyi
In Taunggyi, Shan State, about 160 miles southeast of Mandalay, locals celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent with a Hot-Air Balloon Festival. The Festival Grounds outside Taunggyi becomes a tourist hotspot – quite literally – at 8pm, when the organizers launch large, gaudily-decorated fire balloons made out of papier-mache.
Sedate the sight is not: as the balloons rise to a height of 60 feet in the air, fireworks on the balloons explode, sending streaks and sparks all across the sky to the delight of the viewers on the ground!
When is the Hot Air Balloon Festival? On the Gregorian Calendar, the Hot Air Balloon Festival takes place on the following dates:
- 2019: November 5-11
- 2020: November 23-29
- 2021: November 12-18
- 2022: November 1-7
- 2023: November 20-27