74) The great Phaung Daw U festival

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October 17th 2005
Published: November 19th 2005
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Royal barge on Lake InleRoyal barge on Lake InleRoyal barge on Lake Inle

The Phaung Daw U festival is the most important and colourful festival on Lake Inle
We had managed to come to Lake Inle for the Phaung Daw U festival going on for 18 days until its 2005 grand finale on October 21st. Its beauty, harmony and originality make this aquatic spectacle superior to all other traditional festivals in Myanmar, and some even call it one of the best of its kind in South East Asia. Well, we would be present to witness, and agree to or contradict this opinion. Its tradition goes back to the 12th century, when a very pious king was zealous to spread Buddhism in his country. Wherever he travelled on the lake, he always used a royal barge, on the top of which five little Buddha statues were set. By and large the statues were more and more venerated and the Phaung Daw U festival was born. The statues are so holy that pilgrims rub red strips of cloth against them, then tie the cloth to their bikes and cars to create protective spiritual fields around themselves. One day in 1965, the statues were on their way on the lake again, when the barge carrying them capsized in a storm and they sank to the ground. Despite all the effort made, only four of the five statues could be found, and were then immediately brought back to safety into the Phaung Daw U Pagoda, their home for the rest of the year. There the miracle became visible: the fifth statue was already awaiting the four others! By what kind of locomotion it had got there nobody could say. Anyway, the Inthas were extremely relieved and from that year on, only four statues have made their way all over the lake, the fifth one stays in place in order to guard the pagoda. But there still have to be five statues in the pagoda, so four replicas are put to accompany the fifth one. The believers who go to the Phaung Daw U Pagoda during the festival of course know this and only apply gold leaves to the original Buddha image. However, the layer of gold leaves on the figures has become so thick that the images have turned almost unrecognizable, to us they looked more like thick snow men than Buddha images!

And this is how the important festival happens: The holy images of the Buddha from Phaung Daw U Pagoda are placed on a decorated royal barge called Karaweik (Mythical Bird) and towed by leg-rowers around the lake from village to village to bless the village monasteries. There are over 60 monasteries in the Lake Inle area and at least one monastery at each village. At certain villages the Buddha statues stay only for a couple of hours, at other monasteries they stay over night. However the case, everywhere they are enthusiastically greeted by the local population and they are happy to use the occasion for a festival. People put offerings in silver bowls and trays and carry them onto the barge when it stops in the village. There is much traditional music and dances. Hundreds of other vessels travel in the entourage in a general celebratory atmosphere and thousands of people attend this most holy celebration. During the festival, one can find food stalls, toy shops selling sundry consumer goods, magic shows, puppet shows and dramas. People, young and old, simply love to have a stroll around the place where a pagoda festival takes place.

We had chosen the day when the Buddha images would cover the biggest distance of the whole festival. That meant another very early morning, but we did not mind since we were sure that we were about to experience something unique. After quite a long time our boat stopped somewhere and we were waiting for the large rowing boats to turn up. Mind you, we were not the only ones there, dozens of tourist boats but by far more local boats full of expectant people were all anticipating the same thing, but for different motives. The locals came for religious reasons in order to pay homage to the holy images, and the tourists keenly awaited the famous leg-rowers of Lake Inle. Finally they came! Very long narrow boats with up to a hundred young men (all of them comply voluntarily with this strenuous exercise) in white shirts and coloured pants energetically sway the coloured oars. But not all of them row with their legs all the time, in order to relax a bit they also use their arms, sometimes we saw them row both ways on the same boat. They try hard to row in unison, but this seems a very complicated matter with so many rowers, and after already two weeks the men had grown quite tired. Still, there were musicians and dancers on board of many boats in order to stimulate them and another person gave the cadence. The boats are beautifully decorated, with colourful fringed parasols, and also their edge is painted in bright colours. Truly an explosion of colours! At the very end of the cortege, three golden barges are tugged, whereas the holy Buddha images are placed in the very last one. As soon as they passed on one spot, all boats start frantically after them and move to another strategic position to see them once again. So did we, and the second time we got really close to them! Then everybody follows the boats into the monastery where the statues are transported. As promised, a real festival was going on outside the monastery, inside we had the chance to set eyes on the statues and watch hordes of believers make numerous offerings, the women sat down to pray while the men applied many more gold leaves. The atmosphere of the place was absolutely incredible! We were overwhelmed about this effusion of religiousness and somehow envied the Burmese people for it.

The last day of the Phaung Daw U festival was October 21st, and we postponed our departure to see it all again, to witness the statues’ coming back into the Phaung Daw U Monastery, and to watch the boat races. Anyway, that day we were not so lucky with our position, the boat was not allowed to stay by the Phaung Daw U Monastery and we had to go on land. Everything was more complicated due to the presence of the military and some important members of government who are in fact members of the military junta. We tried to find a good position there, but it was up to impossible, since the local population had already occupied the best spots. So we wandered around, watched the population and the dancers on two boats who were very prettily dressed but did not look very happy, as if it was a burden to them. What we saw this day and had not seen the other day was a huge presence of police and military. After the arrival of the Buddha statues, the competitive part of the festival started. The unique characteristic of this festival are the traditional leg-rowing boat races, both by men and women. The races themselves were nice to watch, but we did not understand much because to us it did not matter who won, but it was fascinating to watch the local population at this occasion. They were absolutely enthusiastic and shouted encouragement to the team of their village. This was actually the first time that we had seen Burmese people be very outgoing, normally they were very reserved in public, especially towards foreigners. We would like to thank Luc that he had convinced us to change our plans, it would really have been a pity to miss the unique Phaung Daw U festival.

Additional photos below
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23rd November 2005

Wish I'd seen the barges when I was there! - loved Inle and Myanmar though, great photos and journal once again.
1st December 2005

Great Report Fritz
I was there the same day with a group of 12 people out on a boat, same location. What a great report and wonderful pictures. Thank you. I love Myanmar, what a great country and wonderful people.

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