Perhaps unexpectedly for a majority Buddhist country, Myanmar embraces Christmas with gusto. Yangon’s Bogyoke Road Christmas Lights give Oxford Street a run for its money, and hotels and shopping malls have without exception decked the halls with clamouring festive cheer.
Yangon’s St Mary’s Cathedral doesn’t hold back either, and legitimately so as a key meeting point on the map for Myanmar’s three million Christians. Beyond the secular neon lights and scary mechanised Father Christmases is a devoted Christian community, who starting on the 1st December, their “Sweet December”, celebrate Christmas in much the same way as we do, with church and carols (the same ones!) and food and family.
In fact, Christmas aside, Burma excels at Festivals. With around 25 public holidays a year, there’s always a party on the horizon. Here’s our pick of the bunch.
The biggest, and most popular, is Thingyan, the two-week long water-fight which marks Burmese New Year and provides some temporary respite from the piercing heat of April. The whole country downs tools and ups buckets and hoses for a full-on super-soak.
Symbolically they’re cleansing the wrongdoings of the past year. Practically, it’s a giant, fortnight-long party.
Aesthetically, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival at Inle Lake is a knock-out. An enormous golden barge, housing 4 extremely sacred Buddha images, emerges from its barn annually in October and goes on tour around the lake.
It is towed obediently behind hundreds of traditionally dressed Shan rowers, who when they’re off barge-duty delight the vast crowds with heated boat-races, rowing distinctively with their oars attached to their legs.
Right up north in Myitkyina, the January Manaw Festival is well worth witnessing. Not quite annual, due to ongoing conflict in the area, it celebrates Kachin culture and is a visual feast. All Kachin tribes in their colourful, jingling outfits, dance together around the Manaw Poles, giving thanks to their ancestors and wishing for a bright future. It’s totally mesmerising.
Tribal pride is out in force again in March at the Mizo celebration of Chapchar Kut in Kalaymyo, Chin State. It historically celebrates the completion of an arduous period of jungle-clearing ahead of the sowing season, and treats the huge crowds to dance after dance by proud, young, smartly-dressed, and very earnest members of the Mizo sub-groups
Karen New Year, although from Karen State, is celebrated world-wide by Christian Karen communities, who emigrated far-and-wide when they were out of favour under the military regime.
Their traditional dances include a spellbinding sort of hopscotch/Morris-dancing/quick-step affair with some clacking bamboo poles.
And saving the best till last, the Autumn light-festivals are by far the most sensational. Thadingyut marks the end of Buddhist lent, and the return of a Buddha to the human realm. Candles, lights and lanterns burn for three days all over the country to guide him back. Then at the end of the month, is the finale: the Taunggyi Balloon Festival.
This is the single greatest thing about living in Burma. Held on the auspiciously named full moon day of Tazaungmon, in a slightly creepy sports-ground outside of Taunggyi, this party is a riot of light, man-powered ferris-wheels, music and fire.
Specifically fireworks, loads of them, exploding from the baskets of home-made hot-air balloons which rise, and often fall, every half-hour of this night-long festival. It is pure galactic joy. If you do nothing else in the next 10 years, go to the Taunggyi Balloon Festival. This is Burmese celebration at its absolute best.