2 May 2015
I think Myanmar wins the prize for having some of the most fun festivals we've had the joy to see and in which to participate. Really. I know, the historic parade and the fire walking in Japan were amazing. Carnival in St. Thomas has always been wonderfully fun, and we hope to enjoy Carnival in many places around the globe in the future.
But with the water festival before the New Year, and the First Full Moon after the New Year (today), well, it has been absolutely and insanely fun and crazy and wonderful!
We returned to Yangon after our five days at the beach. (At Ngapali, we stayed at The Hotel Bayview - definitely recommend this place, it was wonderful: http://www.bayview-myanmar.com/)
We returned in the late afternoon or early evening, and the block on which our hotel is situated was closed, totally blocked off. We had absolutely no idea what was going on, but we paid the taxi, grabbed our small bags, and headed to our hotel. We had to go around a big stage, and there was a group of monks seated to one side, on the sidewalk. The street itself was covered with mats and rugs, with a red carpet down the center. One of the monks told me to take off my shoes, so we did, carrying them as we walked down the red carpet. People were sitting on the mats, others were arriving from the other entrance to our block, and the place was teeming with monks, nuns, and other people hurrying to get a good spot to sit.
We had zero idea what was happening, but then passed what seemed to be a portable temple or altar, an open-sided tent with several golden Buddhas covered in small garlands of flowers. We asked one of the men inside what was going on, and he explained that a famous Buddhist monk would be speaking tonight. Okay then. So we checked into our hotel, had dinner in the rooftop restaurant, and listened to the monk over the loudspeakers - couldn't understand a word, but we did hear him.
This was Thursday evening, and the monk spoke until the power outage. The mats and carpet were apparently picked up and stacked, but the street was closed all day Friday, until the evening when a different monk spoke, again on the loudspeakers, with a large crowd but not quite as large as the first night, with the famous monk. We figured it was sort of a Buddhist revival weekend, or something along that theme.
And then today, Saturday, we came back from lunch and once again the road was closed. The stage had been removed, but there was a group of monks sitting on chairs to one side of the street. This long city block had stands and tables set up on both sides of the street, with stacks of various items. As we started walking down the street, we realized that we were in back of a monk who was also walking down the street. He was accompanied by four men, each pair carrying a huge sack. As we and the monk walked, people would come out with offerings from their table or stand, hand it to the monk who would touch it, and then the people would place the items in the sack. So, obviously, this was some event where the community was making their donations to the monks.
I finally stood on the sidewalk and just watched. The monks would walk, one at a time, some looking severe and almost mean, but others looking all happy and smiling at people. They would receive food items (bags of apples, bottles of cooking oil, water, even bottles of Coca Cola!), personal items (toothbrush, soap, towel, Tiger Balm!), and at the tent they would receive an electric fan! Really, those sacks were full and heavy by the time the monk reached the end of the block!
In the middle of the street, there were several men with silver bowls that they kept bouncing, sort of mixing up whatever was inside. I watched for a bit - there were small scrolls of paper inside. The monk would walk up, collecting items, and stop in front of the bowl. He would then reach in and select a scroll, handing it to one of the men. The man would open the little scroll and announce some number; then someone would run that scroll to the tent temple, and they'd make an announcement. Or maybe a prayer, based on that number. A blessing? A fortune? Maybe a raffle? I'm really not sure what the scroll was for, whether it was something for the monk, or the monk's blessing for the community, or what. Sort of a happy version of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," that was for sure.
One lovely young lady saw me watching, and offered to give me her donation of items so I could go up and give them to the next month - I thanked her very much, but said it was okay, she could do it. I suspect one receives some sort of general blessing or what we'd call mitzvah points for making the donation to the monks. And, well, since I'm not Buddhist, I thought she'd benefit more from donating the items.
The last monk finally went by, and the crowd erupted in cheers and all looked up, cheering at the sky - or so I thought. Because after the last monk passed, a group on the top floor of one of the apartment buildings started throwing money down on the crowd! Really! First tossing folded up brand new bills, possibly the largest denomination. People were polite about trying to catch the money. Then single bills came wafting down, and people got crazier and crazier, running this way and that, trying to jump up and catch the money. I managed to snag two bills - the first, a 100 kyat (pronounced chat, and worth all of 10 cents US), landed on the back of a tourist who stepped in front of me - so you know I clapped him on his back and grabbed that bill! Then a 50 kyat floated by, and I managed to get that as well. Yes, a total of about 15 cents - but lucky, I'm told, because these are brand new bills.
One of the young men from our hotel staff told me that this festival was for the first moon of the New Year, and that it's lucky to catch the money. It is also for luck to give the monks a donation. The monk donation part was really well organized and orchestrated. But the catching money part was joyous insanity, similar to children scrambling for candy falling out of a piñata. Really, little kids were bumped and guys wrestled with each other for the bills! And one man fell over and lost his longi - wearing not much underneath, I'm sorry to report.
Absolutely pandemonium, similar to the water festival!
I loved it!