The Book

On and around Lake Inle

We arrive at Shwenyaung station around 4:30 in the morning on my fifth day of this journey. When I get up at six o'clock, the coach has already been shunted to its parking location, the platform for VIPs, which is surrounded by a high fence and a wide metal gate. A small white building across the platform contains a shower room and a toilet, both quite clean by Burmese standards. Above the car, like a huge yellow canopy, spread the dense branches of a broad cassia tree in full bloom, which gives the whole area the atmosphere of a private garden. At the end of this "garden" lives a poor railway worker with his wife and three young children. Their home is only a hut, and the cooking takes place outside. The children, barefoot and dressed in worn-out clothes, are shy and keep a wary distance. Soon, however our attendant strikes up a friendly conversation with our new neighbors.

Because of our delay, the driver who was supposed to meet us at the station, but who could not know our arrival time, is not there and we have to phone him from the station. He has already accepted another assignment, so we have to wait for him for a few hours. We use the time to venture into town. There is not much to discover in Shwenyaung; its only importance lies in the fact that its railway station is the gateway to the famous lake. The town is located some nineteen miles (thirty kilometers) east of Heho, the only airport that serves the area, which is some twelve miles (twenty kilometers) west of the capital at Taunggyi and only seven miles (eleven kilometers) north of Nyaungshwe, the only town and tourist center on Lake Inle.

LUNAR CALENDAR EVENTS

Today is Sunday, 25 October. For Buddhists, it is the lunar month of Thadingyut, a period of festivities, ceremonies, and holidays. Although the people of Myanmar are hard-working people, they celebrate a large number of festivals, both locally and nationally. At the national level, there is a festival for every lunar month, and the present month of Thadingyut and the next one, Tazaungmone, offer many colorful and exciting festivals and ceremonies.

Most festivals and religious holidays in Burma follow the lunar calendar, which consists of twelve months. But because the number of days in a lunar month differs from the number in a solar month, every few years an extra month is added. It is important to keep in mind that the Burmese lunar month is not congruent with the Western Gregorian calendar month; they overlap. For example, let us assume that I would stay the whole (Gregorian) month of October in Burma. According to the Burmese (lunar) calendar, the lunar month of Thadingyut starts at some point in September and ends in October. It is then followed by the lunar month of Tazaungmone, which runs into our month of November. My stay falls therefore into two lunar months, Thadingyut and Tazaungmone. Foreign visitors should ask their travel agents to supply them with the Burmese lunar calendar and a list of all local and national festivals because without this information travelers might miss some very worthwhile events.

"New moon" is the first day of the waxing of the moon for any lunar month. For the next fourteen days, the visible part of the moon becomes larger, until the fifteenth day when the moon is full. On and around the time of the full moon, important festivals are celebrated all over the country, especially toward the end of the rainy and the beginning of the dry season. This period falls into the lunar month of Thadingyut (in October) and Tazaungmone (in November), with the respective full-moon days being the occasion for two of the most significant festivals of the year, the Festivals of Lights. The two are a month apart and are very different in character and origin, with the earlier one being more important and popular.

Last year, when I visited Bagan during that period, I was invited by my horse-cart driver to participate in the celebrations of the (earlier) Festival of Lights in his village, Taungby, part of the township of Bagan. Houses and pagodas were illuminated with candles and small oil lamps, and other features included a procession of lights, a pwe (a historical play with dance and music), a market (with toys, clothes, food and drink, and games for the children), and, on the last day, generous offerings in the form of a bounty of trays heaped with homemade delicacies for the monks and nuns. A year later I returned to Lake Inle during the lunar month of Thadingyut to observe the Festival of Lights and another famous local event - the Phaung Daw U Pagoda festival, when three Buddha images from the temple are carried on large barges (especially designed and decorated for this purpose) around the lake from village to village over a period of twenty-six days. A month later, at the full moon of Tazaungmone, the Shan capital of Taunggyi will hold its well-known and popular hot-air balloon festival.


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