Festival Of A Lifetime
by Carol Rudy
I was thrilled the moment I had the chance to visit Inle Lake. I had heard many good things about the place before from my friends who travelled often. A particular event that stood out was the Phaung Daw Oo Festival. When I saw their photos, I was taken by the beauty of the lake and surrounding villages on stilts, and promised myself I would visit next year. Last October, I finally had the opportunity to visit Inle Lake and joining the festival was the best last-minute decision I made.
My first day was hectic. Luckily enough, the hotel staff was kind enough to make some calls for me and found me a tour guide in less than an hour. His name was Lin, and he could speak English. They told me he was the only one available as his customer had left early. How lucky!
Upon Lin’s suggestion, we cycled to the lake. I actually enjoyed the ride as I observed how the locals walked around with their friends and family with fresh tanaka on their faces. All of them were in their most colourful clothes, ready for the biggest festival in Inle Lake. Comfortable and snug in my longyi, I was ready too.
To my surprise, we had to take a boat to Phaung Daw Oo pagoda. It was a short journey, and I heard the crowd before reaching the landing pier. My jaw dropped when I saw the amazing religious monument before my eyes. I didn’t expect it to be this big on a lake! I caught glimpses of other parts of the pagoda as I squeezed through the crowd and saw a monastery within the pagoda. A golden stupa with a shiny ornamental hti sat in the middle of the building’s roof. I entered the temple and found myself admiring the gorgeous murals telling stories of Buddha’s origin and miracles.
I was still gazing at the murals when I heard the crowd shouting and cheering. I joined them and saw a large barge being pulled by hundreds of smaller boats manned by several strong village men in colourful costumes. This was the highlight of the festival, where the royal barge carrying the 4 gilded Buddha images was pulled to circle around the villages. The images would then be kept in the main monastery after the parade. Watching a grand sight of the royal boat being moved by the might of the local men was a surreal moment, and I found myself cheering along. At that moment, I could feel the bond of these villagers as they celebrated this festival together under a single religion. It was a beautiful moment of togetherness that I was privileged to experience.
The festival was vibrant and full of life as people were chatting and crowding to get a good look at the royal barge in the lake. I heard locals speaking in their native languages and Lin explained that some of them even spoke in different dialects with each other.
As I walked around the area, I watched devotees pray and pay their respects despite the growing crowd. There was also the one-legged boat racing competition. I was impressed by how these rowers, dressed in colourful costumes continued chanting words of encouragement as they paddle with great strength and concentration. It was a picturesque sight to see as the longboats sped in the lake, trying to outrun each other, while manned and synchronised by groups of men rowing effortlessly with their legs.
After the boat race, locals stayed behind and celebrated further by dancing and singing folk songs. The whole environment was so joyous and vibrant, I couldn’t help but to laugh and dance along with them. After spending another hour there, we left the venue early to avoid the crowd.
My overall experience of Phaung Daw Oo Festival was unforgettable. The locals are so friendly even with strangers and foreign tourists. They celebrated the festival with all their heart and I could see how symbolic Buddhism is in the country and among its people, which I really admire. Visit Inle Lake and experience first-hand, like me, the dynamics and harmony of the people. One advice — if you want a tour guide, best to look for one early!