For a country so devoted to Buddhism, Myanmar has some extra-religious oddities that surprise. The most obvious of these extra-religious practices is the worship of spirits (called “nats” in Myanmar). Shrines devoted to nats can be found all over the country, commonly tucked away in trees on the side of the road. Nats are divided into 37 great spirits, with countless smaller entities, which are seen as spirits of the trees, water, earth and plenty more. Most of the 37 great nats are said to have come into being when humans die violent deaths and return as spirits.
Every year in August a vivid 7 day festival is held to celebrate and worship nats. The festival is called Taungbyone and is famous nationwide. It is held outside Mandalay in the town of Taungbyone in Madaya Township. The town itself is about 19 km outside Mandalay, a relatively short motorcycle ride from Myanmar’s second largest city. Participants can also catch a train or drive to the event.
Local myth explains that the Taungbyone festival was founded when King Anawrahta ordered the death of 2 brothers who were the sons of a mountain, Mt Popa, an unusual mountain that rises out of an otherwise flat plain near Bagan.
Whatever its beginnings, today the Taungbyone festival has become a celebration of gay pride in Myanmar, courtesy of the wild antics of the spirit mediums or natkadaw (literally spirit wife), who showcase possession by the nats, often with the assistance of Mandalay rum.
Natkadaw are frequently transgender, which in part explains the attraction of the festival to the gay community.
The aim of the Taungbyone festival is to please the nats and leave them in a mood to grant wishes to worshipers.
The festival is certainly a good reason to travel to Myanmar around the August full moon.